The New York Times recently http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/29/world/obamas-leadership-in-war-on-al-qaeda.html?pagewanted=all published an extensive story about the Obama administration’s secret “Kill List” that is used for selecting targets for strikes by unmanned drones.
It has been clear for some time now that President Obama is making far more use of such drones that President Bush did, even as Obama systematically winds down more conventional warfare in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Most strikes have occurred in Afghanistan (of course), in Pakistan, and in Yemen.
The President is not delegating the responsibility for selecting targets, and insists on having the final word on whether a strike goes ahead. An extensive interagency review process considers whether particular persons ought to be on the list of targets, and how high they should rank. Those recommendations then go to the President, in a meeting with his top national security advisers; it is the President who has the final word.
There has been considerable dispute about the administration’s method of counting civilian casualties: the assumption is that any adult male killed or injured in a strike is in fact an al-Qaeda collaborator, unless there is concrete evidence after the fact to the contrary. Thus, effectively only women and children are counted as civilians. Critics (including some in the government) argue that this seriously understates death or injury among civilians. The administration counters that in the situations they are dealing with, adult males would not be casually or accidentally present: given the activities observed, all males present can reasonably be assumed to be combatants.
There was at least one instance when the President was informed that a strike on a high-value target was certain to entail civilian casualties; Obama ordered the strike anyway, killing not only the head of the Pakistani Taliban, but also his wife and possibly other relatives.
Many readers will recall the 2011 killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was a public voice of al-Qaeda in Yemen. There was evidence that Awlaki was not merely preaching violence and speaking for al-Qaeda; he had a command role in setting up the mission of Umar Farouk Adbulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber” on December 25, 2009. Armed with an opinion of the Office of Legal Counsel that the due process rights of an American citizen do not necessarily entail court proceedings, Obama ordered the assassination after the internal reviews described above had found that Awlaki posed an imminent danger.
It is then clear that Obama has not only followed Bush’s precedents in stretching presidential powers and restricting the rights of presumed terrorists, including those of American citizens, he has gone further. In lieu of the Bush policy of capture and indefinite imprisonment without charges, Obama imposes death sentences without judicial proceedings, based only on administrative deliberations about intelligence findings.
Ironically, the very monstrosity that is the detention system at Guantánamo seems to have driven Obama to this extreme so as to minimize the continuing embarrassment of detentions that are seen around the world as contrary to international law. Dead men need not be detained with limited rights, nor need they be put on trial.
As Bush defended the Guantánamo detentions, Obama defends the drone strikes as within the “war powers” of the president as commander-in-chief. They have plenty of company: presidents John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan all substantially stretched their prerogatives under the pressure of war. And certainly both Bush and Obama knew that tenderness about individual rights would do them no good in the event of another successful attack like 9/11.
However, like “body counts” in the Vietnam War, or numbers of detainees under Bush, drone strikes can be deceptive: you can take out the leaders at a cost in lives and money far lower than conventional or counterinsurgency warfare. It’s easy to see and tabulate the results. But it’s also easy to lose sight of the bigger questions: (1) are we addressing the fundamental causes of these attacks on us? and (2) are we destroying freedom by defending it in this way?
The most bitter irony is that we must ask these questions about Obama.