By Patrick Johnson
That’s something we can say now, right? “Post-War on Terror world?” Indeed, in a speech that awed listeners with its conclusive tones last month, President Obama certainly seemed to think so. “Every war has to come to an end,” he declared. In this speech he outlined the new chapter in American foreign policy: one in which foreign aid subverts terrorists before they become terrorists, Guantanamo is closed, and drone strikes are a regrettable but permanent tool in America’s weapons chest. To this final point, he admitted the moral gray area that emerges from drone usage, but stressed their necessity and legitimacy. His argument, regrettably, is as logical as it is true.
To start, what exactly would the post-War on Terror world look like? In typical Obama fashion, this end to the war is not a hard stop, nor is it even a complete stop, but merely a reduction, reshuffling and rethinking. That is to say, while the commitments of troop withdrawal remain firm, the “Obama Strategy” of substituting troops for drones stands paramount.
The Drone question prompts immediate and relevant criticism of America’s legal, ethical and practical ability to conduct drone strikes. Accordingly, a disproportionate amount of time in this speech was spent defending the use of drones.
“Moreover, America’s actions are legal. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces…”
At the same time, the Administration recognizes the dark side of drone warfare, and ostentatiously answered the world’s criticism:
“The same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power – or risk abusing it. That’s why, over the last four years, my administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists, insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight, and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday.”
The trouble is, this Presidential Policy Guidance is pure bluster, without significantly clarifying the murky regulations that define when and an individual can be targeted. The parameters as outlined in this doctrine include “near certainty the target is present; near certainty non-combatants will not be injured or killed; the target must pose a continuing imminent threat to the United States.”
The blanket statement of “we’re at war” to justify the grey area(s) concerning drones is simply too thin to be taken seriously. What about the killing of Americans abroad? That needs to be addressed more specifically. Furthermore, a history of questionable legal justifications by the Department of Justice belittles the authenticity this new Presidential Policy Guideline: in prior issues over who can be defined as an “Enemy Combatant” the US Attorney General, Eric Holder, left the definition as a very ambiguous “males of military age,” i.e. any boy over the age of 14. The new stipulation that targets must pose an ‘imminent threat’ is equally ambiguous, and through its ambiguity ultimately meaningless.
As questionable as aspects of drone warfare are, the bottom line is that they will be used, and we should support their use. We can rectify this legal issue, and make transparent the standards of drone operations. We can, and are, demanding the Department of Justice formulate more precise definitions for who may be targeted abroad, and how to deal with Americans who wage war against America. Ultimately every critic of drones must answer the simple question: what instead? There is no other option that does not involve A) allowing terrorists to fester and kill (this includes their local population who are the greatest victims of violent extremists) or B) putting troops on the ground, which has proved not only costly but ineffective.
To surmise, Obama has squashed speculation that a recent reduction in drone strikes signals a change in policy and instead reaffirmed drones as his weapon of choice in the fight against terrorism. It is a questionable tool, and a morally imperfect tool, but by far the most efficient in achieving Obama’s grand vision: to draw down conflict in order to focus in on a domestic agenda of health care, immigration and the economy.
This has, in reality, been Obama’s mission from the beginning. It explains why when he took office attention was immediately shifted onto drones as a tool for simultaneously waging war against a dispersed enemy and diminishing public unrest over war. The Economist likened this “domestic focus against the backdrop of a major war” to Lyndon B. Johnson’s struggle to prosecute a domestic agenda of poverty alleviation and Medicare/Medicaid while dealing with the Vietnam War. The latter seriously undermined his domestic efforts, and while Medicare was achieved a number of other domestic goals were defeated. In a similar situation, President Obama has proven remarkably successful: we have healthcare reform, a growing economy and now deadlines in sight for the end to the war.
Is the ability to prosecute a foreign war with minimal effort worth these domestic gains? After all, an enemy as dispersed and weak as terrorist cells hardly requires the full strength of the U.S. military. Drones have proven remarkably efficient in achieving Obama’s related foreign and domestic goals, rectifying these moral and legal ambiguities is the final step.
Photo by Meesh