In assessing Obama’s performance, I am reminded of the early downplaying among Soviet dissenters of Mikhail Gorbachev’s claims to be a radical reformer: “He is giving us glastnost (freer speech) without perestroika (substantive and structural change), but he promised us both.”
In large part, Obama was reacting to a tsunami of recent criticism from around the world. His explanations at the National Defense University amounted to an admission that the conduct of drone warfare and the maintenance of Guantanamo, for better and worse, had severely eroded America’s diplomatic stature. Beyond this, such behavior had given rise to acute resentment directed against the United States, and was quite likely spawning the very extremists that the use of attack drones were supposed to be killing.
The Obama presidency was clearly attempting to retreat from this precipice of disconnect without falling into an anticipated ambush staged by its obsessive detractors at home. As many have pointed out the speech was long on vague generalities, short on policy specifics.
It called in several ways for a more ‘disciplined’ approach to the war on terror, yet at the same time claimed in some detail that what has been done during the Obama years was both ‘effective’ and ‘legal,’ and had been climaxed by the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011.
In effect, the speech was acknowledging that the projection of American force around the world had become understandably problematic for many, but could be fixed by acknowledgements and a show of concern without making any discernable major shifts in behavior or objectives.
Such a proposed tweaking of policy hardly qualifies as ‘profound’ even if its sentiments were to be fulfilled by such gradual shifts in policy as closing Guantanamo and minimizing reliance on drones, moves that at this point still seems quite unlikely.
The speech was notably short even on those specifics that had been anticipated by those who gave their expert opinion as to what to expect. For instance, it was expected that the controversial and ethically outrageous ‘signature strikes’ whereby combat-age males have been targeted and killed in Pakistani tribal areas and in Yemen if they are seen congregating in a place supposedly frequented by terrorists, even if no further evidence exists as to their relationship to political violence, would be repudiated.
Obama never even mentioned signature strikes. Nor did he refer to the supposed likelihood of an announcement that the CIA would be confined in the future to its primary role as a spy and intelligence gathering agency rather than acting in a variety of paramilitary modes.
Even if this does happen at some point, drone policies relating to authorization and accountability will continue to be shrouded in secrecy and deniability whether or not major responsibility for the use of drones remains headquartered at Langley.
Of course, the purported significance of such a reassignment of responsibility for the drones to the Pentagon may be typical liberal hype. It seems unrealistic to expect a great breakthrough in transparency and sensitivity to international law and morality just because the Pentagon rather than the CIA would be presiding over the attacks.
It might be illuminating in this regard to ask Bradley Manning and Julian Assange what they thought about transparency at the Pentagon and its respect for international law.
But there is much more at stake than was discussed in the lengthy speech. In trying to make the case that drone warfare is less invasive, resulting in fewer civilian casualties, Obama never even alluded to the severe degree to which attack drones are instruments of state terror, terrorizing the entire region exposed to their habitual use.
Drone warfare, this supposedly miracle counter-terrorism weapons system, is in its enactment a new form of intense state terror that is enraging public opinion against the United States around the world, reactions not limited to the places subject to attack, although especially there.
A Yemeni citizen, Farea al-Muslimi told the U.S. Senate in recent hearings, about attitudes toward drones in his home village, “when they think of America, they think of the fear they feel at the drones over their heads.”
In Pakistan, American drones have had a disastrously negative impact on public attitudes toward Islamabad’s relationship with the United States, evoking acute and widespread grassroots hostility throughout this key Asian country.
Even in Afghanistan, where the political violence shows no signs of abating, the American handpicked leader, Hamid Karzai, is now saying that the prospects for Afghan stability and peace would be enhanced by the departure of American led NATO forces. This is a rather astounding about face for a leader handpicked years ago in Washington and long dependent on American largess and human sacrifice.
Such realities should have at least tempted Obama to raise some genuinely profound questions about the viability and inherent morality of the continued U.S. insistence on projecting its military power to the far corners of the global. For whose benefit? At what costs? To what effects? But there was Obama silence about such underlying questions that are daily being asked elsewhere in the world.
There is another line of prudential concern that was nowhere to be found in this less unconditional embrace of drones, reliance upon which was deglamorized to some degree, yet remains an embrace. Some 70 countries currently possess drones, although not all of these have acquired attack drones, but the day is not far off when drones will be part of the military establishment of every self-respecting sovereign state, and then what?
Obama spoke about the right of the United States to kill or capture suspected ‘terrorists’ wherever they may be in the world if deemed by the government to be an imminent threat to American security interests and not amenable to capture. But is there not a de facto golden rule governing international relations: “what you claim the right to do to others, you authorize them to do to you.”
Of course, this is often modified by invoking the geopolitical bronze super-rule that is generally operative, at least in relations with most of the non-West: “we can do to you whatever we wish or feel the need to do, and yet there is no legal, moral, or political precedent created that can be invoked by others.”
American exceptionalism has long parted company with the central idea that international law is dependent for its effectiveness on the logic of reciprocity: namely, that what X does to Y, Y can do to X, or for that matter to Z, but with the technology of drones emergent, we may soon come to regret resting our claim on such a one-sided anti-law prerogative that encodes double standards.
A hegemonic approach to international law has been relied upon in relation to nuclear weapons, with a somewhat similar pronouncement by Obama in 2009 to work ultimately toward a world without such weapons. Four years later the meager effort to realize such a vision should be a cautionary indication that the future military application of drones is unlikely to be significantly restricted so long as the United States finds their role useful, and given this prospect, a borderless future for violent conflict throughout the world should give Pentagon planners many a sleepless night.