Obama Defends Drone Program: "These Strikes Have Saved Lives"

by
Owen Poindexter
President Obama gave a major address today on terrorism, counterterrorism including drone strikes and the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. On drone strikes the President said, "simply put these strikes have saved lives."


President Obama takes the stage before giving his major terrorism address on drone strikes among other topics at the National Defense University. PHOTO: Reuters.
 
President Obama gave a major address today on terrorism, counterterrorism including drone strikes and the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Obama, speaking at National Defense University at Fort McNair, began with a brief summary of the world before 9/11, spoke about the state-less terror threat we face now, and the efforts the U.S. has taken since 9/11 to target Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
 
"We strengthened our defenses – hardening targets, tightening transportation security, and giving law enforcement new tools to prevent terror. Most of these changes were sound. Some caused inconvenience. But some, like expanded surveillance, raised difficult questions about the balance we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy. And in some cases, I believe we compromised our basic values – by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law."
This was Obama's first major political move: separating himself from George W. Bush on civil liberties grounds. The complaints with Obama's foreign policy have mostly centered around how he is willing to ignore laws and human decency to carry out his missions, so Obama's initial strike against this idea was to point out that Bush was willing to torture while Obama is not. That was just the beginning of his defenses of his foreign policy, particularly drone strikes.
 
Obama framed his choice as Commander in Chief, as boiling down to 1) do nothing about foreign terrorist groups, and rely on the governments that those groups reside within to deal with them, 2) launch a ground war or 3) use drone strikes.
 
While he acknowledged and addressed that drones have their own complications, and are not a cure-all, he offered a pragmatic explanation as to why they are preferable to the first two options. Doing nothing would mean more successful terrorist attacks in the U.S. and at U.S. embassies, and a ground war would be a friggin fiasco. Those aren't Obama's words, but these are:

"Simply put, these strikes have saved lives. Moreover, these actions are legal. Under domestic law and international law, we are at war with Al Qaeda, the Taliban and affiliated organizations."

He stressed that the preference is always to apprehend terrorists alive, but that this is not always possible without an incredibly dangerous raid like the one that killed Osama Bin Laden. Obama then took a moment to give a subtle dig to Rand Paul, who launched a thirteen hour filibuster in protest of Obama's drone program:

"This week, I authorized the declassification of this action, and the deaths of three other Americans in drone strikes, to facilitate transparency and debate on this issue, and to dismiss some of the more outlandish claims. For the record, I do not believe it would 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."

Paul had read deeply into the possibility that Obama might use drone strikes to kill any American without a trial. To be fair, that is one reading of the broad guidelines the Obama Administration established for itself in conducting drone strikes. Many were wondering just how far those privileges went, but Senator Paul wondered aloud for thirteen hours on the Senate floor.
 
In short, Obama told America today that he is a thoughtful guy who knows and defends the Constitution, but terrorism exists, and there are no perfect options. Drone strikes kill innocent civilians and serve to radicalize people, but not nearly as much as ground wars do, and he is not willing to do nothing either.

However, Obama did announce that he only needs about another year and a half of drone strikes before they become a rare weapon, at least in Afghanistan:

"In the Afghan war theater, we must support our troops until the transition is complete at the end of 2014. That means we will continue to take strikes against high value al Qaeda targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces. However, by the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we have made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes."

Personally, Obama's expanded drone program was my least favorite part of his presidency. It seemed too easy and self-interested a fix for our international concerns. Today's address helped allay some of my concerns. While I wonder how acceptable the drone strikes would be to me on a case by case basis, Obama's framing of the situation was helpful, and I trust his Administration enough to be judicious. That said, Obama needs to work with Congress to hammer out specific limits to when and why targeted killings can be used. Due process is a major part of what this country is about. It's inconvenient as all hell, but having principles is often about accepting inconveniences. I mostly trust Obama, but I don't want to grant future presidents with that kind of wiggle room. After all, this country elected Bush and Cheney twice.

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