More than 2,000 people are supposed to have been killed by drone attacks in recent years. Up to now, there have been no rules for the deployment of battle drones. In the election campaign, President Obama promised to finally end that. But now he is in no rush.
Fear motivates action, even in the Oval Office, the stronghold of world power. At some point in early spring, Barack Obama sensed that he could lose the presidential election to Mitt Romney and with it the authority over America’s military machine.
The Democrat never kept it secret that he did not think his Republican challenger capable of making wise life and death decisions. Therefore, Obama wanted to make provisions — and bring America’s strongest weapon under control for the political emergency: The work on a rule book that was supposed to bring the deployment of deadly drones under clear standards was hastily accelerated.
Now, after the election, Obama’s security advisers are catching their breath. “There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands,” the New York Times reported, quoting an insider. Now the all clear reigns, no stress: The stricter rules and precise procedures according to which predator and raptor drones would attack in the Hindu Kush or deserts of Arabia are now not supposed to be codified until after January 20, the day of Obama’s second oath of office.
But Obama is obligated: What he did not want to allow Romney as presidential arbitrariness, he cannot continue to allow for himself.
Obama Remains Silent about the Details of the Regulations
The deployment of unmanned Hellfire missiles over Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia that hunt suspected terrorists has by now become a trademark of Obama’s presidency. According to information from the independent website The Long War Journal, the Democrat is responsible for more than 300 firings and the deaths of more than 2,500 people in just under four years. The British Bureau of Investigation* reports even more frightful numbers. In Pakistan alone, U.S. missiles have struck more than 350 times, 298 of them after Obama’s taking office. The balance: up to 3,375 dead, among them up to 885 civilians — and 176 children.
Special investigators of the United Nations have announced an investigation for 2013; a survey by the Pew Research center revealed that America’s war from the clouds is disapproved worldwide. Three out of five Germans reject Obama’s drone strategy as well.
Obama knows that criticism is growing in the U.S. Left-wing Democrats want to curb the drone war; civil rights activists want to make the government accountable in U.S. courts. The president, once a lecturer in constitutional law, has indeed acknowledged the problem of his “license to kill.”
The war by remote control brings “a remoteness to it that makes it tempting to think that somehow we can, without any mess on our hands, solve vexing security problems,” Obama conceded in an interview. A “legal architecture” needs to be put into place that would rein in every president in decisions about life and death.
But Obama’s government remains silent about what these regulations are supposed to look like — just as they may not officially disclose what criteria have guided the drone war up to now. What has gotten out, to date, have been purposeful leaks from Obama advisors who were supposed to paint their employer as the protective defender of the nation in the war on terrorism.
In May, the New York Times described how Obama examined pictures and profiles of suspected al-Qaida fighters. The head of state claimed for himself the privilege of personally deciding who would be on America’s Kill List. Because the weekly meeting in the Oval Office is usually on the schedule for Tuesday, insiders have long since spoken about “Terror Tuesday.” The president, assure his security advisors, wants to hold his generals as well as the anti-terror specialists in the CIA “on a short rope.”
Only, that indirectly means that the president has been bound by no rules up to now. Not even after he killed hatemonger Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, in a 2011 drone attack in Yemen, did his government want to reveal the circumstances and legal basis for this executive order to kill. The Justice Department, which at the time backed up the attack via an internal legal opinion and thereby at the same time superseded a judicial death sentence, refuses until today to even confirm the existence of the CIA drone program over the Arab peninsula.
Members of Government Fear Image Damage
So doubts have been seething for a long time even in the government itself. Attorney General Eric Holder announced concerns, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned months ago in a fundamental debate of the security cabinet in the White House that the drone war is damaging America’s image in the world.
Increasingly controversial are primarily the so-called signature strikes — not strikes against individual, reliably identified persons on the kill list, but missile attacks on unknown persons, who become terror suspects by their behavior alone — such as military exercises in a hidden camp.
Even the primary goal of the drone war seems be vaguer than ever: Originally, Predators and Raptors shot at terror groups that campaigned against the U.S. or U.S. troops in Hindu Kush. In the meantime, however, the CIA also goes down from the sky against Islamic fighters in Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen who are not fighting against America, but instead rebelling against their own government.
These counterinsurgency measures in the name of foreign powers also know no clear rules up to now. What pertains, strictly confidentially, is only the word of the White House.
*Editor’s note: Although this is the title used by the author, this organization does not actually exist. It is possible the author meant MI6, the British foreign intelligence organization.