Obama and Krauthammer: Both Wrong on Drones

After reading some of the debate on drones last week, some points from the very pro-drone side were rather disturbing.  In an online chat, President Obama made a few statements that make little sense when considering the policy he has carried out for so long:

“What I think is absolutely true is that it is not sufficient for citizens to just take my word for it that we are doing the right thing…That (drone strikes) is something I take very seriously,” Obama said. “I am not somebody who believes that the president has the authority to do whatever he wants or whatever she wants whenever they want under the guise of terrorism.”

The first hypocritical part of this statement should be obvious.  If the president really didn’t want the public to just take his word for it, why didn’t that change years ago and why wait until now to even mention it?  There is little doubt the use of drones has been and will continue to be a very classified action.  But what is true transparency in this case?  Clearly, the names of the targets can’t be released and judged by the public prior to the strike and there is a possible risk in releasing them after a successful attack because sources could be put in harms way.  So what can we really expect here? 

The answer is likely the same info we are getting now on these attacks and the president is well aware of this.  Little will change in terms of the policy on drones and how much info makes its way to the public simply because of the nature of the operations.

The second hypocritical part about the president’s authority in these matters is similar to the above reasons.  Again, the fact that the policy has been carried out for so many years now under different presidents and in many different countries, including nations we weren’t invading such as Pakistan and Yemen, contradicts Obama’s statement.  If the president doesn’t have such authority, at what point was the American public consulted on the use of this type of force and handed down its approval?

Let’s take an example regarding drones: the designation of all military age males killed by a drone to be labeled enemy combatants regardless of info on them.  This decision was obviously made in the interest of fighting the War on Terror and also as a ruse to hide the true number of civilian casualties and I do not recall the public approving this change.  This was purely a cosmetic adjustment to the policy in order for the United States to save face around the world by decreasing the reported number of civilian casualties.

Not only is this appalling, it also contradicts the idea of transparency the president is allegedly so concerned about.  If the military reports a drone attack kills eight terrorists, the public does not question the policy or look much further at its success.  If the reality was two terrorists were killed along with a group of 15 and 16 year old boys outside the building playing soccer, the public around the world would want more answers.  This policy helps hide the truth of the events and decreases transparency.

But, of course, the victims could be posthumously proven innocent if info is found.  And my guess would be the U.S. military spends approximately less than zero dollars trying to do just that.

The other disturbing piece on drones was the argument put forth by right wing op-ed columnist Charles Krauthammer.  My key concern is with the following snippet from his article:

Okay, you say. But today’s war is entirely different: no front line, no end in sight.

So what? It’s the jihadists who decided to make the world a battlefield and to wage war in perpetuity. Until they abandon the field, what choice do we have but to carry the fight to them?

The main question to ask here is: what does it mean for a terrorist to “abandon the field”?  How do we really know when this happens and, if we don’t, how can we be sure of who is being attacked?  Let’s apply this idea to a hypothetical scenario just to exemplify the difficulty.

Let’s say a country houses 1000 terrorists inside its borders with 250 each in the north, south, east and west.  Let’s assume the U.S. has info on all of the suspects involved and are in the process of planning a strike.  Let’s say from initial info to attack it takes three months for the drone strike to occur (remember in bin Laden’s case, the initial break on the courier came roughly 8-9 months prior to his death even though this wasn’t a drone strike).

Now, let’s assume one month after receiving that info the group in the north decides to “abandon the field” and wants to just continue life without aggression.  How would our intelligence be sure to figure this out before a strike?  Satellite data would show the men would be gathering at the same places around the city, particularly the same places of worship.  They would still be gathering and talking to each other from our perspective.  And we would be assuming they were still planning.  So the strike still takes place.

And what just happened?  The rage of 250 families plus many friends and neighbors is directed at the U.S. people for this attack.  And in all likelihood, more than 250 terrorists were just created by a critical fault in the drone policy.

The idea of everyone with enough rage inside to kill others abandoning the field is a very nice thought.  But in this War on Terror, this war with “no front line, no end in sight”, the definition of how to abandon the field needs to be very specifically stated and this is the downfall of Krauthammer’s argument when applied to the real world.

The key here is there really is no way for a terrorist to show they are giving up the idea of striking at the West.  They can’t exactly knock on the Pentagon’s door from across the ocean or sign a peace treaty.  The onus is then put not the terrorist but on the aggressor, otherwise known as the United States, to decide whether a suspect lives peacefully or tries to live through a drone strike on their home.  This is why transparency is critical and why my earlier article mentioning the little evidence needed to carry out a drone strike is potentially horrific.

Terrorists have no way to show they are surrendering in this type of war if we give them no way out, particularly when we are willing to attack with suspect evidence against certain persons.  And if that is the case, the cycle of violence between the United States and radical Islamists will just continue forever.

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