It’s hard to be categorically optimistic about anything Barack Obama says since he’s let so many down so much. But his statements about drone strikes and the war on terror, while not everything one would wish, were a vast improvement over U.S. policy for the past five years in which over 3,000 have been killed, over 400 of which were civilians. The speech he gave was quite broad and deserves parsing by subject.
Obama came about as close to promising the closure of Guantanamo as he’s come in a long time (remember right after the election when he said it would be one of his first priorities?). Of course, Republicans shreied that he couldn’t return prisoners to Yemen because they’d turn right back into terrorists again. This of course neglects the fact that these men were never tried for any crime, let alone convicted. So how can you continue imprisoning a man never convicted of a crime for fear that he may in future commit a crime? This is the wackiest interpretation of constitutional law I’ve ever seen.
Obama didn’t seem terribly happy with his Justice Department’s effort not just to ferret out and criminalize whistleblowers and leakers, but to drag journalists into the courtroom as well. FoxNews’ DC bureau chief was just named a “co-conspirator” in a case involving the broadcast of a secret U.S. report about North Korea. Obama is also reacting to the fallout from Justice’s fishing expedition against the AP for their reporting about a terror plot foiled by U.S. intelligence.
Though Obama professed support for journalists and just revived a shield law for them, I remain dubious that Obama will rein in the Justice Department in these matters. They have become a hallmark of his administration and offered a strong link to the Bush anti-terror doctrine which preceded it. Breaking such a link would mark a distinct break with Obama’s natural political inclination to outdo and co-opt the GOP right on national security policy.
The president said that drone strikes would no longer take place if there was any danger of harm to civilians:
‘Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.’
In at least one instance, Obama lied in claiming his administration had:
‘a strong preference for the detention and prosecution of terrorists’
Obama has detained very few terrorists and those few he prosecuted were largely arrested by the Bush administration. This lie betrays the fact that there has been no serious efforts to apprehend militants and bring them to justice. The case of Osama bin Laden is a perfect case in point. Assassination was our policy in that instance.
The president offered this dubious defense of the assassination of U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, saying his citizenship:
‘should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a Swat team.’
The difference is that a sniper has a gun in his hands and may be physically seen to be in the act of killing. The evidence against al-Awlaki is secret. There is no smoking gun, not even video of the Yemeni-American cleric engaging in or planning an act of terror. There are only promises from Obama and his minions that this is what he did. In this, I’m from Missouri, the ‘Show Me’ state.
The most inaptly named “signature strikes,” against groups of unknown assailants presumed to be militants, will be ended. Again, this would be terrific if we could believe it will be implemented in the field. But that remains to be seen. And the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reminds us that the new guidelines on this subject are themselves secret. So it’s hard to know exactly what the new policy is other than what the president has told us. But if he holds true to the broad outlines, it may be a welcome and long-overdue change. One wonders though whether 3,000 Muslims had to die for us to get to that point.
One could argue that the retreat from drones as a major counter-terror instrument may’ve been forced on Obama. Pakistan’s incoming prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, made a point on the campaign trail of saying that he not only opposed drones, but that he would shoot them down. The outgoing government was much more pliant than the new one appears to be. Of course, what Pakistan does on this question will be dictated by the military, much more than civilian politicians. But the generals can’t help but be influenced by the overwhelming popular opposition to this violation of Pakistani territorial sovereignty.
I was gratified to read yesterday in Scott Shane’s report that as important a U.S. security figure as Michael Hayden acknowledged that the vociferous attacks on our drone policy by human rights activists, journalists and analysts have served as one important reason the government is backing away from it:
…The negative effects of the strikes deserve greater consideration. Among them, he [Hayden] said, were alienating the leadership of countries where the strikes occur; losing intelligence from allies whose laws prohibit support for targeted killings; an eroding political consensus in the United States; and “creating a recruiting poster for Al Qaeda.”
In this, we should give ourselves a pat on the back. The work of myriad U.S. and international opponents of this counter-terror approach has made itself felt.
The Times also published a moving account of Pakistani children who’ve been murdered or maimed by our missile strikes and a lawyer’s attempt to secure justice for them in her nation’s courts. She offers a plaintive request to the president to acknowledge our culpability in destroying the lives of these innocent civilian victims. Not a word in Obama’s speech about this. Nor was there a word of regret expressed for 16 year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen murdered in Yemen while searching for his father, Anwar, who’d been killed by another drone several weeks earlier.
It’s worthwhile to hear this voice of an Obama skeptic that pretty much sets the proper tone for me:
Col. Morris D. Davis, a former chief prosecutor at Guantánamo who has become a leading critic of the prison, waited until after the speech to express disappointment that Mr. Obama was not more proactive. “It’s great rhetoric,” he said. “But now is the reality going to live up to the rhetoric?”
I note Codepink’s ever-courageous Medea Benjamin was in the audience heckling the president and demanding that he obey the law. More power to her!
The best that can be said for the President is that he appears to want to be seen to be doing the right thing. The rhetoric was largely correct. But with Obama it’s all in the implementation. If he acts as he speaks he’s to be commended. But so often in the past he’s said one thing and his administration has done something totally different. We’ll just have to wait to see if this speech marks a change.
There is one terribly ironic aspect of all this that must be noted. Above, and often in previous posts, I’ve highlighted journalists and whistleblowers investigated and prosecuted by this administration for doing their jobs. Many critics have noted the irony of the Obama administration itself leaking like a sieve when it’s in its own interest to do so. I counted something like four or five articles in yesterday’s NY Times in which sensitive, if not secret information was divulged by government sources in order to build up today’s speech. Apparently, when the wrong officials leak it’s a crime. When the right ones leak, it’s doing your job.