WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama last week delivered a muscular defense of his use of armed drone aircraft to eliminate al-Qaida leaders, and moved to ensure his controversial targeted-killing program is here to stay.
While Obama indicated he would order future strikes only when other options are unavailable, he also codified the drone program, which his administration once refused to acknowledge, into America’s counterterrorism canon.
“We act 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,” Obama said at Washington’s National Defense University. “And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured, the highest standard we can set.”
Bowing — partially — to critics who charge his drone program is too secretive, Obama shed new light on when his administration would deploy a remotely piloted aircraft to kill an al-Qaida member.
“America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists; our preference is always to detain, interrogate and prosecute them,” the president said. “America cannot take strikes wherever we choose; our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty.”
The new counterterrorism policy will guarantee the drone strike program will be waiting for his successor in January 2017.
Christopher Preble, a senior analyst at the nonpartisan Cato Institute, said armed drone aircraft “absolutely” are here to stay.
“The current technology in this area is fairly immature still,” Preble said. “There is a lot of upside, it seems to me, for technological improvements to UAVs.”
Obama’s first major counterterrorism speech of his second term specified three reasons the 44th president will keep ordering drone strikes on al-Qaida targets:
Obama's Preferred Tool
The numbers offer strong justification. Data compiled by the New America Foundation shows drone strikes spiked in Pakistan between 2009 and 2010, jumping from 54 to 122. The 2009 figure jumped from 36 in 2008, the last year of the administration of President George W. Bush. Obama ordered 73 strikes in 2011 and 48 in 2012.
In Yemen, New America found 13 US-orchestrated strikes in 2011, then about 45 in 2012. There have been around a half-dozen this year.
The sharp decline in 2013 is because “there are fewer targets to hit,” Preble said, adding that’s a result of the 2010-2012 strikes.
Obama’s words show that drones will remain his preferred tool when others won’t work.
“Where foreign governments cannot or will not effectively stop terrorism in their territory, the primary alternative to targeted, lethal action is the use of conventional military options,” Obama said last week.
Obama also, perhaps for the first time, clearly stated his preference for the capabilities of drones over other systems.
“Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones and likely to cause more civilian casualties and local outrage,” he said.
Little Political Pressure
Several Republican senators who often criticize Obama’s foreign policy addressed reporters after Obama’s speech and critical they were — about his comments on the Guantanamo Bay terrorist prison and his Middle East policy.
But drones were an afterthought. And when they did come up, the GOP senators mostly echoed the Democratic commander in chief.
“There were parts of this speech I could have given,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., mentioned drones, but only to urge Obama to rethink any intention to make the program more transparent.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., focused mostly on Guantanamo Bay and Syria and said he supports reported plans to shift the program from the CIA to the military.
Statements from Democratic lawmakers also showed Capitol Hill is focused on another fight over Guantanamo, not ending the drone program.
Drones Are Effective
“Our actions are effective,” Obama said. “Don’t take my word for it. In the intelligence gathered at [Osama] bin Laden’s compound, we found that he wrote, ‘We could lose the reserves to the enemy’s air strikes.’ ”
The New America Foundation concludes nearly 1,930 al-Qaida operatives have been killed in Pakistan by US drone strikes under Obama. In Yemen, the number could approach 750, New America estimates.
The president hinted those targeted killings are superior to massive Iraq- or Afghanistan-style ground operations.
“Invasions of [foreign] 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,” he said. ■