Thursday, May 31, 2012

Obama's Slippery Slope?: Drone Strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia

Recent news reports have given us a better idea of what  is going on inside the Obama Administration and the drone strikes and Hellfire missiles attacks in the Near East and Africa.  


 Human Rights groups are bringing up objections to the escalations of these attacks.  Congressional Democrats, led by Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, are asking for clarification of "targeted attacks".   The CIA?  They won't confirm of deny anything, as usual.    


   Most of the NATO powers have been silent--at least publicly--on the attacks. 


Meanwhile the increase in drone strikes have clearly killed some real terrorist leaders, including Anwar al-Awlaki, an English-speaking Yemeni-American who looked to be the next big leader of al-Queda, at least in it's AQAP (al-Queda in the Arabian Peninsula) group.  Dozens of others have been killed as well, as have been people who were by-standers.


The military brass itself has put pressure on Obama  to go after a large group of targets.  So far, at least according to Newsweek's Daniel Klaidman's book excerpt "Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency",

Obama has been reluctant to give an o.k. to any strike that doesn't identify a specific identifiable target. The notion of "signature strikes"--taking a shot at a group in an isolated area which looks like a terrorist camp is something Obama has been reluctant to do.   He prefers  "personality strikes"--knowing to the best of the ability of the NSA, CIA, et al,--exactly where a known terrorist(s) are.     


For most of the 20th Century,  war was carried out without "direct target" strikes.  Bombs were released on cities, harbors, plants, troop concentrations, et al.  There were always attempts to hit a given target, but most of the bombs dropped by the Allies in World War II, for instance, were estimated to be well off their prime targets. 


At least a high-tech targeted strike, some critics say, is better than a Dresden/Coventry/Tokyo style firebombing.  Or the napalming campaigns of the US Air Force in Vietnam during that war.  But what is the acceptable number of collateral victims of the strike?  (I guess it depends on whose kid  is standing under the bombing range to my mind.)   


 And what compromises are there in the global war for morality advantage the USA and other nations might hold over a terrorist group if so many civilians are killed by a strike to pre-empt or retaliate in an attack? And what if the intelligence is wrong, and the White House kills the wrong people?   Or we get the right people but too many died who weren't terrorists?    

And how can we use lethal force in another country barring something like  a declaratioo of war, even a nation like Pakistan or Yemen or Somalia?  These three are nation-states which cannot or will not persue terrorists or support American efforts to do so.  The government in  Pakistan clearly see this as an unwelcome intrusion into  a vacuum  of  state power.  

On the other hand, waiting and doing nothing against groups like AQAP seems a deriliction of power as well. Every nation has the right to use force to defend itself--certainly from other national force.  But what of  "non-state actors" who  pose a threat to a nation like the United States which have already been attacked by a terrorist group?   


This being an election year, there is no doubt that President Obama, as a Democratic President, is under the gun from conservative critics and his opponent, Mitt Romney, to be "tough on  terrorism"--- which transfers to more air strikes.    A successful terrorist action against Americans abroad or at home would likely trigger a loosening of the criteria for a high-tech strike.

And the issue of using drones as domestic surveillance tools for law enforcement is another problem---a  major and dangerous precedent. One may feel safer (or not) that Obama or Romney or some other developed country with a   national leader will use drone technology wisely. But at least in the United States it is understood that presidents are accountable to more than just their intimates in the Oval Office.      

The spectre of September 11,  2001 and 3,000 innocent lives snuffed out  haunts the whole overview of this action.  But so does the US Constitution. Through the War Powers Act of 1973 and Congress' War Declaration power, Congressional approval is needed, demanded in some form, for anything like an  extended war. 


      Given all that is happening--threats and covert style-tactics from abroad from small cells of Muslim extremists-- is Obama's policies  getting this right?   Or ,as some say, is  he simply a war criminal? (If the latter, I ask, what other modern leader who carries out any covert action in time of  war or terrorist threat not  a war criminal as well?) 


   Using "national security" as an overriding impetus, is the Obama Admistration justified in total to fight an unorthodox war with precision weapons and to ignore the demands of those in his own party like Dennis Kuchinich and  international human rights critics?  I don't think it's that simple either. 


  Further disclosure to Congress seems to me is needed as to what is going on and where the line needs to be drawn. International Law is not to be slummed off  either.  If a nation cannot handle terrorists who are threats to other nations inside her borders,  it appears that some action through diplomacy is needed to declare via the United Nations that a portion of a nation is "ungovernable" and therefore justify this strange and troubling new phase of warfare.  


  1. You know my opinion on this one, Doug....

  2. I owe you a lot of the inspiration for this one, Will.

  3. If I were Obama, I would worry less about Afghanistan (he already killed Osama Bin Laden which is HUGE) and focus more on the economy. There might be a conservative conspiracy to distract Obama's attention from the economy so that they can blame him for it later.

  4. I think there is a lot of sense to that, Tinh. Voters are focused on the economy as far as I can see from polling.

  5. You know I don't know what to think about America anymore on the one hand you don't want our soldiers put in harms way on the other hand when the Military and not just OBAMA does something all of a sudden you are ready to crucify him --I think some people better get their priorities straight--
    sorry doug but this kind of stuff gets my goat and people better learn to think for themselves rather than follow these self made Gurus

  6. Well I think there are a lot of important questions here, Heidi, which is why I ask people to weigh both sides of the arguments here. At least I hope that's what I'm doing. Where I'm at is that people who mean to make war on the USA or any Western nation should know they have a target on their backs. But can we reduce the killing to those who directly represent a credible threat to the USA and her allies and save innocent lives? This striking with drones has the danger of creating more enemies than when we started.

    And we still have soldiers in harm's way--just not enough across-society sacrifice for average people to care as much about them as we all should.

    The Kremlin seemed to have had no trouble bombing Chechnya. The Chinese government seem to have no trouble kiIIing Muslim Uighurs and Tibetans as they feel the need to. Yet the USA is not Russia or China; the allies we have expect more from America. This is the crux of the bind--national security versus respect for international law and our own legal system which has traditionally been more open than the two powers I mentioned.

  7. Great blog, Ron!

    I think that it is a time for reflection by the US leadership. Or it would be if that election wasn't looming.

    Afghanistan and Iraq now seem like unsolvable problems because the initial impetus that was gained by the invasion of those sovereign states was quickly lost as soon as allied troops ceased to have an enemy to face directly. Those two countries were ruled by b*stards, because that is the only way (in this day) to rule them. Having a "politically correct" invading force just left everyone having not a clue where they were up to. And there is sooo much hatred for the allies, especially for the US itself. Way more than pre- 9.11.
    How do you win the hearts and minds when you occupy a country and address its ordinary people in your tongue not theirs? Screwed from day one. Baaaaad management.

    Time to pull out. Even if the Afghans and Iraqis faced civil war they are better getting that out of their systems than the present limbo being maintained. After all, it is the ordinary citizen who continues to suffer and die because of occupation.

    It may seem like a defeat for Obama to draw US troops back, but Nam and Somalia were political defeats, not really military defeats as no-one really won those conflicts. And no-one is winning in the Middle-East either. But the Afghans will in the end, and one faction of the Iraqis (Probably Sadam's) will as well. So why put off the inevitable simply to preserve the conquering ego of the US Presidency? (Whoever is in charge).

    Pull out Obama and win the respect of those who want the troops brought home. Win the respect of those who are aware of the history of being mired in worlds of conflict where you can never win. Many democrats and some republicans will see the sense off stopping the pointless waste of human life and the meaningless expenditure of important human and financial resources.

    Sometimes you have to fight to defend yourself. Neither Afghanistan or Iraq were invaded for that reason and both campaigns have been abject failures. Draw a line underneath them, pull out and regroup.

    And certainly do not look for new foes and woes in that region. You have not come near to mastering the balls that you are already trying to juggle with.

    I hope that President Obama will be one day judged a wise and great man. Decisivly and bravely ceasing to fight unwinable wars would be a big step in that direction.

    Almost all the many thousands of people who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan have had absolutely nothing to do with 9.11.
    Time that people went home to their families.

  8. I am glad those drone strikes are going on....less we have to send our troops in to fight and get themselves killed off. I dont think anything our president does is ever good enough for the Republicans...they question everything and never have one good word for what has been done to keep us safe.

    And I am sure if Romney was the president there would be another war and another war and another war going on...they like the bloodshed but dont like to get their hands involved in it. I would like to see all those that favor a war go and fight along side the men and women out there right now. If they had to shed blood they would think twice about getting us involved in wars that are unnecessary.

    And I also think our president should try and get the economy on track again instead of trying to match spears with those nut cases on the other side. Cant he do whatever to make things happen? On his own without having congress say "Hell NO" each time?

  9. My feelings about this subject are extremely complex and would require more than a passing comment to someone's blog -- actually it would require a lengthy blog by itself -- but suffice to say that I'm not happy with the current policy but neither am I happy at the options we have as an alterative.

    What the U.S. administration -- under either Bush or Obama -- seems to have forgotten is that the reason we have rules of international engagement (International Law) is that nations' interests are best served when the consider that a rule Nation A finds expeditious to break today may be the rule Nation B finds equally compelling to use against Nation A later, when the technology and circumstances have out-paced events.

    In other words: we may find it handy to break rules and use drones to find al-Quaeda today but when China uses drones to launch an attack on us in a decade hence, we will have no moral defense to complain.

  10. agree--one problem our army is not conscript anymore you sign up you have choice personally I think that is why not so much noise from the civillians

    drones personally i never liked them--but the military especially seems to
    personally don't understand why we all blame it on the Pres.

    about creating enemies maybe but we seem to get enough of those anyway some are just jealous of our tecknology good bad or indifferent
    it is always a hard question my hubby was military for over 30yrs. in two differnt branches and saw a lot didn't like war but he was a Doc so he helped patch them up--oh my
    some of what I see on these things has nothing to do with Drones it has to do with Obama
    also it is good to be against things but we also need a solution and not just to keep prophozing the end of America and then say well I will just leave it and don't vote on and on and on

    another thought soldiers are always in harms that is the part about being in the military that never goes away no matter what century you fight wars
    does all this make sense

  11. Yes ,I do agree that the impetus for going into Afghanistan, which seemed right for about 85-90 percent of Americans in 2001-02 is long gone. The oxymoron that is Afghan's National Army is not of much use--they are good at shaking down civilians and inciting ethnic grudges. The guerillas who fight well are lined up against what is left of the NATO forces in these so-called "Tribal Regions" o nthe border with Pakistan. It's their turf. And, as you say, their language and advantage. This is too much like Vietnam and we know where that went.

    The militants cannot be got at, hence the drones. There is no national cohesiveness in Af-Pakistan and so we have troops and marines killed and maimed to build something that will come apart when we leave.
    And, yes, God help the ordinary citizen who has not had a time of peace since 1979!

    I don't even want to say anything about the Iraq War. .

    Good advice Oakie.
    This is a country ruled by tribal leaders and councils.

    Karzai is a crook as is his brother. The former is essentially the High Prince of Kabul. When George Washington long ago talked about avoiding foreign entanglements, these are the kind of local b-astards he would have been talking about.

  12. I hav no doubt in my mind a President Romney woulds simply make things worse, Marty. He has no background in military affairs and would likely roll over to the generals and the Neo-Cons t appear tough.

    Obama can say "no" to these people who want a extension of the strikes. He has taken us out of Iraq. Romney would likely invade some country just to look tough. Or just acquiesce to a series of strikes and half-baked operations--the classic "chicken-hawk" style that men like George W Bush and Cheney exemplified.

  13. That's just it, Chuck. Nobody in their right mind hasn't had enough of multiple deployments of men and women to these places. Afghanistan is a hopeless mess--actually, we are at least on track to getting out of there, the question remains would a new administration push us into another conflict so the "new guy" can "win his spurs"?

    Drone strikes have a short-term effect obviously. It's harder to plan to blow up a passenger plane when you are dead. But you raise the biggest question--what about the long-term? Other nations are developing this drone-strike capability, I heard yesterday on public radio that we will likely be selling high-tech predator drones to other NATO nations soon. Can Israel and saudi Arabia (to name two nations) be far behind. Sooner or later other nations like China or North Korea will develop them on their own or off the black markets.

    What the hell do we do then? There is a reason for international law and it needs to be applied even if the enemy we are fighting is not a nation-state but a series of terrorist organizaions--because we don't know who will be the enemy of tomorrow.

    Any country no matter how bad their government can build nasty weapons. What differeniates the democracies should be a reluctance to engage in war unless it's a last resort.

  14. You're making sense Heidi. As I pointed out myself, there are a lot of issues here.

    Conscripting has it's drawbacks, as was revealed, I believe, in the opening of World War I--you get a lot of big armies and navies assembled and leaders want to use them.

    In my lifetime I saw how young people were mobilized against the Vietnam War. This was in part because people they knew who were subject to or had friends and loved ones six weeks away from being in a jungle halfway around the world. Or they themselves.
    Of course many people in other nations protested the Vietnam War and personally I'm glad they did. It brought my brother home from the Far East likely faster (and alive) than he might have been.

    I now understand, Heidi, why many of these "think-tank" experts in editorials and talk shows promote the idea of an "all-volunteer" army. They are less likely to face the kind of storm of protests we had here in the Vietnam era.

    I guess if people blame Obama for the bad economy and the massive losses in home equity and jobs from the Reagan and Double Bush administrations, it's an easy step to blame him for ALL policies on the foreign policy front.

    I realize we in the developed world--USA, Europe, et al-- make enemies by our very existence. "The Clash of Civilizations" I believe is real. But their can be a difference between envy and enmity and the pure hatred that brings people to acts of terrorism. That comes down to leadership and having intelligent people in office with some empathic capacity. I heard Romney this morning blaming Obama for the failure of democracy to produce instant stable leadership in the Arab Spring. He is selling the disingenuous idea that any president can mold far-off nations with hundreds and (in the case of Egypt) thousands of years of political history and, by some alchemy of foreign policy, turn a culture dictatorship in a revolutionary phase into an instant mirror of the USA, UK, Germany, Canada, et al. It's asinine!

    I agree we need to listen more to people like your husband who have seen war for what it is and not in the abstract. I don't think people understand what war really is in many parts of Washington. They don't have to it seems unless enough people have a personal stake in a ground war that has gone on too long. Most Americans want the troops from Afghanistan home--but how bad do they want them home?

  15. Just finished reading this and it does give much to think on Doug. Extremely interesting.