President Obama and Counter-Terrorism: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Here are the good, the bad and the ugly things in President Obama’s important speech on counter-terrorism Thursday, and in the off-stage steps he has announced that mysteriously did not appear in the speech:

The Good:

President Obama seems determined to give responsibility for drone strikes to the Department of Defense, taking it away from the Central Intelligence Agency. While there is no automatic Congressional oversight of Pentagon actions and programs, the Congress can at will call over DoD officials to explain themselves. At the moment, the program is largely handled by the CIA and is covert, so that its very existence could not be admitted by US officials and no public question could be answered about it by, e.g., the Secretary of State. I have argued that having it in the CIA makes the program profoundly undemocratic and unaccountable. That 16 senators and congressmen were told about the strikes after the fact (yes) is not sufficient and does not equal informing “Congress,” much less the public.

President Obama appears determined to reduce the use of drone strikes to instances where there is evidence of a clear and present danger to US territory. At the moment, drones are used in the place of hot pursuit to punish Taliban and al-Qaeda forces based in the tribal belt of Pakistan for supporting or engaging in operations against NATO and the Karzai government over the border in Afghanistan. Obama made it clear that such ‘force protection’ steps will cease at the end of 2014 with the withdrawal of US combat troops from Afghanistan. I also read him to say that while a strike might be carried out on an al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operative in Yemen if there was evidence he was imminently involved in an attack on the US, the use of drones to shore up the government in Sanaa against radical Sunni Muslim challengers would cease.

The president recognizes that a condition of permanent war inevitably undermines democracy (as James Madison held), and wants to end or deeply modify the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Force. Actually, since the AUMF refers to fighting those who planned and carried out 9/11, and since the remaining such cohort is getting to be small and long in the tooth, I think it would be enough just to interpret the AUMF more literally and to not apply it to territorial, vague al-Qaeda affiliates (Obama implied this).

Obama tried to shame the Congress into letting him close down Guantanamo, where most of the remaining prisoners have either been declared victims of false arrest or where the case against them has been compromised by the US government use of torture. Keeping under lock and key dozens of people declared eligible for release, for whom no trial is envisaged, is a profound violation of both US and international law.

The Bad:

Obama’s defense of the continued use of drones skirted many important issues. He did not admit that the evidence used in deciding to assassinate (yes) someone in a foreign country often comes from shady and manipulative sources and may not always be trustworthy. He did not admit that the courts in Pakistan, e.g., have found US drone strikes illegal and a violation of Pakistani sovereignty, and that many at the UN and the ICC have similar concerns.

Obama asserted that the drone strikes are effective. While this view prevails at the CIA and in the NSC, there are many dissenters from it. AQAP and other radical Sunni groups have grown in numbers and influence in Yemen during the period of US drone strikes, and possibly because of them. How effective, then, have they really been? Inside the Beltway analysts are obsessed with atriting the enemy’s leadership cadre. But asymmetrical terrorist groups, some of them kin-based, don’t have that big a need for alpha leaders. Kill one, and a cousin will take over. Blowing stuff up also isn’t all that hard to do, so killing people who know how to do it doesn’t stop the bombings– others just teach themselves how to make and set off explosives.

The Ugly

President Obama committed himself to the continued use of targeted assassination via drone. Although he asserted the validity of a vague doctrine of self-defense as a basis for doing so, many of the considerations above bring that justification into question.

He did not admit that NGO findings that the US has killed at least 400 innocent civilians via drone strikes have been found plausible by academic social scientists

The president spent a lot of time asking Congress to do things that that Tea Party-dominated body will not do. So, in the end, the speech changes little. Obama cannot close Guantanamo. He will continue to drone people, including American citizens, to death. He will continue to target journalists for intrusive surveillance until, he said, Congress passes a shield law (why can’t he just issue an executive order that journalists are not to be targeted)? He asked for an increase in foreign aid, which isn’t going to happen. In his flights of fancy, some of that imaginary money would be used to train security forces in Libya! That would be an excellent idea, but apparently won’t happen until the Tea Party gets behind it (never).

Obama admitted that the Israel-Palestine issue roils US relations with the Muslim world (though he did not say that it is because the US is helping Israel screw over the stateless Palestinians), and argued for more diplomacy to resolve it. But the simple fact is that Obama could unilaterally put enormous pressure on Israel to change its policy of stealing Palestinian land and resources simply by declining to use his veto at the UN when the UNSC introduces resolutions of censure against the Israeli government for its illegal actions against the Palestinians. The proposition that the government of Binyamin Netanyahu is likely to take any steps toward genuine peace with the Palestinians is risible.

I’d just like to point out in closing that counter-terrorism in the Muslim world could usefully begin with better explaining the United States. We can’t do that very well with skeleton crews cowering in embassies in Tunis and Tripoli; Obama needs to stop being so afraid of the Republicans and let the diplomats do their work out there.

Some US policy may be objectionable, but people often don’t even know the basics about the US in the region. Most of them don’t speak English (yes), and the number of solid Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Indonesian and Swahili books about the United States is tiny. I have published books in Arabic about Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King in the past couple of years. The US government has a small translation program, but it hasn’t really gotten the word out about real US values. It should be expanded and efforts should be made to get these books into high school and university courses. Moreover, that al-Hurra satellite television channel needs to be rethought; almost no one watches it. The US isn’t serious about communicating with people instead of droning them until it does something serious about this Information Gap.

31 Responses

  1. -
    professor,

    when you say
    assassination,
    i hear murder

    as for the rest
    you don’t mince words
    thank you, for that
    -

    • “i hear murder”

      Perhaps you should have your hearing checked.

      Murder is the deliberate killing of innocent people. The drone program targets Unlawful Enemy Combatants whose aim is to harm the United States. As such, it does not meet the definition of “murder.” It is justified under the Law of War, the UN Charter, and the AUMF.

      • -
        ok bill
        if the stat i heard, is correct
        for every ‘target’ ‘attained’
        there are 49 innocents killed

        it’s lazy and cowardly
        and it is not ‘war’
        although it is a ‘war crime’
        -

        • From his stack of 4 x 6 cards, Bill has spoken. Q, threfore, ED.

          Actually, all he really needed is the one with card with AUMF, Article 51 and that thing that he calls the Law (sic) of War noted on it. Maybe this is what he refers to, from a perch of claimed Realpolitic Wisdom?

          link to youtube.com

        • You need to get better stats.

          Even the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, the anti-drone outfit Professor Cole links to, puts the number of civilians killed at no more than 20-25% of total deaths.

          Although I’m sure you could ‘hear stats’ that put it at 50:1 and 1000:1, too. The internet is a big place.

        • “if the stat i heard, is correct
          for every ‘target’ ‘attained’
          there are 49 innocents killed

          it’s lazy and cowardly
          and it is not ‘war’
          although it is a ‘war crime’”

          Your evidence for the claim that for every targeted Unlawful Enemy Combatant, 49 innocents are killed?

          Finally, it is neither lazy nor cowardly nor a war crime. It is indeed war.

    • Legally, if enemy combatants do not identify themselves by wearing a uniform, then any civilian casualties are their responsibility.

      It’s very easy for people to make moral judgements when the biggest decisions they have to make involve which car to buy or which college to send their children to.

  2. Just as Max Planck declared, “Science progresses one funeral at a time,” just as it takes the deaths of hundreds of textile workers in Bangladesh to slowly move the selfish and greedy in the clothing trade into supporting minimal human decency, so it takes the criminal excesses of rogue states (as surely the US is with its wars of aggression, torture, and drone assassinations) to advance human rights. What US policy is unwittingly doing is bringing closer the day when all presidents and prime ministers, and all governments are accountable before international courts, as a necessary defense against crimes against humanity. When people and nations refuse to respect the rights of others, in time forces step in to protect the common good. It’s happening, and that lack of national sovereignty is a sad but necessary consequence.

  3. While I agree that providing material about American political writers of the past is a good thing, there are more things ‘we’ could do that would be more effective and less expensive than much of what we are currently doing monetarily. We could for example provide materials written by American Muslims about what their life really is like here, the religious freedom and so forth. We could cite Islamic traditions to point out that the Prophet and companions would never have countenanced, never mind performed, such acts as throwing acid in girls’ faces for learning how to read… the tradition is to seek knowledge, even if you have to go to China to find it. The case previously made here against terrorism, based on the Koran and traditions, should be more widely promulgated. Lastly it could be pointed out that the West, despite its obvious problems and shortcomings, did solve the two real problems that have vexed Islam forever… that of succession, and of clerical involvement in politics. It is certainly not impossible that much of the Islamic world could, if it would, democratize and throw the mullahs and ayatollahs out of office, and still have societies that respected their traditions and avoided Western excesses.

    • that kind of thing already does get translated. It is the tradition of American political thought and social and cultural history that is absent in most Middle Eastern languages.

  4. It is good to read that the US may more effectively address the following common tactic of “revolutionary” groups:
    Bin Laden, in a 2004 videotape, described his strategy of luring the US to self-defeating battle: “We, alongside the mujahideen, bled Russia for 10 years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat…We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy…. All that we have to do is to send two mujahideen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written ‘al-Qaeda’, in order to make generals race there and to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations…” As predicted by Bin Laden “Washington, goaded by [neo-conservatives and other hawkish groups], also deployed forces – or drone missiles at the very least – to virtually wherever al-Qaeda or its alleged affiliates raised its flag, often at the cost of weakening local governments and incurring the wrath of local populations, particularly in Somalia and Yemen.”
    link to detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com

  5. Well, granted everything else you say, it isn’t fair to blame Obama for Republican intransigence. It isn’t wrong for him to say what Congress ought to do, even though we know they won’t. You make it sound as though that’s his fault.

  6. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

    It doesn’t make me feel any better that Obama speaks well since his actions scream America the war monger. Once more I have to wonder if anyone could be President and not be a war criminal.

    • Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

      I must have missed the parts of the speech where the President advocated for invading Iraq, keeping Guantanamo open, using torture, and fighting a global ideological war.

        • “Obama’s ratings are as bad as Bush’s were in the opinion polls throughout the Muslim world.”

          And your point? Obama is President of the United States, not the “Muslim World.” His job is to tend to the national interest of the US, not assuage every grievance in the Muslim World.

        • Obama’s ratings are as bad as Bush’s were in the opinion polls throughout the Muslim world.

          And Bush’s ratings among Americans were once 90%. I’m left with the impression that approval ratings are not, in fact, the most reliable measure of a President.

      • “The frog pool wanted a king. Jove gave them old king log. I have been as deaf and blind as a log. My chief fault? I have been too benevolent . . . I reconciled Rome and world to monarchy again. By dulling the blade of tyranny I fell into great error.”

        I, Claudius, by Robert Graves

        Long since has the US become a tyranny – it’s been quite a trip from Truman’s establishment of the national security state to Obama’s drones, with stops in Cambodia with Nixon, through the steamy jungles of Iran-Contra, to the supreme war crimes and usurpation of constitutional power under Bush, with the end of the rainbow concluding with a final deathblow against the Republic under Obama.

        For Obama has arrogated to himself the supreme power of the consuls, nay, the emperor, without any interdiction or check by the tribune of the plebs – munia senatus magistratuum legum in se trahere, nullo adversante! He is the final period in which everything for which Nixon was impeached is now legal. Dismiss extra-judicial assassinations and drone wars? Then you potentially dismiss the causa proxima et ultima of the next 9/11, if and when it happens. You also dismiss a host of laws and legislation, both domestic and international, designed to put a check and balance on the abuse of executive power (stretch, yawn).

        Alfred Hitchcock was right: Evil in the modern period comes at us with a smile, not a grimace. As though Obama has had no role in the continuing shame of Guantanamo (see al Hasan Moqbel’s April 15 op ed in the NYT), has not threatened Iraq with force, has not, as promised, continued the folly of Afghanistan, has assassinated American citizens extra-judicially, has not indefinitely detained Bradley Manning for exposing wrong-doing in the military (and, by the way, whose treatment IS tantamount to torture). But hey, for Joe from Lowell and his ilk, Bush is now the measure. At least Obama hasn’t (insert something Bush did here), and at last he’s not part of a global ideological war (though the peoples of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, etc. probably see things a bit differently).

        How will all the Obama supporters feel when they wake up the first Wednesday of November in 2016 and realize that President Ryan and Vice President Rubio now have legal claim to the absolute power of life and death over every citizen in the land without trial?

        Obama governs in many respects to the right of Reagan (how the hell can one support that?), and our political discourse has taken us all to the place where we are frogs in a hot pot, slowly boiled to death without realizing it. So drone attacks that are nothing less than disgusting and worthy of a prison sentence are dismissed (“Yeah, I’m a little disturbed by that, but . . . [insert rational here]“). The attack on whistle-blowers goes unnoticed. Bradley Manning stands trial even as the criminals of the past administration rake in millions in speaking fees and on book deals, or get prominent press in major papers. So implementation of the law and Constitution I guess makes me shrill, a “purist” and a “perfectionist”, as does the desire not to have the blood of the children of poor countries on my hands. This is what we have come to and the Democratic Left has become in many respects as tone deaf as the Right, the same nihilistic tribalists that defend their man. Mehercule!

        But I say, let us get this charade over with and have an end: “Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out”. Let us have a Palin for president, or another Bush. And when your feet first touch the floor in the morning simply recite quietly the words of Marcus Aurelius: “Today I will be met by ignorance, arrogance, greed, and folly”.

        • But hey, for Joe from Lowell and his ilk, Bush is now the measure.

          I was replying to Michael Valenti, the commenter who raised that measure.

          Predictably, you didn’t have any problem with that measure until it was pointed out to you that it works in President Obama’s favor.

          If you object to that measure, kindly take it up with the individual who proposed it.

          How will all the Obama supporters feel when they wake up the first Wednesday of November in 2016 and realize that President Ryan and Vice President Rubio now have legal claim to the absolute power of life and death over every citizen in the land without trial?

          I read overheated, factually-indefinsible blatherings like this, and I wonder: are you really this misinformed, or are you deliberately bullshitting?

    • Ouch!…That song has been quoted ever since Townsend wrote it….but man, does it fit perfectly now….

  7. American values = drones
    American values = millions of people killed by US or proxies after 2nd world war.
    US has been an aggressive Empire right from the beginning (remember Barbari wars of Jefferson?) Unless MLK or anyone else took a clear stand in opposition to imperialism, people in the Muslim world will not take them seriously, nor will they read books in Arabic about them.

    There is no evidence to show that US is really interested in Palestinians. There is tons of evidence on the other hand to show that its occasionally criticism of Israel is fake and is for propaganda purposes. The facts on the ground speak for themselves. It is not the fecklessness of US presidents or power of AIPAC but the commonality of interests. West Bank is continuation of American Wild West. Just listen to the Brooklyn accent of the settlers.

  8. “US has been an aggressive Empire right from the beginning (remember Barbari (sic) wars of Jefferson?)”

    Your obvious lack of understanding and misinterpretation of American history is neatly summarized in your statement quoted above. The Barbary Wars were provoked by the Barbary States along the coast of North Africa. Barbary corsairs led attacks upon American merchant shipping in an attempt to extort ransom for the lives of captured sailors, and ultimately tribute from the United States to avoid further attacks, much like their standard operating procedure with the various European states. If there were ever a more valid reason for going to war than attacks against American shipping, demands for tribute, and the kidnapping and holding for ransom of American seamen, I do not know what it would be.

    • Bill,
      I think a more valid reason for going to war would be an invasion of one of the 56 states and territories.

      • “I think a more valid reason for going to war would be an invasion of one of the 56 states and territories.”

        Disregarding the fact that 56 states and territories did not exist at the time of the Barbary Wars, are you actually making the claim that attacks against American shipping, demands for tribute, and the kidnapping and holding for ransom of American seamen did not constitute acts of war to which the US had every right to respond with military and naval force? I’m very thankful that you were not then, and are not now, in any position involving the security of the United States.

        • The Barbary States were actually engaged in something that used to be called “piracy,” kind of like what’s going on off Somalia and stuff, called that even by the US Navy, if you read carefully, and what “the young nation did” was “suppression of piracy,” but hey, who’s counting:

          link to history.navy.mil

    • “The Barbary States were actually engaged in something that used to be called “piracy””

      Close, Mr. McPhee, but no cigar. Piracy has always had a very specific definition as being conducted for private ends and by private vessels. The Barbary States were sponsoring the attacks on American shipping and holding American seamen for ransom. They were acting in their capacity as “states” and, thus, were not committing “piracy.” They were committing what we would call “acts of war.” The definition of piracy was codified in the Geneva Convention on the High Seas of 1958. It simply codified language that had been recognized since the 18th century.

  9. AQAP and other radical Sunni groups have grown in numbers and influence in Yemen during the period of US drone strikes, and possibly because of them. How effective, then, have they really been?

    Effective at what? That “larger” AQAP doesn’t appear to have become any more capable of conducting terrorist attacks against the US. Quite the opposite, al Qaeda’s ability to project force against us has crashed since the ramping up of the drone program.

    Inside the Beltway analysts are obsessed with atriting the enemy’s leadership cadre. But asymmetrical terrorist groups, some of them kin-based, don’t have that big a need for alpha leaders. Kill one, and a cousin will take over. Blowing stuff up also isn’t all that hard to do, so killing people who know how to do it doesn’t stop the bombings– others just teach themselves how to make and set off explosives.

    With all due respect to your opinion, I find that of Osama bin Laden a great deal more convincing on this point. He was talking to his operational commanders about how the damage done by airstrikes was destroying his organization’s ability to operate.

    The efficacy of counter-terrorist tactics is a technical question that should be considered in it own right, not spun into a mush of wishful thinking that just so happens to inevitably comport with the policy preferences one arrives at from other directions.

    • The efficacy of counter-terrorist tactics is a technical question that should be considered in it own right [by WHOM?], not spun into a mush of wishful thinking that just so happens to inevitably comport with the policy preferences one arrives at from other directions.

      Why does it seem that despite the interstitial fog of surely knowledgeable noise, the above sounds like a case for counter-terrorist tactical technical questions driving strategy, policy, expenditures, STATE BEHAVIOR? As opposed to, you know, the other way around?

      “Why are you carrying that double-barrelled Hollands & Hollands .470 Nitro Express elephant gun at port-arms around Times Square?” asks the cop.
      “To keep the wild elephants away,” says the dude.
      “There’s not a wild elephant within 5,000 miles of here, buddy!”
      “See? It works. Now let me get back to my patrolling…”

      And as to wishful and magical thinking and making things up, there is proof, is there, positive or negative, from sources that don’t have shall we say reasons to shade the truth to protect themselves, their careers, and the “policy preferences” THEY have (like the ones that got “us” into Iraq and are keeping “us” in Afghanistan, etc.?), that the counter-whoever-gets-blown-up tactical toys serve any strategic or even tactical purpose that “serves the national interest?”

      Claiming or implying undisclosed “special expertise” does not count as “proof.”

      • Why does it seem that despite the interstitial fog of surely knowledgeable noise, the above sounds like a case for counter-terrorist tactical technical questions driving strategy, policy, expenditures, STATE BEHAVIOR? As opposed to, you know, the other way around?

        Sounds TO WHOM?

        Have you ever read anything, other than your own comments, that didn’t sound like that to you?

        You’ve come up with a bunch of reasons why we shouldn’t think about question. Sorry, JT, I’ve never been very good at not thinking.

  10. Even better idea – have US citizens read books about the history of Palestine, Iran, CIA involvement in removing democratically elected governments …
    Perhaps more than a handful could and learn Arabic or Farsi.

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