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Professorial Talk, Lethal Walk

Updated May 27, 2013

Illustration by Faraz Amir Khan
Illustration by Faraz Amir Khan
Some have remarked that President Obama’s speech declaring the end of the war on terror signals an about-face for the Administration. Yet, close examination of the president’s rhetoric and subsequent critiques reveal that that the speech was more of a soliloquy for political purposes, than a sign that the president’s policies would change concerning drones.

While there may be a substantial change to the way Guantanamo Bay is run, President Obama’s speech was full of contradictions regarding drones, perhaps to give the appearance that he is a conflicted man “just trying to figure out very difficult issues.” However, this belies the point that the president himself unilaterally set all the policies that he is rhetorically rebuking today.

Further, it seems clear that there will be no effective change to the targeted killing program as the president continued to argue that the use of drones was and still remains both legal and effective, instead of admitting that past uses may have violated international law.

Benjamin Wittes, the head of Brookings Institute's Law and Security program, wrote that the unifying theme of President Obama’s speech was “an effort to align himself as publicly as possible with the critics of the positions his administration is taking without undermining his administration’s operational flexibility in actual fact.” He went onto state more simply, “the president sought to rebuke his own administration for taking the positions it has — but also to make sure that it could continue to do so.” Conor Friedersdorf goes further, writing in the Atlantic, “The speech was an inescapably political maneuver, intended in part to disarm his critics, following the classic Obama pattern of affirming their strongest insights and critiques, but acting as if, having done so, there's no need to change course in the way those critiques imply”.

In a way, the speech would make one think that the end of the war on terror had been declared by Professor Barak Obama, as he delivered a tongue-lashing to President Obama’s administration (while also giving a lesson in free speech). It seemed as though the NDU address was a theatrical presentation of the internal lamentations of protagonist/antagonist Obama, with the American public, especially those opposed to the unilateral and secretive use of drones, as the target audience.

Though it may have been a convincing show for some in the audience, there were certain inconsistencies that must be critically evaluated. While he rebuked the idea of a perpetual war on terror, President Obama used it as a justification for the US to continue its use of drones in perpetuity, albeit under more restrictive preconditions in the near future.

While President Obama stated that his administration respected the sovereignty of other nations, he did not miss the opportunity to rebuke certain countries who were “unwilling or unable” to capture and arrest terrorists, implying that their sovereignty could be breached.

While the president acknowledged the need for transparency and informing the public, he did not answer for the years during which his administration used hundreds of drone strikes while aggressively denying any use of drones in public.

While acknowledging that drones were used to target US citizens abroad like Anwar Al-Aulaqi, the president made no mention of Abul Rahman al-Aulqi, the 16-year-old son who was killed by drones in a separate strike from his father’s.

While stating that members of his administration were heartbroken by the civilian casualties- Medea Benjamin of Code Pink pointed out: …he made no mention of providing justice to the survivor civilians who suffered the same injuries as those in Afghanistan, but did not receive the same condolence payments.

Rather than owning the responsibility for illegal and ineffective actions he unilaterally decided to take, he defended each use of drone strikes by asserting that his administration followed a strict set of guidelines and also informed Congress of every drone strike. Though the president was implying that Congress’s hands were also in the drone pot, according to Freidersdorf, Congressional “oversight committee members have had to fight hard for information about targeted killing.”

Further, it was not as if the president sought the consent of Congressional leaders before conducting drone attacks, but rather informed a select group of Congressmen after conducting the strikes. There is a substantial difference between asking for permission and asking for forgiveness. By limiting the ability of Congressmen to have independent means to assess the legality, morality, and effectiveness of drone strikes, the president asked for neither. Therefore, his attempt to implicate and shift the blame to Congress was an illogical ploy to give the appearance that the president was not acting with complete unilateral control over the targeted killing program.

Though there were many short-comings in his speech, most important of all was the fact that he failed to mention the CIA’s role in the drone program.Though unnamed senior Administration officials have assured journalists that the drone program was being shifted out of the hands of the CIA into the control of the military, the president made no mention of this potential change. This may be due to the fact that such an admission would beg the question of why the CIA was being stripped of this power.

One answer could be that some officials inside the government believe what activists have been purporting for years; that the CIA has run amuck with its control of drones, overusing them. Even high ranking serving and retired US military personnel have stated that the overuse of drones by the CIA has threatened the safety of troops abroad and Americans at home by fomenting global anti-Americanism.

Another answer could be that the CIA has operated in a legal vacuum, not being subject to the same rules and international limitations the military uses, and operating without proper respect or knowledge of the laws of war. Dissimilarly, the military has extensive experience in the law of war, which includes: determining the legality, effectiveness and proportionality of an attack, all of which the CIA has little prior experience in as an espionage organisation.

A third answer could be that mentioning the CIA’s control over drone policy carries implications for the overall foreign policy of the US. While Obama stated that there needed to be a renewed focus on the diplomatic power of the US to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world, he failed to mention the increased and exclusive power held by the CIA in matters that the State Department could previously effect. The episode of Former Ambassador Munter quitting his position as chief diplomat to Pakistan because he felt the CIA held the reigns on Pakistan policy is a telling story. Due to its secretive and unilateral use of drones in Pakistan (and the retaliatory efforts by Pakistan’s own spy agency to whip up anti-American/ anti-drone sentiments in the public) the State Department could do little by means of diplomacy.

The final answer to the question of why the president omitted discussing the CIA in his speech concerning drones was that the Agency would continue to control the strikes in Pakistan, as senior Administration officials have told journalists. Therefore, the practical effect of the speech was summed up by First Post: “there will be fewer strikes, no doubt, and only after they meet a higher threshold but Pakistan will remain very much on the active radar of the CIA.”

Shah Husain, revered Sufi philosopher, wrote in a soliloquy to himself “How can you hear the truth when misconception has seeped into your bones. The truth can only be heard by those whose bodies have been engulfed by the fire of truth.” As such, the hope that President Obama would turn a new leaf acknowledging the truth of his illegal, ineffective, and immoral use of drones was dashed as many could see the effects of “misconception seeping in his bones,” in his continued justification for targeted killings.

What we are left with is rhetoric that will lead to superficial changes but a policy that will continue to institutionalise and make permanent the president’s power to kill suspects – even US citizens – around the world without effective due process, trial, or oversight.

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The writer holds a Juris Doctorate in the US and is a researcher on comparative law and international law issues.

———————————————————————————————————————————————— The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group