The rise of the drone is one of the most significant developments in modern military history
On Thursday 23rdof May 2013 President Barack Obama of the United States stood at the National Defence University and delivered what is likely to be the most important foreign policy speech of his career. In it he set out the path of the United States’ battle against terrorism for the years to come, formalising policies which have shaped the transformation from the Bush doctrine to the Obama doctrine of war. This article is a breakdown of his new policies.
In it he explained the world the US faces in its potentially endless struggle against radical terrorism, a world which was thrown into stark relief by the events which shaped his predecessor’s career. From 9/11 the US was faced with a new kind of war it had not encountered before, “as clouds of fire, metal and ash descended upon a sun-filled morning.”
The events of that day did not only shape the career of Bush, but also that of his successor. Obama inherited the War on Terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and would go on to throw himself into these conflicts perhaps even more aggressively than Bush. He carried out Bush’s planned withdrawal from Iraq and set down the timeline of withdrawal from Afghanistan, but boots on the ground is just one facet of the conflict which has unfolded over the past decade.
In his speech Obama paid tribute to those soldiers who have lost their lives. “Nearly 7,000 Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice. Many more have left a part of themselves on the battlefield, or brought the shadows of battle back home.” It is this concern for the lives of soldiers both in and out of conflict which has determined the course of US foreign policy above everything else, driven by the force of public opinion which has long lost the ability to stomach further deaths on distant soils.
The past term of Obama’s leadership has reflected a strong turn away from occupying and securing whole countries to targeted surgical strikes against key figures. This is a vital change. The rhetoric of occupation and crusade has been used by terrorist leaders to recruit far greater numbers of fighters than they would otherwise have been able to achieve.
The change to targeting al-Qaeda leadership has paid dividends over the past few years, as Obama was sure to underline. Osama Bin Laden has been killed as have most of his lieutenants. The core al-Qaeda membership “spends more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against [the US].” Not a single large-scale attack against the western states has been carried out in years, and nothing close to the events of 9/11.
Al-Qaeda’s effectiveness has been eliminated. Whereas before “in the 1980s, we lost Americans to terrorism at our Embassy in Beirut; at our Marine Barracks in Lebanon; on a cruise ship at sea; at a disco in Berlin; and on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. In the 1990s, we lost Americans to terrorism at the World Trade Center; at our military facilities in Saudi Arabia; and at our Embassy in Kenya.” Now the core’s ability to carry out attacks has been almost completely removed.
Instead the threat now lies in domestic terrorism and isolated terrorist cells. Although Obama stressed the priority status of the danger posed by those “inspired by larger notions of violent jihad”, he also acknowledged that terrorism is not only Islamic. He noted the acts of a white supremacist and army veteran who committed a mass shooting at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, the anti-Capitalist suicide attack on an IRS building by a left-wing plane pilot, and the Oklahoma City bombings carried out by two militia-movement army veterans.
Obama also highlighted non-military efforts which would have to be set upon to reduce the threat of terrorism. He reiterated that he believed Guantanamo Bay must be closed, even after his previous efforts were blocked by congress. He set out a focused approach to engagement with domestic moderate Muslims and supplying aid to those companies struggling with poverty, starvation and conflict. He underlined how such struggles were a security risk in themselves, driving individuals towards radicalism.
It is with this background of a broad and diverse threat of terror attacks that Obama rejected the boundless “global war on terror” which was set in motion by Bush in 2001. Instead the US would embark on “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists” with the aid of allies in the Middle East and the European Union.
The problems with such a narrow and targeted response are widespread, Obama stated that:
- Small Special Forces operations have enormous risks, the operation in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden cannot be the norm. It is not possible for America to simply deploy a team of Special Forces to capture every terrorist. And even when such an approach may be possible, there are places where it would pose profound risks to our troops and local civilians– where a terrorist compound cannot be breached without triggering a firefight with surrounding tribal communities that pose no threat to us
- Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and likely to cause more civilian casualties and local outrage.
- Invasions of these territories lead us to be viewed as occupying armies; unleash a torrent of unintended consequences; are difficult to contain; and ultimately empower those who thrive on violent conflict. It is false to assert that putting boots on the ground is less likely to result in civilian deaths, or to create enemies in the Muslim world. The result would be more U.S. deaths, more Blackhawks down, more confrontations with local populations, and an inevitable mission creep in support of such raids that could easily escalate into new wars.
- Allies cannot always be expected to make such attacks themselves. In the places terrorism lays roots “the state has only the most tenuous reach into the territory. In other cases, the state lacks the capacity or will to take action.
With so many answers ruled out, Obama sets out the case for his new priority in the war against radical terrorism: Drones.
- Strikes are effective. In the intelligence gathered at bin Laden’s compound, we found that he wrote, “we could lose the reserves to the enemy’s air strikes. We cannot fight air strikes with explosives.” Other communications from al Qaeda operatives confirm this as well. Dozens of highly skilled al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers, and operatives have been taken off the battlefield. Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.
- America’s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.
Drone strikes are not only effective, they are increasingly so. As their use has increased over the past decade they have become increasingly accurate and with fewer and fewer collateral deaths for every terrorist leader killed. However, the new technology is rife with issues in international law and moral considerations, considerations he has been attacked for taking into account at all (by the right) and for not prioritising above security (by the left).
Obama proceeded to perform remarkably well in answering these issues to give himself maximum flexibility with drone attacks whilst calming the worries of both sides of his opponents on those attacks.
In consolation to the left Obama pledged to only use strikes “against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat.” More importantly he underscored that “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured”. However as a caveat he noted that “to do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties... Let us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.” He may have been granting concessions to moral considerations, but not at the expense of his ability to attack those considered dangerous.
The President also responsed to the controversy over the killing of Anwar Awlaki, chief of external operations for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and an American citizen. Here he likewise have a two-headed response. On the one hand it would not “be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen – with a drone, or a shotgun – without due process. Nor should any President deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.” On the other hand “when a U.S. citizen is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team.” Obama is placing focus on the fact that drone strikes are not political assassinations; they are a law-enforcing response to terror attacks no different to any other act against killers who are a present risk of causing further death to American civilians.
The big story for political groups however is the unparalleled oversight Obama is ensuring over his ability to make decisions on drone strikes. Not only will congress (including a House of Representatives presently a hostile body to the Obama administration) be constantly informed of every strike and consulted through a special committee, but this body will be able to hold direct accountability to the President through the Presidential Policy Guidance he had signed the day before.
Further Obama called on congress to sign into law a “media shield law” to guard against… himself. This law would protect journalists from any kind of legal retaliation against stories regarding drone strikes, raising these strikes to the same level as a ground invasion in public scrutiny and again underscoring that they are legitimate and legal acts, not secretive political assassinations.
With his speech Obama has pre-empted the rising debate on drone strikes as the new dominant method of his war doctrine against terrorist groups worldwide. He must still face up against foreign governments angry at the breaches of their sovereignty, right-wing conspiracy theorists determined to believe their American homes could be targeted at any time, generals concerned that their freedom to wage war is being curtailed and liberals demanding an end to what they erroneously believe to be the soulless and random bombings of civilians in Islamic lands.Drones are, and will continue to become, the most useful tool in the battle against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. They are near-impossible to combat, they are stunningly accurate, and they can strike anywhere at any time and they bear almost no risk. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and no way of fighting back against these dots in the sky. They also negate the wave of negative public opinion which comes with deaths of soldiers fighting abroad. However, with this kind of technology comes risk of a very different sort. Drones are terrifying instruments of war, rightfully so, and Obama must be careful it is America’s enemies who are terrified and not his own people.