Saturday, June 2, 2012

The years of the drone:
Obama’s remote-control war and its consequences

IT HASN’T been an especially good week for the Obama White House. It ended ugly, of course, with the deeply disappointing jobs numbers released on Friday — a Labor Department report that found just 69,000 jobs added to the national work force, and an uptick in the U.S. unemployment rate to 8.2 percent.

That was bad enough. At about the same time, though, came news that statisticians had revised downward earlier estimates of job growth for March and April, cutting those previous job-growth estimates by just under 50,000 combined.

But for the loyal Democratic base, some of the dispiriting news had to be found in a story published Tuesday in The New York Times, a report that deeply undercuts the Obama administration’s well-cultivated imagistic distinctions between itself and the Bush administration on waging war on terrorists in the 21st century.

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The story, by Jo Becker and Scott Shane of The Times, reports that the Obama White House has enacted a war policy pointedly at odds with the idealism of the administration’s earliest days: “Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret ‘nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical.”

“In interviews with The New York Times, three dozen of his current and former advisers described Mr. Obama’s evolution since taking on the role, without precedent in presidential history, of personally overseeing the shadow war with Al Qaeda.

“They describe a paradoxical leader who shunned the legislative deal-making required to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, but approves lethal action without hand-wringing. ...

“His first term has seen private warnings from top officials about a Whac-A-Mole approach to counterterrorism; the invention of a new category of aerial attack following complaints of careless targeting; and presidential acquiescence in a formula for counting civilian deaths that some officials think is skewed to produce low numbers.

“The administration’s failure to forge a clear detention policy has created the impression among some members of Congress of a take-no-prisoners policy.”

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It’s a far cry from the halcyon days of January 2009, days after the inauguration of the first African American president. Via executive orders, Obama publicly made good on campaign pledges to end waterboarding and other interrogation techniques, and to close the reviled Guantánamo Bay prison.

Outwardly, at least, the new president intended to make good on a promise to end the policies of the Bush White House vis-à-vis the prosecution of the war on terrorism.

But the future of that war was already taking shape. The first official drone strike of the Obama administration took place in Pakistan on Jan. 23, 2009, three days after his inauguration. Between seven and 12 civilians were reported killed, including at least one child.

This followed a drone strike in Pakistan on Jan. 1, almost three weeks before he took office — an action that certainly took place with his approval. Two senior al-Qaeda operatives, Usama al-Kiini and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, were killed in that attack. The next day, a drone strike in Ladha, South Waziristan killed four people.

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A February 2010 study from the New America Foundation, a public policy institute, found there were 53 drone strikes in 2009, on Obama’s watch. That number more than doubled, to 118, the following year.

The study, “The Year of the Drone,” found that out of 114 drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and early 2010, between 834 and 1,216 individuals had been killed. About a third were believed to be civilians.

The number of drone strikes has dropped off since then; New America has since reported that only 19 such drone strikes have occurred in 2012, so far.

But there’s no escaping the fact that the drone strike is the vehicle by which the Obama White House has escalated the war on terrorism — a war whose scope has widened beyond Afghanistan to include Yemen and Somalia — and done so in a way that underscores the indiscriminate nature of counting the casualties of that war. Women and children among them.

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From The Times: “Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. … This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths.”

The remoteness of a war conducted electronically, at great distances from the enemy, is problematic enough. But what’s especially galling about the Obama doctrine on fighting terrorists is its imprecision.

The Times story reports how the Obama administration engages in the “nominations” process, in which the Obama national-security team gathers via videoconference to studiously pore over PowerPoint slides of known terrorists, in order to decide, finally, who dies next.

That much isn’t necessarily a problem; that part of the process at least indicates a willingness on the part of the administration to attempt to strike combatants, and only combatants, through the most accurate means possible.

But ironically, in an era of high technology — and the accuracy we’re led to believe is an extension of  such technology — the U.S. war on terrorism as prosecuted employs methods that couldn’t be more inexact (and inaccurate) than they were in earlier wars, with less advanced technology at the nation’s disposal.

“It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” one U.S. official told The Times. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”

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TO GO FROM the Times story, the Obama administration thus tidily sidesteps the logistical inconvenience of imprisonment or the political liability of putting boots on the ground, and does so in a deadly piecemeal fashion.

“[T]he administration’s very success at killing terrorism suspects has been shadowed by a suspicion: that Mr. Obama has avoided the complications of detention by deciding, in effect, to take no prisoners alive. While scores of suspects have been killed under Mr. Obama, only one has been taken into American custody,” The Times reported Tuesday.

The origins of this thinking from the Obama White House have a long precedent. The philosophy arose well before the Times story; it precedes by years the Obama administration itself. It’s a way of thinking that’s been the stuff of our popular war culture, the military's bravado efficiencies distilled in a phrase you might have seen on the fuselage of an American jet in a strafing run over Korea or Vietnam, a phrase you’ll find today on a T-shirt available at

“Kill Em All, Let God Sort ‘Em Out!”

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The election-year political consequences of this targeted-kill policy could be dire for a Democratic president whose approach to fighting war is scarcely different from that of his Republican predecessor.

“The fact is that Obama is out-Cheneying Cheney,” said Jeremy Scahill, a war and national security reporter for The Nation, today on “Up With Chris Hayes” on MSNBC. “These policies would have been totally unacceptable if a Republican was in the White House. I think you would have seen a much greater scandal erupt much sooner ...

“President Obama authorized his first known drone strike three days after taking office, as he was announcing this radical shift from the Bush-era doctrine of preventive and pre-emptive war … the American people deserve an explanation … this [should] have sparked outrage among liberals, and they are deafeningly silent over this issue.”

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NOT SO SILENT on this issue is Axel Schonfeld of Point Roberts, Wash., who commented on the Times story, and who understands the Obama policy’s duality:

“Among many troubling aspects of the policies described is the underlying tenet that a sustained "war against terrorists" can be won, and therefore, by logical extension, can be concluded. By ever-evolving definitions, anti-US sentiment within the communities of radical elements will not soon be mitigated, let alone eliminated. Al Qaeda and its adherents are patient.

“On the one hand, one admires President Obama's resolve and clear vision of the mission, as he has defined it. On the other hand, one cannot help but draw the unavoidable conclusion that the policy of pre-emptive assassination has, perhaps forever, changed what were once considered American values. 

“History will ask uncomfortable questions about this lamentable new direction.”

If a Democratic base already dismayed by the state of the domestic economy asks those “uncomfortable questions” first, the results could be a blowback the Obama White House never anticipated. On Election Day.

LIke the man said, the American people deserve an explanation.

Image credits: President Obama: The White House. New York Times T: © 2012 New York Times Company. MQ-9 Predator drone in Afghanistan: Public domain. Predator gun-camera image: Department of Defense. Obama signs Guantanamo closure order: MSNBC. Kill Em All T-shirt: U.S. drone strike chart: New America Foundation. 

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