Obama’s foreign policy pivot

By J Brooks Spector 24 May 2013

Following a virtual month’s worth of bad news on the Benghazi/IRS/AP phone fronts, President Obama used his speech on counterterrorism policy to reassert the primacy of the presidency in the sphere of foreign policy. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Speaking at the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, DC, on Thursday afternoon, Barack Obama set out new directions in the country’s overall counterterrorism strategy; the increasingly controversial incarcerations at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and the use of drone craft in Pakistan to fight insurgents operating from there and into Afghanistan. The NDU is located on the leafy urban campus of Fort McNair, a short walk from the US Capitol Building.

In this speech, President Obama outlined the future of his counterterrorism policies on Thursday as he sought to define more clearly the American enemy, make lethal government actions more accountable to Congress and signal that the nation’s long war against al-Qaeda would one day end. In his speech, Obama chose to defend the use of drone strikes overall as more precise and less bloody than the large-scale use of troops on the ground, and he set out further clarity about how these weapons were to be used in future.

The key moment in this speech was Obama’s argument that it was time to move away from the ad hoc, emergency arrangements first set in place in the aftermath of 9/11. These had ultimately compromised the American rule of law and it was now past time to return to closer adherence to more traditional American values.

Successfully sorting out these three contentious issues might well move towards – finally – closing the book on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – at least as far as America’s involvement in those two unhappy nations was concerned. By contrast to the immediacy of an earlier threat by al-Qaeda as in the attacks on the Twin Towers in Manhattan and at the Pentagon, Obama argued that the major threats to Americans, now, came from isolated home-grown extremists of various hues and stripes, low-level attacks on far-flung diplomatic and military posts abroad, or from the unusual circumstance of foreign extremists’ attack on an individual airplane.

The drone attack aircraft program, significantly expanded under the Obama administration, makes use of pilotless aircraft (controlled by ground-based pilots located thousands of miles away) to attack suspected targets involved with Afghan insurgents – targets usually seen as synonymous with Islamic fundamentalists associated with al-Qaeda. In response, however, many of the drone program’s ostensible targets insist these drone attacks have killed large numbers of innocents, including women and children (a new map shows every known drone airstrike in Pakistan from by the Obama and Bush administrations here).

Obama used this speech to announce new limits on the use of the drone program even as he defended its successes, saying it had taken an enormous toll on al-Qaeda and associated forces. Still, he acknowledged concerns about its legality and morality. “As was true in previous armed conflicts, this new technology raises profound questions about who is targeted and why; about civilian casualties and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under US and international law; about accountability and morality,” he said. Briefing reporters separately, a senior administration official added that the new policy is recognition that the Pentagon is “the appropriate agency to use force outside active war zones,” but, alluding to CIA operations, said, “That’s not to say the US doesn’t pursue a range of counterterrorism options around the world.”

This official also alluded to an exception that would allow the CIA to continue hitting targets in Pakistan not part of al-Qaeda but which pose a threat to US troops in Afghanistan, at least until the end of 2014, when most American forces will be gone. The CIA has had sole responsibility for the drone campaign in Pakistan, mainly because of terms set by the Pakistani government, which has never acknowledged that it allows the strikes. The senior administration official placed the war in Afghanistan in a “different context” from the broader counterterrorism campaign, saying there will still be a “dual need for action against core al-Qaeda and force protection” until the drawdown is complete.

But despite the difficulties and dilemmas with the drone campaign, Obama was at pains to argue that these strikes have actually saved lives by disrupting terrorism plots worldwide. He also defended the actions as legal. As he said in his speech, “We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war — a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.” Nevertheless, Obama called the deaths of civilians in drone strikes “heart-breaking tragedies,” but he said those deaths must be weighed against the plans that have been foiled.

In addressing the drone program, Obama set out new legal guidelines for the use of armed drones in more precisely defined war zones – and outside of them. With this program – something Obama has actually expanded since he became president – he said he is also open to working with Congress to set up an independent court to review future drone targets.

As an additional part of his changes with the drone strike program, Obama has signed a presidential directive establishing guidelines for when a drone strike can be used that include more tightly drawn standards for establishing targets and in taking measures to protect against civilian deaths. This directive says that any targets must pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to the US and that the government must assure the president there is a “near certainty” no civilians will be killed by such a strike.

Administration officials told journalists just prior to the president’s speech that these new criteria represent a significantly higher standard than what has been applied until now.  Analysts have already concluded that these changes will slow further the already-diminishing level of the drone attacks and that it will reduce – but not entirely eliminate – the CIA’s role in the drone campaign.

Accordingly, this new guidance states a “preference” that the Defense Department play the lead role in lethal operations overseas. That is a significant course change for the CIA. That organization has already carried out several hundred drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen – with a death toll of more than 3000 militants – and civilians. But these changes represent less than a total cessation of the CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan or in yet other countries that currently permit their territory to be patrolled by US military drone craft.

Officials added that the CIA could continue to attack targets in Pakistan not connected to al-Qaeda, but which are judged to pose threats to American troops still in Afghanistan. The officials described the Afghan war as being a “different context” from the broader counterterrorism campaign, insisting there is a “dual need for action against core al-Qaeda and force protection” – at least until the drawdown of American forces there is concluded. (The CIA is solely responsible for the drone program in Pakistan, partly because of terms established by the Pakistani government, which has never actually publicly acknowledged that it permits the strikes in the first place.

Even as these new, limited proscriptions come into place, Obama defended the effectiveness of the drone program, arguing it has had real success against al-Qaeda and related forces. However, he acknowledged those concerns about its legality and morality, saying, “As was true in previous armed conflicts, this new technology raises profound questions about who is targeted and why; about civilian casualties and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under US and international law; about accountability and morality.”

He also defended the actions as legal, saying, “We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war — a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defence.” Admitting the deaths of civilians were tragedies, he nevertheless asserted that such deaths must still be weighed against the blocked plans of the militants.

The administration has now acknowledged that in the course of these efforts, US forces have killed four Americans abroad and in Thursday’s speech, Obama also offered a justification of the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born cleric killed by a drone strike in Yemen two years ago. He said Awlaki had been plotting attacks against American aircraft in association with al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula.

Obama argued, “Of course, the targeting of any Americans raises constitutional issues that are not present in other strikes — which is why my administration submitted information about Awlaki to the Department of Justice months before Awlaki was killed and briefed the Congress before this strike as well. But the high threshold that we have set for taking lethal action applies to all potential terrorist targets, regardless of whether or not they are American citizens.”

Achieving the right strategy – going forward – for dealing with counterterrorism has dogged the Obama administration ever since it came into office in 2009. One particularly difficult aspect of this remains the inmates of the special military prison in Guantanamo. Many of these have been incarcerated since the Bush administration and have never brought to trial or released. Many are now engaged in a hunger strike against their jailers and their continued presence there remains a considerable irritant to Obama’s liberal supporters because their captivity represents violations of American-style rights to speedy, fair trials.

On the other hand, largely Republican congressional opposition has effectively blocked wholesale transfers of Gitmo inmates to the civilian court system in the US, or their release back to their countries of origin such as Yemen. As a result, Guantanamo has effectively become something of a lose-lose proposition for the Obama administration so far – his administration catches intense flak whenever it is suggested the inmates should be released – or kept in their cells.

The president’s speech effectively became a lawyer’s brief of the comparative advantages and potential harms from continuing the continuation of incarceration in Guantanamo and how continuing this arrangement effectively traduces basic American legal and judicial values. While Obama was talking, a female heckler repeatedly interrupted him (one wonders how she made her way into that auditorium past all the security screening), demanding immediate release of all of the Gitmo prisoners, before she was escorted from the room. As he was finally able to complete his speech, he called for Congress to help close the Gitmo prison camp – allowing him, finally, to fulfil an early promise. In the meantime, he announced he would lift the moratorium on transferring the camp’s Yemeni detainees to their home country, among with some other steps to help thin out the prison’s population of 166 people, many now on that hunger strike.

Looking forward, Obama said the US has reached a real decision point in its struggle against terrorism. Obama argued, “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’ Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. What we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.”

Then, turning to the underlying issues in the AP telephone records subpoena controversy, pointing to the requirement that the US must balance civil liberties and national security, Obama said journalists must not be “at legal risk for doing their jobs.” Instead, he insisted that, going forward, the focus must be “on those who break the law” in leaking classified information and added that he has already discussed his concerns with the Attorney General, Eric Holder, whose Justice Department had issued the subpoenas in the first place.

This speech came almost four years after he had first pledged to make the country’s national security policy in the post-9/11 world more congruent with what he had termed the fundamental American traditions of human rights, public transparency and the rule of law. In that earlier speech, Obama had said that the country had gone off course during his predecessor’s administration as it made use of interrogation tactics labelled torture, as well as the indefinite detention of terrorist suspects and the secret surveillance of private citizens.

This time around, Obama reviewed his administration’s record and its counterterrorism policy, the several proposals to change it, and how his administration now responds to a far different security environment than the one that confronted the country during the dozen years of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. The small organisations loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda flourish in isolated parts of the Arab world, as well as in those countries undergoing their political transitions. But weakening such groups now calls for very different policies. This effort needs more reliance on drones and intelligence gathering and much less of those big “boots on the ground” military troop efforts.

Obama also spoke about the threat of so-called homegrown terrorism such as the Boston Marathon bombing in April, and he promised to work closely with local law enforcement officials and Muslim communities to reduce the threat. Still, there is no guarantee there will be no more attacks somewhere in the US sometime in the future.

As he said, “Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror. What we can do – what we must do – is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.”

To his supporters, this speech will represent a serious effort to set up a framework that better balances the challenges of confronting militants and minimising lethal “collateral damage”, even as it makes a more convincing effort to respect American legal values while holding as captives those who meant to do harm to the country. To his detractors, however, these policies are almost inevitably going to be characterised as weakening the military and CIA in their efforts, even as it unreasonably gives American civil rights and legal protections to fundamentalist terrorists. Moreover, there is probably little in any of these policy changes that will convince would-be extremists to set aside their plans and lay down their weapons. Maybe nothing any president does will be able to cause that to happen. DM

Read more:

  • Obama defends drone strikes but says no cure-all at AP
  • Obama to address drone strikes, Guantanamo in foreign policy speech at AP
  • Barack Obama to set out US drone policy at the BBC
  • Obama to Address Drones, Gitmo in Security Speech at Time
  • Obama outlines future of counterterrorism efforts at the Washington Post
  • Obama, in a Shift, to Limit Targets of Drone Strikes at the New York Times
  • Obama’s National Security Speech and Pakistan at the Brookings Institution website
  • Obama’s 301 Drone Strikes – A map of every reported drone strike in Pakistan at Slate

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about his administration’s counterterrorism policy at the National Defense University at Ft. McNair in Washington, May 23, 2013. Obama gave a robust defense on Thursday of U.S. use of unmanned armed drones and said the threat of terrorism to the United States had shifted since the attacks on September 11, 2001. REUTERS/Larry Downing


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