Obama’s drone-strike counterterrorism policy
U.S. drones have executed dozens of alleged al Qaeda members along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But is silence on this counterterrorism tactic the best strategy? By Stuart Gottlieb If you were under the impression that U.S. President Barack Obama’s promise to craft new counterterrorism policies “in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ...
U.S. drones have executed dozens of alleged al Qaeda members along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But is silence on this counterterrorism tactic the best strategy?
By Stuart Gottlieb
If you were under the impression that U.S. President Barack Obama’s promise to craft new counterterrorism policies “in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals” could be accomplished without exposing dangerous contradictions, consider this:
Since Obama’s swearing-in, the United States has executed dozens of suspected al Qaeda leaders and operatives without court hearings, the presentation of evidence, or the involvement of defense lawyers. These executions, typically carried out by missile strikes from unmanned CIA drone aircraft, have taken place in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Scores of civilians, including many women and children, have reportedly been killed or maimed in the strikes.
Calls for granting habeas corpus rights to Guantánamo detainees and outrage over the Bush administration’s harsh treatment of enemy combatants have dominated the headlines. Yet this side of the U.S. war against al Qaeda and its affiliates is little discussed and even less deliberated.
But with tensions rising in Pakistan and around the Muslim world over the brutality and high civilian death toll from these targeted assassination attacks, the United States’ day of reckoning regarding this policy may soon arrive as well. As we learned from the Bush administration, there are tremendous costs to aggressive counterterrorism policies, especially when their purposes are not clearly understood. Unless Obama candidly explains how targeted killings fit within his overall counterterrorism approach, he faces similar difficulties and the possible exhaustion of goodwill toward his new administration.
Indeed, although targeted killings can be justified on national security grounds — to weaken the capability of Taliban and al Qaeda forces to carry out attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere — they run counter to Obama’s espoused counterterrorism ethos. Assuring the world in one breath that “America does not torture” suspected terrorists, while in another ordering Hellfire missile strikes that can burn victims alive, is unsustainable from both policy and diplomatic perspectives. How does the U.S. president explain why one suspected terrorist leader held in Guantánamo gets a team of lawyers fighting for his day in court, while another is killed in his car along with his family?
To justify these targeted killings, the Obama team needs to acknowledge two things. First, that the threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates remains so dire that the United States needs to engage in practices that in some contexts would be war crimes. Second, that some of the former Bush administration’s most aggressive and controversial policies remain necessary in the conflict against al Qaeda, including targeted killings (admittedly a preferable alternative to a ground operation, which could leave scores of U.S. troops and Pakistani and Afghan civilians dead as well).
Obama has taken great care to level with the American people about the current financial crisis. He has made clear that there are no silver-bullet solutions and that returning to sustained economic growth will require difficult trade-offs.
This same candor is needed in the fight against global terrorism, whether on the frontiers of Pakistan or elsewhere. Although this might not mesh well with Obama’s overall message on the terrorist threat and his administration’s response, in the case of targeted killings, actions are already speaking more loudly than words.
Stuart Gottlieb, a former Senate foreign policy adviser, directs the Policy Studies Program at Yale University’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.
Photo: John Moore/Getty Images
More from Foreign Policy
At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment
Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.
How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China
As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.
What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal
Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.
Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust
Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.