Commentary Magazine


Topic: drones

Drones Should Follow the Threat

The news from the Wall Street Journal that the Obama administration is looking to end drone strikes in Pakistan by 2018–the end of Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif’s current term in office–is not terribly surprising. President Obama has spoken often, most recently in his State of the Union address, about his desire to shift away from a “permanent war footing” and, as part of that shift, to reduce the use of drone strikes, which hit new highs during the early years of his administration.

If only our enemies were moving off a war footing too. But they’re not. In Pakistan groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Pakistani Taliban remain more threatening than ever, even if al-Qaeda central has been weakened, and there is scant cause to think that the Pakistani state is interested in, or capable of, dealing with them on its own. Indeed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency is in cahoots with many of these organizations, so it is more foe than friend in this struggle against terror. Drone strikes are certainly not a cure-all for the terrorist threat, as I have written in the past, but they are a valuable tool–and one that the U.S. should not give up lightly.

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The news from the Wall Street Journal that the Obama administration is looking to end drone strikes in Pakistan by 2018–the end of Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif’s current term in office–is not terribly surprising. President Obama has spoken often, most recently in his State of the Union address, about his desire to shift away from a “permanent war footing” and, as part of that shift, to reduce the use of drone strikes, which hit new highs during the early years of his administration.

If only our enemies were moving off a war footing too. But they’re not. In Pakistan groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Pakistani Taliban remain more threatening than ever, even if al-Qaeda central has been weakened, and there is scant cause to think that the Pakistani state is interested in, or capable of, dealing with them on its own. Indeed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency is in cahoots with many of these organizations, so it is more foe than friend in this struggle against terror. Drone strikes are certainly not a cure-all for the terrorist threat, as I have written in the past, but they are a valuable tool–and one that the U.S. should not give up lightly.

Especially when we are dramatically reducing our troop levels in Afghanistan, drones remain one of the few effective ways to strike at our enemies and those of our allies. Indeed the administration would be well advised to expand drone strikes, at least temporarily, within Pakistan to target the Quetta Shura of the Afghan Taliban which, for fear of offending Pakistani sensibilities, has been exempt from drone strikes before. With the Quetta Shura facing less military pressure in Afghanistan, following our troop drawdown, this would be one way to keep this organization off balance.

The question the administration should be addressing is not how quickly it can eliminate drone strikes in Pakistan but how quickly it can expand drone strikes to other areas where al-Qaeda has taken root–in particular western Iraq and northern and eastern Syria. This area, which crosses the Iraq-Syria border, has become a jihadist stronghold in the past year and it is a threat not just to regional governments but to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has just testified that there are 26,000 jihadist fighters in Syria alone, including 7,000 foreigners, and that some of them are plotting against the American homeland.

Neither the Syrian nor the Iraqi government has shown much ability to address the problem. In fact, we don’t want the Syrian government to address the problem because Bashar Assad’s preferred approach to counterinsurgency is to perpetuate war crimes. The Iraqi government isn’t as bad but it, too, favors a blunt force approach that usually backfires.

That is why I am so concerned about the administration’s plan to sell Apache helicopters and Hellfire missiles to Baghdad. Those weapons are as likely to be used against Sunni political foes of Prime Minister Maliki as they are against true al-Qaeda terrorists. I would have more confidence in U.S.-operated drones, although there is a question of where they would be based–Iraq? Turkey? Jordan? Israel? Liberated parts of Syria? Saudi Arabia?

Whatever the case, there is an urgent need for action to stop al-Qaeda from developing secure sanctuaries in Syria and Iraq, and drone strikes, assuming that local bases could be established, could be an effective tool in this fight if they are based on good intelligence. If the U.S. is going to shift part of its drone infrastructure out of Afghanistan–and, for the next few years anyway, this is probably a mistake–it should be shifted to the Middle East where the threat is growing every day.

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Our Chastened President

In David Remnick’s nearly 17,000-word article in the New Yorker, President Obama spoke about whether the use of drones was radicalizing civilian populations we need to win over:

Look, you wrestle with it. And those who have questioned our drone policy are doing exactly what should be done in a democracy—asking some tough questions. The only time I get frustrated is when folks act like it’s not complicated and there aren’t some real tough decisions, and are sanctimonious, as if somehow these aren’t complicated questions.

Even if you have, as I do, some sympathy with the point the president is making, this needs to be said: Barack Obama is probably not the best person to lecture others about being sanctimonious or speaking in overly simplistic terms about the challenges faced by a president. For Mr. Obama, being president seemed so easy before he actually was president.

To be sure, everyone who runs for president has a healthy ego and high expectations. But Mr. Obama belongs in a category all his own. 

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In David Remnick’s nearly 17,000-word article in the New Yorker, President Obama spoke about whether the use of drones was radicalizing civilian populations we need to win over:

Look, you wrestle with it. And those who have questioned our drone policy are doing exactly what should be done in a democracy—asking some tough questions. The only time I get frustrated is when folks act like it’s not complicated and there aren’t some real tough decisions, and are sanctimonious, as if somehow these aren’t complicated questions.

Even if you have, as I do, some sympathy with the point the president is making, this needs to be said: Barack Obama is probably not the best person to lecture others about being sanctimonious or speaking in overly simplistic terms about the challenges faced by a president. For Mr. Obama, being president seemed so easy before he actually was president.

To be sure, everyone who runs for president has a healthy ego and high expectations. But Mr. Obama belongs in a category all his own. 

According to Game Change, during the 2008 campaign Obama surrounded himself with aides who referred to Obama as a “Black Jesus.” (Obama didn’t appear to object.) “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions,” Obama told congressional Democrats during his first presidential campaign. During the campaign, while still a one-term senator, Obama decided he wanted to give a speech in Germany–and he wanted to deliver it at the Brandenburg Gate. A convention speech wasn’t enough; Greek columns needed to be added.

“We know that what began as a whisper has now swelled to a chorus that cannot be ignored, that will not be deterred, that will ring out across this land as a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, make this time different than all the rest,” Obama told supporters after his victories on Super Tuesday in 2008.

“Generations from now we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment,” Obama said as the primary season came to an end–a moment when, among other achievements, “the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal.” On the day of his inauguration, the newly sworn-in president proclaimed “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

That was then. Today President Obama is coming off of what Remnick refers to as his annus horribilis, from the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare to the bungled policy in Syria to across-the-board legislative failures to a majority of the country now believing the president is neither truthful nor honest.

Mr. Obama has changed. “When I asked Obama if he had read or seen anything that fully captured the experience of being in his office,” Remnick writes, “he laughed, as if to say, You just have no idea.” The president admits the country is tiring of him and that he’s overexposed. If you’re doing big, hard things, President Obama informs us, there “is going to be some hair on it – there’s going to be some aspects of it that aren’t clean and neat and immediately elicit applause from everybody.” We learn that politics doesn’t proceed in straight lines. That we have to take the long view. And that sometimes, like a sailor, “you’re being blown all over the place.”

Elsewhere the president tells Remnick, “One of the things that I’ve learned to appreciate more as President is you are essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history. You don’t start with a clean slate, and the things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable.” When he is criticized for his handling of Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009 or the last days of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011, we’re told he complains that people imagine him to have a “joystick” that allows him to manipulate precise outcomes. When discussing his initiatives dealing with Iran, Syria, and Israel and the Palestinians, the president says, “in all three circumstances we may be able to push the boulder partway up the hill and maybe stabilize it so it doesn’t roll back on us.”

“The President of the United States cannot remake society,” Mr. Obama admits at one point. “At the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

So Mr. Obama has gone from promising to “remake the world,” “heal the planet” and “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” to (forgive the clashing metaphors) being blown all over the place and being a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, trying to avoid being crushed by runaway boulders and just trying to get our paragraph right.

Barack Obama is a chastened man trying to make sense of his multiplying failures. Well into his second term, blaming them on his predecessor no longer works. One can now see the outlines of the new explanation: The job is too big, the country too divided, the opposition too unreasonable, the world too complicated, the tools we have to fix things too few.

There is another alternative. Mr. Obama wasn’t ready to be president and he hasn’t learned very much as president. He has constantly been overmatched by events. And now his presidency is being undone by them.

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Is Pakistani Taliban Leader Mehsud Dead?

Several different Pakistani news outlets are reporting that a U.S. drone strike has killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Here, for example, is the report from Karachi’s Dawn:

Hakimullah Mehsud, the chief of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan tribal agency on Friday, intelligence officials and Pakistani Taliban said. Intelligence officials said the Pakistani Taliban supremo was leaving from a meeting at a mosque in Dande Darpakhel area of North Waziristan when the drone targeted their vehicle. Pakistani Taliban militants said that funeral for the TTP chief will be held tomorrow afternoon at an undisclosed location in North Waziristan… Five militants, including Abdullah Bahar Mehsud and Tariq Mehsud, both key militant commanders and close aides of the TTP chief, were also killed with two others injured in the drone strike, multiple sources confirmed. Foreign news agency AP reports that a senior US intelligence official confirmed the strike overnight, saying the US received positive confirmation Friday morning that he had been killed.

The Pakistani government is withholding confirmation, and this would not be the first time that Mehsud has been reported killed. Still, if he is dead then kudos to the Obama administration for executing the strike even as diplomatic pressure mounts to halt the tactic.

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Several different Pakistani news outlets are reporting that a U.S. drone strike has killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Here, for example, is the report from Karachi’s Dawn:

Hakimullah Mehsud, the chief of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan tribal agency on Friday, intelligence officials and Pakistani Taliban said. Intelligence officials said the Pakistani Taliban supremo was leaving from a meeting at a mosque in Dande Darpakhel area of North Waziristan when the drone targeted their vehicle. Pakistani Taliban militants said that funeral for the TTP chief will be held tomorrow afternoon at an undisclosed location in North Waziristan… Five militants, including Abdullah Bahar Mehsud and Tariq Mehsud, both key militant commanders and close aides of the TTP chief, were also killed with two others injured in the drone strike, multiple sources confirmed. Foreign news agency AP reports that a senior US intelligence official confirmed the strike overnight, saying the US received positive confirmation Friday morning that he had been killed.

The Pakistani government is withholding confirmation, and this would not be the first time that Mehsud has been reported killed. Still, if he is dead then kudos to the Obama administration for executing the strike even as diplomatic pressure mounts to halt the tactic.

Drone strikes are not a magic formula. The risk of blowback is real—especially as terrorists move from the mountains into the urban jungles of southern Punjab and Karachi—and the diplomatic price is high. Still, officials in countries over which drones operate should recognize, before they complain about the practice, that the best way to halt such strikes is to prevent their territory from being used to host terrorists who have declared war on America. To suggest that the violation of sovereignty inherent in drone strikes cancels out the benefit of killing a terrorist is to suggest that preventing speeding on a highway is more important than preventing murder. Nevertheless, targeting the Pakistani Taliban at a time when it and its supporters believe the Americans are in retreat and in defeat does more to bolster the prospects for diplomacy than ill-advised timelines and Afghanistan transitions.

Let us just hope that the Obama administration recognizes that diplomatic processes should never suspend the need to target terrorists, whether they are Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal territories or Afghanistan, or if they are Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen in Syria, or Hezbollah commandos in Lebanon.

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Multilateral Counterterrorism and the Sovereignty Objection

Yesterday I expressed doubt that there would be major disruptions to U.S.-European security cooperation because of the latest “revelations” that allies spy on each other. European leaders would, I acknowledged, have to at least feign outrage to placate public opinion, but it’s likely to end there. Today the New York Times offers some more evidence to support this. The paper reports that the French and German governments have agreed to “hold talks” on new guidelines for mutual snooping with the United States.

The noncommittal language is an indication that the leaders of those countries will lodge a complaint with the Obama administration as an end in itself. As for any tangible changes in cooperation with the U.S., Angela Merkel sought to either dismiss or defuse such speculation. She was clear that she wouldn’t seriously consider ending U.S.-EU free-trade negotiations; she was cool to suspending data-sharing agreements for joint counterterrorism programs; and she seems to have succeeded in delaying consideration of increased privacy rules that would hamper American technology companies.

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Yesterday I expressed doubt that there would be major disruptions to U.S.-European security cooperation because of the latest “revelations” that allies spy on each other. European leaders would, I acknowledged, have to at least feign outrage to placate public opinion, but it’s likely to end there. Today the New York Times offers some more evidence to support this. The paper reports that the French and German governments have agreed to “hold talks” on new guidelines for mutual snooping with the United States.

The noncommittal language is an indication that the leaders of those countries will lodge a complaint with the Obama administration as an end in itself. As for any tangible changes in cooperation with the U.S., Angela Merkel sought to either dismiss or defuse such speculation. She was clear that she wouldn’t seriously consider ending U.S.-EU free-trade negotiations; she was cool to suspending data-sharing agreements for joint counterterrorism programs; and she seems to have succeeded in delaying consideration of increased privacy rules that would hamper American technology companies.

Any threats to the free-trade negotiations would reek of excuse-making: France has already threatened the viability of trade talks over its insistence on protecting its glorified soft-core pornographers from international competition. Torpedoing negotiations over security concerns would just enable them to put a more respectable gloss on protectionist impulses. Attacking cooperating private-sector behemoths like Google comes off as petty and punitive, and Britain successfully stepped in to ensure cooler heads would ultimately prevail on that score.

Counterterrorism efforts are likely to remain the focus of the controversy, since that’s the overarching point of contention. Yet it won’t be easy to disentangle aspects of the NSA’s program in Europe that France and Germany can do without from those on which they, too, rely. Today’s CNN report on the rift explains the bind the Europeans have found themselves in when seeking to protest the alleged phone-tapping of European heads of state:

The Europeans have been very grateful to share the benefits of the NSA’s immense data-gathering abilities in counter-terrorism and other fields. U.S. diplomatic cables disclosed by WikiLeaks show Germany was enthusiastic in 2009 and 2010 for closer links with the NSA to develop what is known as a High Resolution Optical System (HiROS) — a highly advanced “constellation” of reconnaissance satellites. One cable from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin said: “Germany anticipates that their emergence as a world leader in overhead reconnaissance will generate interest from the USG and envisions an expansion of the intelligence relationship.”

The 9/11 attacks changed espionage beyond recognition, leading to massive investment in the U.S. in “technical means” — the flagship of which is the enormous NSA data center being completed in Bluffdale, Utah. Its computing power, according to the specialist online publication govtech.com is “equivalent to the capacity of 62 billion iPhone 5s.” But 9/11 also shifted the balance between intelligence-gathering and civil liberties, with the U.S. federal government acquiring new powers in the fight against terrorism — some sanctioned by Congress but others ill-defined.

The technology that allows such enormous data-harvesting cannot be put back in the box, but the limits to its use pose an equally huge challenge. Ultimately, the Europeans need to collaborate with the U.S. on intelligence-gathering, to deal with international terrorism, cyber threats and organized crime. But the Snowden allegations, whether reported accurately or not, have changed the public perception and mood in Europe, obliging leaders like Merkel to take a tougher stand.

This duality is not limited to Europe. The United States is repeatedly accused of violating the sovereignty of nations in public with whom they are colluding in private. Public opinion on this score is seen as something to be managed by leaders who must carefully tend to domestic populist instincts with rhetoric that contrasts sharply with their actions.

Just this week Bob Woodward and Greg Miller reported on how Pakistan fits into this picture. Here is their lead: “Despite repeatedly denouncing the CIA’s drone campaign, top officials in Pakistan’s government have for years secretly endorsed the program and routinely received classified briefings on strikes and casualty counts, according to top-secret CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos obtained by The Washington Post.”

Pakistan is a hotbed of anti-American sentiment in part due to the mutually beneficial security cooperation that Pakistan both conducts and undercuts as it seeks to protect itself from the very terrorist groups it enables. The Washington Post article nods toward Pakistani cooperation with the drone program as a “poorly kept” secret, which it is. But the documents show, the Post notes, “the explicit nature” of the bilateral agreement on drones.

Nonetheless, Pakistan’s foreign ministry told the Post that a new day has dawned and the current Pakistani government is united in its opposition to drone strikes. It’s plausible, however, that the revelations will have the opposite effect. “I think people knew it already, but this makes it much more obvious, and the [Pakistani] media and others will have to cool off,” a retired Pakistani general told the Post. That’s because it’s not so easy to portray it as a violation of sovereignty when it is very much not a violation of sovereignty–a lesson the Europeans should keep in mind.

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The Morality of Drone Warfare

I am all for careful targeting in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations. Not only is it the humane thing to do, but being accurate and precise in the application of firepower can avert civilian casualties that will only create fresh grievances and breed new insurgents. That said, there is a limit on how precise any act of war can be. Human rights organizations, which are up in arms about U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, have unrealistic expectations that cannot be fulfilled absent a stoppage of the entire drone program–which would allow terrorists to kill ever more people and commit ever more human-rights violations.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have new reports out denouncing drone strikes for causing collateral damage, and the New York Times has weighed in with a lengthy article of its own on the supposedly awful impact of drone strikes on Miram Shah, a Pakistani frontier town that is the headquarters of the Haqqani Network, one of the most dangerous terrorist networks in the world. The Times rather melodramatically informs us:

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I am all for careful targeting in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations. Not only is it the humane thing to do, but being accurate and precise in the application of firepower can avert civilian casualties that will only create fresh grievances and breed new insurgents. That said, there is a limit on how precise any act of war can be. Human rights organizations, which are up in arms about U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, have unrealistic expectations that cannot be fulfilled absent a stoppage of the entire drone program–which would allow terrorists to kill ever more people and commit ever more human-rights violations.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have new reports out denouncing drone strikes for causing collateral damage, and the New York Times has weighed in with a lengthy article of its own on the supposedly awful impact of drone strikes on Miram Shah, a Pakistani frontier town that is the headquarters of the Haqqani Network, one of the most dangerous terrorist networks in the world. The Times rather melodramatically informs us:

It has become a fearful and paranoid town, dealt at least 13 drone strikes since 2008, with an additional 25 in adjoining districts — more than any other urban settlement in the world…

While the strike rate has dropped drastically in recent months, the constant presence of circling drones — and accompanying tension over when, or whom, they will strike — is a crushing psychological burden for many residents.

Sales of sleeping tablets, antidepressants and medicine to treat anxiety have soared, said Hajji Gulab Jan Dawar, a pharmacist in the town bazaar. Women were particularly troubled, he said, but men also experienced problems. “We sell them this,” he said, producing a packet of pills that purported to treat erectile dysfunction under the brand name Rocket.

I wonder what 1940s residents of Dresden or Tokyo would have made of the Pakistanis’ laments? German and Japanese civilians had much bigger worries than erectile dysfunction. Their cities were flattened by American bombers. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed–and that’s even before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaski. A single raid, the March 9-10 firebombing of Tokyo, produced many, many times more fatalities (around 90,000 people died) than all of America’s drone strikes in Pakistan combined over the last decade-plus. There is simply no comparison, given that Amnesty International is complaining “that at least 19 civilians in the surrounding area of North Waziristan had been killed in just two of the drone attacks since January 2012.”

That is not an argument for going back to the crude carpet bombing of World War II days. Drone strikes are a better instrument for the War on Terror. But it is crazy to attack drone strikes for their supposed immorality when they are the most precise and therefore the most humane type of warfare ever waged.

One suspects that the critics would love for the United States to discontinue its strikes entirely. Then what?

The Times article makes clear that the Pakistani army is doing little to police Miram Shah: Although a large Pakistani military base is located in the northern part of town, “the soldiers are largely confined to their base, leaving residents to fend for themselves.” The drone strikes, while not a magic bullet, are thus the only effective method to prevent the Haqqanis and their murderous ilk from entirely dominating the frontier region of Pakistan, which they use as a base for exporting terrorism to Afghanistan. Are Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International seriously arguing that it is moral to let these fundamentalist killers oppress and kill people in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, unopposed? Perhaps not, but that is the implication of their blinkered reports.

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Bowden on Drones

Much of the best and fairest treatment of the use of drones in the war on terror that I have read comes in this Atlantic article, “The Killing Machines,” by the outstanding reporter Mark Bowden.

The entire article is well worth reading—it surveys fully all of the problems inherent in drone warfare, from concerns that it removes an essential element of warfare by allowing drone operators to kill with no risk to their own safety, to concerns that it creates more enemies than it eliminates by embittering targeted populations. Bowden rightly warns against relying too heavily on drones, and notes that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has expanded in size during the time its Yemen-based leadership has been targeted by drones.

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Much of the best and fairest treatment of the use of drones in the war on terror that I have read comes in this Atlantic article, “The Killing Machines,” by the outstanding reporter Mark Bowden.

The entire article is well worth reading—it surveys fully all of the problems inherent in drone warfare, from concerns that it removes an essential element of warfare by allowing drone operators to kill with no risk to their own safety, to concerns that it creates more enemies than it eliminates by embittering targeted populations. Bowden rightly warns against relying too heavily on drones, and notes that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has expanded in size during the time its Yemen-based leadership has been targeted by drones.

But he also points out that drones are much more discriminating than bombs or missiles fired from afar and are much less likely to result in civilian casualties than raids by Special Operations Forces. (Bowden attained fame with his book Black Hawk Down, a chronicle of one such raid gone wrong, which resulted in the deaths not only of 18 American soldiers but also at least 500 Somalis.) Even according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an anti-drone group, the total number of civilian casualties caused by drone strikes has fallen from 12 percent of total deaths in 2011 to just 3 percent in 2012—an amazing advance in making warfare more humane.

Bowden concludes with a measured paean to drones: “They are remarkable tools, an exceedingly clever combination of existing technologies that has vastly improved our ability to observe and to fight. They represent how America has responded to the challenge of organized, high-level, stateless terrorism—not timidly, as bin Laden famously predicated, but with courage, tenacity, and ruthless ingenuity.”

Anyone reading Bowden’s remarkable article with an open mind will be compelled to agree.

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Confusing Cause and Effect in Pakistan

In this New York Times op-ed and in a book he has written, Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani official now teaching at American University in Washington, tries mightily hard to blame U.S. drone strikes for the growing radicalization in Pakistan’s tribal areas. He thereby confuses cause and effect.

He notes correctly that tribal authority has weakened in the frontier regions of Pakistan. The same thing has happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Yemen, Somalia, and other lands where violent Salafist organizations such the Taliban, al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Shabaab have tried to substitute their own form of militant rule in favor of the traditional structures that have governed tribal life.

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In this New York Times op-ed and in a book he has written, Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani official now teaching at American University in Washington, tries mightily hard to blame U.S. drone strikes for the growing radicalization in Pakistan’s tribal areas. He thereby confuses cause and effect.

He notes correctly that tribal authority has weakened in the frontier regions of Pakistan. The same thing has happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Yemen, Somalia, and other lands where violent Salafist organizations such the Taliban, al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Shabaab have tried to substitute their own form of militant rule in favor of the traditional structures that have governed tribal life.

But in the case of Pakistan, Ahmed chooses to place the blame not where it belongs–on a corrupt and ineffectual Pakistani state that can’t govern its own territory and on a violent movement called the Pakistani Taliban which has been taking advantage of state weakness–but rather on America’s program of drone strikes. He does so by clever juxtaposition of timelines, which implies causality where the evidence for it is actually tenuous.

He writes that “over the past few decades,” the pillars of tribal society in western Pakistan

have weakened. And in 2004, with the Pakistani army’s unprecedented assault and American drones’ targeting suspected supporters of Al Qaeda in Waziristan, the pillars of authority began to crumble.

In the vacuum that followed, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban, emerged. Its first targets were tribal authorities. Approximately 400 elders have been killed in Waziristan alone, a near-decapitation of traditional society.

Note how this conflates two separate developments–carefully targeted U.S. drone strikes and the Pakistani Army’s ham-handed and brutal assault into South Waziristan–as if they were one and the same. Ahmed makes no attempt to disentangle the threads here; rather he prefers to blame all of the weakness of tribal society and all of the brutality of the Pakistani Taliban on U.S. drone strikes. That’s a lot of weight to assign to an estimated 356 drone strikes since 2004–or roughly 40 a year, less than one a week–all of which are far more carefully targeted than the Pakistani Army’s blunderbuss use of artillery and air strikes against villages.

That rate actually exaggerates the pace of strikes since the average is driven up by an especially high number of strikes in 2010 (122); the number was much smaller before under President Bush and has fallen since. The reason why the number of drone strikes has increased is precisely because of the growing sway that militants have established in the tribal areas; the notion that the strikes themselves have caused the growth in militant activity remains, at most, an unproven supposition.

I have never believed that drone strikes can be the end all and be all of counterterrorism policy. I do believe that we need a more effective state-building strategy in Pakistan and that simply eliminating individual terrorist leaders will not make the threat go away.

But at the same time I don’t for a minute believe–as Ahmed and other critics of the strikes implicitly suggest–that if we simply stopped the drone strikes, then the tribal elders would re-establish their authority and the threat from the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups would recede. Quite the opposite: The drone strikes are one of the few effective measures keeping these extremist groups in check. Stop the strikes and the threat to the Pakistani state will grow. And that, in turn, means that the threat to the U.S. will grow because we can’t allow Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to fall into the wrong heads.

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Taliban Strike Exposes Flaw in Proposed Drone Guidelines

In a sign of how little has changed since President Obama’s much-ballyhooed speech last week on counter-terrorism, the latest news is that a suspected U.S. drone strike has killed the deputy leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Wali ur-Rehman. He was apparently in Miram Shah, a town in North Waziristan that is also the headquarters for the Haqqani Network–one of the most vicious and effective insurgent groups in Afghanistan. This geographical coincidence indicates how closely linked all of these extremist groups are, and underscores the importance of targeting them to enhance regional stability.

Unfortunately, if Obama is serious about limiting targeting at some point in the future to targets that threaten only U.S. “persons” rather than “interests,” as has been widely reported, that will make it difficult to attack the Pakistani Taliban, which generally plot against the government of Pakistan, not against the United States (although the would-be Times Square bomber of 2010 was linked to the Pakistani Taliban).

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In a sign of how little has changed since President Obama’s much-ballyhooed speech last week on counter-terrorism, the latest news is that a suspected U.S. drone strike has killed the deputy leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Wali ur-Rehman. He was apparently in Miram Shah, a town in North Waziristan that is also the headquarters for the Haqqani Network–one of the most vicious and effective insurgent groups in Afghanistan. This geographical coincidence indicates how closely linked all of these extremist groups are, and underscores the importance of targeting them to enhance regional stability.

Unfortunately, if Obama is serious about limiting targeting at some point in the future to targets that threaten only U.S. “persons” rather than “interests,” as has been widely reported, that will make it difficult to attack the Pakistani Taliban, which generally plot against the government of Pakistan, not against the United States (although the would-be Times Square bomber of 2010 was linked to the Pakistani Taliban).

If the U.S. were to stop targeting the Pakistani Taliban, as it may well do after 2014, it would increase the threat to Islamabad and also make it harder for the U.S. to fly drone strikes against al-Qaeda and other groups that directly threaten the U.S. Pakistan is dubious about such strikes and allows them, it is generally believed, as part of a quid pro quo whereby the U.S. also targets the Pakistani Taliban, which Islamabad does want to fight. Stop targeting the Pakistani Taliban and the consequences could be severe for the broader war on terrorism. That is why I hope there are some classified loopholes in Obama’s new policies that will allow existing counter-terrorism efforts to continue.

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Rhetorical vs. Substantive Change in Obama’s Security Policy

With his address today at National Defense University, President Obama continued his pattern of trying to separate himself from the Bush administration—while largely carrying on, and even expanding, its legacy in the counter-terrorism fight.

Obama said, for example, that after he came into office, “we unequivocally banned torture, affirmed our commitment to civilian courts, worked to align our policies with the rule of law, and expanded our consultations with Congress.” Umm, actually all of that happened in Bush’s second term.

He also took a swipe at the admittedly imperfect terminology favored by Bush (deliberately and understandably formulated to avoid any mention of our actual enemy—Islamist extremists), saying “we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ — but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” Actually, that’s exactly what GWOT meant when used by the Bush administration: “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle” terrorist networks. Even Obama’s closing line—“That’s who the American people are. Determined, and not to be messed with”—sounds as if it could easily have been delivered in a Texas twang.

But never mind: Better that Obama feign a change of course rather than actually undertake a change of course, because the course established by Bush and continued by Obama has kept us largely, although not entirely, safe since 9/11. Indeed, Obama’s welcome and robust defense of drone strikes (“our actions are effective… [and] legal”) also could have come from his predecessor’s mouth.

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With his address today at National Defense University, President Obama continued his pattern of trying to separate himself from the Bush administration—while largely carrying on, and even expanding, its legacy in the counter-terrorism fight.

Obama said, for example, that after he came into office, “we unequivocally banned torture, affirmed our commitment to civilian courts, worked to align our policies with the rule of law, and expanded our consultations with Congress.” Umm, actually all of that happened in Bush’s second term.

He also took a swipe at the admittedly imperfect terminology favored by Bush (deliberately and understandably formulated to avoid any mention of our actual enemy—Islamist extremists), saying “we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ — but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” Actually, that’s exactly what GWOT meant when used by the Bush administration: “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle” terrorist networks. Even Obama’s closing line—“That’s who the American people are. Determined, and not to be messed with”—sounds as if it could easily have been delivered in a Texas twang.

But never mind: Better that Obama feign a change of course rather than actually undertake a change of course, because the course established by Bush and continued by Obama has kept us largely, although not entirely, safe since 9/11. Indeed, Obama’s welcome and robust defense of drone strikes (“our actions are effective… [and] legal”) also could have come from his predecessor’s mouth.

Obama was particularly effective and hard-nosed in explaining why he authorized the strike that killed an American citizen, Anwar Awlaki: “When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America … 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.” Take that, Rand Paul.

There really was not much new in Obama’s speech; even his desire to close Guantanamo and transfer its detainees to prisons on the mainland has been often been expressed before—and is no closer to realization because of bipartisan opposition in Congress. He noted the difficulty of dealing with detainees who remain dangerous but cannot be convicted in a court of law—without offering any solution. All he said was: “I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.” He also genuflected toward greater accountability for drone strikes but did not endorse any particular idea such as the creation of special courts; he simply said, “I look forward to actively engaging Congress to explore these — and other — options for increased oversight.”

There are some real changes associated with Obama’s speech, it seems, but, like much else in the war on terror, they remain classified, murky, and imperfectly understood by those of us who are not cleared to know the inner details. The Washington Post reports, for example, that Obama has issued a new directive limiting the use of drone strikes to targets that “pose a ‘continuing and imminent threat’ to the United States” and then only in instances where there is “near certainty” of no civilian casualties. His guidance apparently also includes a “preference” for the Department of Defense to play the lead role in drone strikes rather than the CIA. It’s not clear exactly what these changes portend, since, as Fred Kaplan has previously noted, the government’s definition of “imminent threat” is wide enough to include just about any al-Qaeda operative, whether he or she is actually about to attack the U.S. or not.

My own view is that drone strikes should not decrease while the threat from “al-Qaeda and Associated Movements” (to borrow the Obama administration’s parlance) remains as high as it is today—the threat coming no longer primarily from al-Qaeda Central but, as Obama noted, from its affiliates and from lone wolves inspired by its rhetoric. But at the same time, while I believe it is dangerous to reduce drone strikes, it is also misguided to believe that they can be the sum of our counter-terrorism efforts. We need to address, as Obama said, “the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism, from North Africa to South Asia.” That doesn’t mean ending poverty, as his remarks implied, but rather effectively countering extremist propaganda and political organizing by helping moderate forces throughout the Muslim world to fight back. Unfortunately, this is an area where Obama, like Bush, has conspicuously fallen short.

Obama blandly noted that “unrest in the Arab World has also allowed extremists to gain a foothold in countries like Libya and Syria,” while conspicuously failing to note that it is his own administration’s lack of support for moderate forces—in the government of Libya and among the rebel factions of Syria—that has allowed extremists to come to the fore. Obama eloquently and rightly defended the need for foreign aid spending, but he announced no new steps to help embattled, pro-democratic forces in Libya or Syria.

Bush at least made rhetorical bows toward criticizing dictators and supporting democrats in the Middle East. Obama, in thrall to “realist” dogma, has been much less inclined to try to spread freedom abroad. Ironically, he seems to have adopted the “hard power” part of the Bush legacy while eschewing the emphasis on “soft power”—i.e., democracy promotion. That is his primary shortcoming—not, as the mainstream media narrative would have it, his support for supposedly excessive drone strikes but rather his failure to embed the drone strikes in a wider plan to promote better governance in the Middle East.

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A Tea Partier Gets Some Unusual Defenders

Last week I wrote about the entertaining series of stories in which reporters asked Senate Democrats why they didn’t stand with Rand Paul during his filibuster of John Brennan over civil liberties concerns. I noted that congressional Democrats judge foreign policy stands on partisanship alone, and the Democrats’ confused responses to reporters last week signaled they thought reporters were in on the joke.

But there are Democrats outside of government starting to pipe up on the issue of drones and secrecy, and it suggests Paul’s filibuster was even more successful from a publicity standpoint than it seemed at the time. This is because when it began, Paul’s concentration on the seemingly farfetched possibility that the government would drone critics like Jane Fonda as they sat in Starbucks left the initial impression that the filibuster was going to be a political theater of the absurd. But Paul proved many doubters wrong not only by attracting other politicians and rallying support on Twitter, but because the drone-Fonda case highlighted something that made people uneasy: if the federal government couldn’t or wouldn’t clearly deny its right to zap nonviolent people on American soil, was there anything the Obama administration would rule out?

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Last week I wrote about the entertaining series of stories in which reporters asked Senate Democrats why they didn’t stand with Rand Paul during his filibuster of John Brennan over civil liberties concerns. I noted that congressional Democrats judge foreign policy stands on partisanship alone, and the Democrats’ confused responses to reporters last week signaled they thought reporters were in on the joke.

But there are Democrats outside of government starting to pipe up on the issue of drones and secrecy, and it suggests Paul’s filibuster was even more successful from a publicity standpoint than it seemed at the time. This is because when it began, Paul’s concentration on the seemingly farfetched possibility that the government would drone critics like Jane Fonda as they sat in Starbucks left the initial impression that the filibuster was going to be a political theater of the absurd. But Paul proved many doubters wrong not only by attracting other politicians and rallying support on Twitter, but because the drone-Fonda case highlighted something that made people uneasy: if the federal government couldn’t or wouldn’t clearly deny its right to zap nonviolent people on American soil, was there anything the Obama administration would rule out?

And that, in turn, led to many asking a related series of questions: what exactly do we know about the drone program? Does it have limits, and if so, what are they? Why, people wondered, didn’t they know exactly what the federal government’s guidelines are regarding these floating robot assassins suddenly the centerpiece of our anti-terror efforts? Sensing they were losing the spin battle, the White House had Attorney General Eric Holder finally respond with a terse note, basically saying the government cannot drone Fonda. Not good enough, says Jane Harman, a former Democratic congresswoman from California who was the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and is now head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars:

Still, the letter left more questions unanswered than answered. Indeed, a simple “no” is hardly reassuring when the policy it supports is not clear.

In the domestic context, drones should never be used against citizens unless there is an armed conflict on U.S. soil….

Only the Federal Aviation Administration has been tasked with reviewing safety of domestic drones – nothing related to legal or security issues….

In the absence of congressional action, more than 30 state legislatures are banning or contemplating bills governing domestic drone use. But we need a national solution – not a fragmentation of state and local laws.

Harman’s CNN.com op-ed is titled “Rand Paul is Right.” In a similar op-ed in the Washington Post, former Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta writes that “The Obama administration is wrong” to withhold documents being requested by Congress that would shed light on the secret drone programs. Podesta writes:

It is beyond dispute that some information must be closely held to protect national security and to engage in effective diplomacy, and that unauthorized disclosure can be extraordinarily harmful. But protecting technical means, human sources, operational details and intelligence methods cannot be an excuse for creating secret law to guide our institutions.

In refusing to release to Congress the rules and justifications governing a program that has conducted nearly 400 unmanned drone strikes and killed at least three Americans in the past four years, President Obama is ignoring the system of checks and balances that has governed our country from its earliest days. And in keeping this information from the American people, he is undermining the nation’s ability to be a leader on the world stage and is acting in opposition to the democratic principles we hold most important.

And there is one Senate Democrat who isn’t dropping the issue, either. West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller objected to the freezing-out of Congress in a meeting with President Obama this week, Politico reports. According to those at the meeting, Obama offered a magnificently unserious and contemptuous response: “This is not Dick Cheney we’re talking about here,” the president said.

Perhaps the usually humorless Obama was trying awkwardly to make a joke, and just isn’t very funny. But the Democrats in the meeting, especially Rockefeller, weren’t amused. According to Politico, the senators reminded Obama that if he were in the Senate and a Republican were in the White House, he would be outraged by this behavior. Obama apparently acknowledged that, yes, he was being quite hypocritical. Rockefeller also objected to the fact that when he was finally allowed to see a couple of memos in a secure room, the White House sent a babysitter in to watch him.

The White House has tried to make it abundantly clear that they don’t appreciate oversight or transparency from Congress, least of all from members of the president’s own party. But those outside of Congress are starting to feel more comfortable openly challenging the president on executive authority, and going on record in support of Paul. The Kentucky senator is winning a second week’s worth of news cycles on this issue. The president may not consider himself accountable to Paul, but neither can he ignore him.

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What’s “Wacko” Among Republicans?

As I wrote on Friday, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham didn’t do themselves any good this week when they angrily trashed Senator Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster about drone attacks on the Senate floor. Sounding like angry old men telling the kids to get off their lawn isn’t the best way to respond to an event that galvanized the country and inspired admiration from both the right and the left. But rather than turn down the heat, McCain doubled down on his critique when he subsequently referred to Paul, Senator Ted Cruz and fellow libertarian Rep. Justin Amash as “wacko birds” in an interview with the Huffington Post that was published subsequent to his Senate remarks.

It should be understood that the Arizonan firing from the hip in this manner is just McCain being McCain. He doesn’t pull his punches, and, as is well known among those who have worked with him in the Senate, his lack of tolerance for those politicians who don’t measure up to his standards or who just annoy him is legendary.

But at this point that remark will do McCain more harm than it will the targets of his wrath. It will be seen as yet another indication that McCain and others who agree with him just don’t understand why Paul’s filibuster struck a nerve with so many in his party’s grass roots and inspired the admiration of many on the other side of the aisle as well. The word “wacko” signifies a lack of seriousness and the idea that those who fit the description are out of the political mainstream. The problem is that McCain, Graham and others who oppose Paul’s foreign policy views don’t seem to grasp that what is happening now is not merely excrescence of a marginal movement but the beginning of a serious policy debate about what Republicans believe about foreign policy. And the sooner he, and others who don’t want the GOP to drift away from being the party that stands for a strong America on the international stage, stop dismissing their opponents and start engaging them on the issues the better off they and the country will be.

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As I wrote on Friday, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham didn’t do themselves any good this week when they angrily trashed Senator Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster about drone attacks on the Senate floor. Sounding like angry old men telling the kids to get off their lawn isn’t the best way to respond to an event that galvanized the country and inspired admiration from both the right and the left. But rather than turn down the heat, McCain doubled down on his critique when he subsequently referred to Paul, Senator Ted Cruz and fellow libertarian Rep. Justin Amash as “wacko birds” in an interview with the Huffington Post that was published subsequent to his Senate remarks.

It should be understood that the Arizonan firing from the hip in this manner is just McCain being McCain. He doesn’t pull his punches, and, as is well known among those who have worked with him in the Senate, his lack of tolerance for those politicians who don’t measure up to his standards or who just annoy him is legendary.

But at this point that remark will do McCain more harm than it will the targets of his wrath. It will be seen as yet another indication that McCain and others who agree with him just don’t understand why Paul’s filibuster struck a nerve with so many in his party’s grass roots and inspired the admiration of many on the other side of the aisle as well. The word “wacko” signifies a lack of seriousness and the idea that those who fit the description are out of the political mainstream. The problem is that McCain, Graham and others who oppose Paul’s foreign policy views don’t seem to grasp that what is happening now is not merely excrescence of a marginal movement but the beginning of a serious policy debate about what Republicans believe about foreign policy. And the sooner he, and others who don’t want the GOP to drift away from being the party that stands for a strong America on the international stage, stop dismissing their opponents and start engaging them on the issues the better off they and the country will be.

It bears repeating that Paul’s bold gesture in the filibuster inspired admiration because it was a rare example of a Washington figure standing up for the principle of constitutional government with courage and grace. That he did so at the expense of an Obama administration that is so often cavalier about not respecting the Constitution endeared him to many Republicans who are not part of his libertarian base.

But the notion that all this fuss was about the Constitution and the right of due process is a cover for Paul’s basic disagreement with the GOP’s long consensus about foreign and defense policy. Paul spent much of Wednesday speculating about the possibility that an unprincipled future American president could use a drone to kill his political opponents or to punish dissidents of the Jane Fonda variety. That fired the imagination of paranoids on both the right and the left who are always ready to believe Big Brother is about to haul them off to jail. But the cheers Paul received went beyond that limited set to those who are uncomfortable with more than just the theoretical possibility of a drone attack on an America in the United States. It’s important to understand that Paul’s issue is not so much with drones as it is with a policy of what he calls “perpetual war” against Islamist terrorism and the entire concept of a strong U.S. policy to protect our influence, allies and trade in the Middle East.

Instead of venting resentment at the way in which the filibuster rallied conservaties, responsible Republicans should think back on Paul’s foreign policy address given at the Heritage Foundation last month in which he detailed his desire to reboot American foreign policy. That speech received a lot less attention than the filibuster but it showed that his goal is not so much restraint of American power at home as it is in cutting back abroad. Though he calls himself a realist in the mode of the first President Bush or James Baker, his embrace of containment as a strategy would have serious consequences for any hope for stopping Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons or the fight against Islamist terrorism.

Paul’s ideas are not so much “wacko” as they are dangerous. Though they seek to exploit American weariness with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they mistake that understandable emotion for a widespread desire to retreat from the world. Though Paul wisely avoids the sort of rhetoric that marked his father’s isolationist views which seems to treat terrorism as America’s just punishment for its sins, his policies are rooted in the same mindset. Most Americans support drone attacks and don’t wish to contain a nuclear Iran. If Republicans follow Rand Paul and become the party that wishes to stop fighting Islamists while Democrats continue to pose as the killers of Osama bin Laden, foreign and defense policy will become a permanent advantage for President Obama’s party in the future.

No one can blame Republicans for being excited about what Rand Paul did last week, but they won’t win in 2016 or any other year if they become a party whose foreign policy earns the admiration of left-wingers like Ron Wyden. Halting this trend will require more than name-calling. It will require those who oppose Paul’s ideas to make their case on the merits as well as exhibit the same sort of moxie that the libertarian displayed in his filibuster. It is no small irony that McCain and Graham passed on an opportunity to filibuster Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense over his views about Iran and containment. They seemed more concerned at that time with not appearing to be as much of a “wacko” as Ted Cruz, who took no prisoners in his attacks on Hagel. If they, and those who agree with them, are to prevail in the coming years and save their party they’ll have to confront Paul’s ideas as well as match his courage.

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On Drones, It’s Paul vs. the Polls

Last year, for the first time in decades, Republicans lost the advantage on foreign policy in a presidential campaign. Exit polls showed that voters trusted Barack Obama more than Mitt Romney to handle an international crisis (57 percent trusted Obama, 50 percent trusted Romney). And of the small number of voters who put foreign policy as their top issue, Obama won by a margin of 56 percent to 33 percent. Part of this, of course, is due to the incumbent’s advantage. But Republicans, following the setbacks in the Iraq War and Afghanistan, will have a tough job restoring their advantage on foreign policy and national security issues.

Their current actions aren’t helping. Senator Rand Paul has won accolades from many on the right for his “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” filibuster. But however impressive his stamina, we must not forget what he was protesting against–the use of drone strikes which, when directed overseas, are supported by 83 percent of Americans and when directed against American citizens overseas are supported by 65 percent.

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Last year, for the first time in decades, Republicans lost the advantage on foreign policy in a presidential campaign. Exit polls showed that voters trusted Barack Obama more than Mitt Romney to handle an international crisis (57 percent trusted Obama, 50 percent trusted Romney). And of the small number of voters who put foreign policy as their top issue, Obama won by a margin of 56 percent to 33 percent. Part of this, of course, is due to the incumbent’s advantage. But Republicans, following the setbacks in the Iraq War and Afghanistan, will have a tough job restoring their advantage on foreign policy and national security issues.

Their current actions aren’t helping. Senator Rand Paul has won accolades from many on the right for his “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” filibuster. But however impressive his stamina, we must not forget what he was protesting against–the use of drone strikes which, when directed overseas, are supported by 83 percent of Americans and when directed against American citizens overseas are supported by 65 percent.

Admittedly, Paul focused on the use of drone strikes on American soil against American citizens who are not combatants–he was clever enough not to make his filibuster about drone strikes per se. But in the process he came across as a bit of a nut. No one imagines that this administration or any other is about to start launching Hellfire missiles in New York or Washington. In fact Attorney General Eric Holder finally issued a letter stating the obvious–that the administration cannot use drones or other weapons against American citizens on U.S. soil as long as they are not engaged in hostilities against the United States.

However, the administration is absolutely right to note that it has the right in extreme circumstances to use military force on American soil. If Rand Paul thinks otherwise, he should come out and explain his objections to Abraham Lincoln’s use of force to fight the Confederacy–or the use of troops to escort African-American kids to school in Little Rock in 1957. Instead of addressing the issue squarely, Paul came up with far-fetched scenarios such as the U.S. government killing Jane Fonda because she was protesting the Vietnam War.

It is all too easy for the nuances of the debate to get lost and for voters to gain the impression that Republicans are against drone strikes in general.

Republicans are only reinforcing this impression of weakness on national security by enthusiastically supporting the sequester that is keeping Navy ships from sailing and Army troops from training. Republican strategists are right that most Americans support the sequester overall by a margin of 61 percent-33 percent, but they should note that by almost that same margin they oppose cuts to military spending.

By indiscriminately embracing sequestration and by making anti-drone noises Republicans are making it increasingly hard to recover the advantage on national security issues that they maintained ever since the 1960s.

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Drone Strikes, Waterboarding, and Moral Preening

On May 29, 2009, President Obama gave a speech  at the National Archives in which he said the following:

Now let me be clear: We are indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates. We do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat. But we must do so with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability. For reasons that I will explain, the decisions that were made over the last eight years established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable — a framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions, and that failed to use our values as a compass. 

The president went on to trumpet the fact that he banned the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, saying, “I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more.” Mr. Obama argued that (among other things) they undermine the rule of law. And during the 2008 campaign and shortly thereafter, Obama insisted that his policies would “regain America’s moral stature in the world.” This was a common Obama theme: He would act in ways that respect international law and human rights and remove the stain from America’s reputation.

I thought of all of this in light of this report by NBC’s Michael Isikoff. Thanks to Isikoff, we’ve learned that “a confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be ‘senior operational leaders’ of al-Qaida or ‘an associated force’ even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.”

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On May 29, 2009, President Obama gave a speech  at the National Archives in which he said the following:

Now let me be clear: We are indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates. We do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat. But we must do so with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability. For reasons that I will explain, the decisions that were made over the last eight years established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable — a framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions, and that failed to use our values as a compass. 

The president went on to trumpet the fact that he banned the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, saying, “I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more.” Mr. Obama argued that (among other things) they undermine the rule of law. And during the 2008 campaign and shortly thereafter, Obama insisted that his policies would “regain America’s moral stature in the world.” This was a common Obama theme: He would act in ways that respect international law and human rights and remove the stain from America’s reputation.

I thought of all of this in light of this report by NBC’s Michael Isikoff. Thanks to Isikoff, we’ve learned that “a confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be ‘senior operational leaders’ of al-Qaida or ‘an associated force’ even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.”

According to the memo, “The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

In addition, it states an “informed, high-level” official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been “recently” involved in “activities” posing a threat of a violent attack and “there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.” But as Isikoff point out, the memo does not define “recently” or “activities.” 

You can be excused if you’ve (a) missed Mr. Obama’s much-heralded due process element in all of this and (b) have a hard time reconciling Mr. Obama’s presidents-should-not-have-blanket-authority-to-do-whatever-they-wish-lectures (see the National Archives speech for more) with his Justice Department’s expansive executive powers memo.

So what do you think Senator Barack Obama would have said if President George W. Bush had pursued these policies? And how do you think the press and the political class would have reacted?

Let me suggest as well that a man who feels wholly at ease with drone strikes that have killed American citizens suspected of engaging in terrorist activities without the benefit of a trial and which have, in the process, killed hundreds of innocent people should be a tad bit more careful when it comes to lecturing about the immorality of enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs). Joe Scarborough, for example, argued that what Bush did with EITs is “child’s play” compared to what Obama has done.

To put things in a slightly different way: During the 2008 campaign and much of the early part of his presidency, Barack Obama obsessively argued that waterboarding all of three individuals–September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and senior al-Qaeda leaders Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri–was a violation of human rights and a grave moral offense. Here’s the thing, though: unlike Mr. Obama’s drone strikes, no American citizens, no terrorists and no innocent children have died due to waterboarding. Yet the president’s press spokesman is defending Mr. Obama’s policies as “legal,” “ethical,” and “wise.”

Which leads me to two conclusions. The first is that it’s not always easy to navigate the murky waters of law, morality, and war and terrorism, at least when you’re in the White House and have an obligation to protect the country from massive harm. (After they were revealed, I had several long conversations with White House colleagues trying to sort through the morality of waterboarding and indefinite detention.) 

The second is that it is true that there is a serious argument to be made that during wartime targeting terrorists, including Americans, with drones is justified. But that justification probably best not come from someone who has spent much of the last half-dozen years or so sermonizing against waterboarding, accusing those who approved such policies of trashing American ideals and shredding our civil liberties, and portraying himself as pure as the new-driven snow. Because any person who did so would be vulnerable to the charge of moral preening and moral hypocrisy.

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Will Human Rights Activists Make War More Deadly?

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has announced an inquiry into the use of drones in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and the Palestinian Territories, and whether drones violate international law. The inquiry comes at the request of Russia, China, and Pakistan, a triad of countries not known for their concern about human rights. That Syria is not also a co-sponsor is probably an oversight on the part of the UN.

Human rights lawyers are notoriously myopic, but this might take the prize. States have made drones a key tool in the fight against terror for one major reason: Drones can access areas inaccessible by ground troops and attack targets with precision. Absent the use of drones, the other option available to states challenged with terrorists operating from hostile or ungoverned territories is to mount an expedition. It is the difference between conducting surgery with a scalpel versus an axe.

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The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has announced an inquiry into the use of drones in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and the Palestinian Territories, and whether drones violate international law. The inquiry comes at the request of Russia, China, and Pakistan, a triad of countries not known for their concern about human rights. That Syria is not also a co-sponsor is probably an oversight on the part of the UN.

Human rights lawyers are notoriously myopic, but this might take the prize. States have made drones a key tool in the fight against terror for one major reason: Drones can access areas inaccessible by ground troops and attack targets with precision. Absent the use of drones, the other option available to states challenged with terrorists operating from hostile or ungoverned territories is to mount an expedition. It is the difference between conducting surgery with a scalpel versus an axe.

Human rights activists increasingly obsess about proportionality. Somehow, they believe that if terrorists or rogue groups have limited weaponry–rockets, mortars, and plastic explosives, for example–it is wrong to attack them with drones, F-18s, or JDAMs. This is nonsense, for the underlying implication is either that those conducting counter-terror operations must use substandard weaponry or that terrorists like Hamas, the Haqqani Network, and Al Qaeda should have access to F-18s and JDAMs as well. In effect, what humanitarian activists want to do is outlaw at least one aspect of the Powell Doctrine: The idea that if the United States is challenged, it should use overwhelming force against its enemy.

I’ve never been opposed to targeted assassination. In 2006, I wrote a lengthy piece for National Review arguing for more targeted killings, especially when their use can save civilian lives. (It is ironic that criticism of the piece among the left stopped when President Obama came to office and made drones his signature counter-terror tool; it seems among many progressive websites, politics trumps principle.)

This does not mean to say that the tactic cannot be over-used: Over-reliance on drones along the Af/Pak border has pushed Al Qaeda elements not into caves, but into the Punjab’s dense urban jungle, a phenomenon which promises to plague international security for decades. Still, the desire to slowly ban military tools in an undeclared war against war itself risks a blowback that few human rights activists fully understand. The best defense against civilian casualties is not for the United Nations to launch politicized crusades against those engaged in the defense of democracies against terrorists, but rather to take a no-nonsense approach to terrorists and their sponsors.

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Enhanced Interrogation Record No Longer a Problem for Brennan

Back in 2008, John Brennan was passed over for the CIA director role largely because of his record on enhanced interrogation. After his nomination to the post yesterday, the anti-war movement is trying to make it an issue again. The ACLU has released a statement calling on the Senate to delay his confirmation and investigate his involvement with the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation techniques:

President Obama this afternoon nominated his counterterrorism advisor John Brennan to become the next director of the CIA. Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, had the following concerns with the president’s choice to fill this critical national security post.  

Despite media reports that Brennan continually raised civil liberties concerns within the White House, noted Murphy, the Senate should not move forward with his nomination until it assesses the legality of his actions in past leadership positions in the CIA during the early years of the George W. Bush administration and in his current role in the ongoing targeted killing program.

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Back in 2008, John Brennan was passed over for the CIA director role largely because of his record on enhanced interrogation. After his nomination to the post yesterday, the anti-war movement is trying to make it an issue again. The ACLU has released a statement calling on the Senate to delay his confirmation and investigate his involvement with the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation techniques:

President Obama this afternoon nominated his counterterrorism advisor John Brennan to become the next director of the CIA. Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, had the following concerns with the president’s choice to fill this critical national security post.  

Despite media reports that Brennan continually raised civil liberties concerns within the White House, noted Murphy, the Senate should not move forward with his nomination until it assesses the legality of his actions in past leadership positions in the CIA during the early years of the George W. Bush administration and in his current role in the ongoing targeted killing program.

But the Senate doesn’t really seem interested. While John McCain is raising some questions, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein–a vocal opponent of Bush’s EIT policies–indicated she’s not going to put up much of a fight

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he has “many questions and concerns” about Brennan’s role in overseeing the interrogation programs, “as well as his public defense of those programs.” 

“I plan to examine this aspect of Mr. Brennan’s record very closely as I consider his nomination,” said McCain in a statement Monday.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee that will weigh the nomination, said Brennan has the “qualifications and expertise” to be CIA director. 

But Feinstein also said she would bring up the committee’s recent review of the Bush-era interrogation techniques and ask Brennan “how he would respond to the [review's] findings and conclusions.” 

To be fair, the opposition to Brennan on these grounds seems overblown. While he hasn’t explicitly defended enhanced interrogation techniques, he has acknowledged they worked and saved lives. Some anti-war leftists might claim that makes him a supporter. But it’s also possible to believe there is a moral or legal case against the Bush administration’s methods, and still admit they were effective. The same case could be made about Obama’s rendition policies the anti-war left opposes, and the drone program he accelerated. 

Four years ago, Brennan’s alleged support for enhanced interrogation was enough to torpedo his potential CIA director nomination. Now even Glenn Greenwald concedes he “can’t quite muster the energy or commitment” to actively oppose his nomination. That dramatic shift is why Brennan’s record on EITs won’t be an obstacle for him in the Senate. The Democratic Party’s civil libertarian streak on national security during the Bush administration was nothing more than partisanship masquerading as principles.

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What’s the Alternative to Drones?

Is “America’s Drone War Out of Control”? That is the provocative headline—minus the question mark—of Gideon Rachman’s Financial Times column. He is not alone in attacking the policy of using drone strikes against terrorist targets abroad—a policy initiated by the Bush administration and greatly expanded under President Obama. Such strikes are coming in for increasing criticism for supposedly being just as lawless as “renditions,” detentions without trial, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” warrantless wiretapping and all the other features of the war on terrorism to which civil libertarians object. One suspects that the criticism, now a mild buzz, would reach a crescendo if a Republican were in the White House: Obama’s policies are harder to criticize for the left than those of a President McCain or Romney.

It is perhaps just as well to have a more open debate about what has so far been a relatively covert policy, which has extended from the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan to other lands, from Pakistan to Yemen, where U.S. ground troops are not committed. Critics of drone strikes do, in fairness, make some legitimate points about what criteria are used to designate targets and how, in the absence of judicial review, we can achieve accountability for mistakes. There is also legitimate fear that by creating collateral damage such strikes may create more enemies than they eliminate and, less persuasively, that such strikes could create a precedent for authoritarian regimes to follow suit. (Do countries like Russia and Iran really need American inspiration to target their perceived enemies abroad?)

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Is “America’s Drone War Out of Control”? That is the provocative headline—minus the question mark—of Gideon Rachman’s Financial Times column. He is not alone in attacking the policy of using drone strikes against terrorist targets abroad—a policy initiated by the Bush administration and greatly expanded under President Obama. Such strikes are coming in for increasing criticism for supposedly being just as lawless as “renditions,” detentions without trial, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” warrantless wiretapping and all the other features of the war on terrorism to which civil libertarians object. One suspects that the criticism, now a mild buzz, would reach a crescendo if a Republican were in the White House: Obama’s policies are harder to criticize for the left than those of a President McCain or Romney.

It is perhaps just as well to have a more open debate about what has so far been a relatively covert policy, which has extended from the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan to other lands, from Pakistan to Yemen, where U.S. ground troops are not committed. Critics of drone strikes do, in fairness, make some legitimate points about what criteria are used to designate targets and how, in the absence of judicial review, we can achieve accountability for mistakes. There is also legitimate fear that by creating collateral damage such strikes may create more enemies than they eliminate and, less persuasively, that such strikes could create a precedent for authoritarian regimes to follow suit. (Do countries like Russia and Iran really need American inspiration to target their perceived enemies abroad?)

But what critics do not have is a compelling alternative to offer. Should we simply stop all drone strikes and declare that our response to terrorism will be limited to trying to arrest and extradite suspects?

Not even Rachman goes that far. At the end of raising lots of objections to the drones he offers a meek proposal that drones should “be reclaimed from the realm of covert warfare” and should instead be employed “by the military and openly scrutinized by politicians and press.” This rather ignores the reality that the segment of the U.S. military most likely to take control of drone strikes is the Joint Special Operations Command, whose operations are super-secret and hardly “scrutinized by politicians and press”—unless they have either a monumental success or screw-up.

No doubt there are more extreme drone opponents who would be willing to simply stop all such strikes. How, then, do they suggest that we deal with the threat of terrorism emanating from countries such as Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia, where it is simply not practical to send FBI agents to arrest terrorist suspects? Indeed, we are facing this very quandary today in Libya, where the administration is relying on the FBI to identify suspects in the Benghazi consulate attack—so far with no luck. Remember: the whole reason why the drone strikes started in the first place is because fighting terrorism through domestic law enforcement was tried before 9/11 and found badly wanting.

I have my own problem with drone strikes—I don’t think they are the complete answer to terrorism. They are, in fact, only part of what should be a broader counterinsurgency and state-building strategy in at-risk countries. Unfortunately, we have failed to develop such a comprehensive approach and instead rely too heavily on targeted drone strikes. The answer, however, is not to end the drone strikes. They remain our best instrument for disrupting terrorist plots that, if successful, might well force the U.S. to put large numbers of ground troops in harm’s way. The answer is to maintain the drone strikes while building up our softer instruments of suasion so as to help defeat Islamist extremists.

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Obama WH: No One but Obama Can Be Trusted with Such Power

President Obama begins his transition period to a second term by receiving some adorable but thoughtless advice from the New York Times editorial board: “Close Guantanamo Prison,” the editors declare. The advice is adorable because it seems frozen in time four years ago, when it was slightly conceivable that Obama would do anything other than concretize and expand executive power and privilege he railed against when it was in the hands of his predecessor. It is thoughtless because Obama doesn’t need Gitmo: rather than send prisoners to Gitmo, where they receive three squares a day (and reportedly get to keep pets), he is sending them to a Somali hell on earth, where skin disease runs rampant in the overcrowded, sun-scorched cells.

The editorial also suggests he veto the National Defense Authorization Act. Readers might recall that the NDAA, which Obama signed in late 2011, was the moment civil libertarians fully understood that Obama would, contrary to his campaign promises, spend his time in office accruing as much power as he could. The ACLU, with a heavy heart and the scales fallen from their eyes, released a statement: “President Obama’s action today is a blight on his legacy because he will forever be known as the president who signed indefinite detention without charge or trial into law,” pronounced ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. “The statute is particularly dangerous because it has no temporal or geographic limitations, and can be used by this and future presidents to militarily detain people captured far from any battlefield.”

But of course by that time, Obama had ordered military action against Libya without bothering to go to Congress about it and rested his national security strategy on its most secretive element: the drone war. The use of drones to target anyone the Obama administration decides poses a threat has been effective, though it comes at the cost of the deaths of civilians the administration considers collateral damage. And it is in this aspect of Obama’s national security policy that he appears to believe that what he is doing is problematic but doesn’t particularly care. The New York Times reports on a cartoonishly cynical approach to targeted assassination coming from the White House:

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President Obama begins his transition period to a second term by receiving some adorable but thoughtless advice from the New York Times editorial board: “Close Guantanamo Prison,” the editors declare. The advice is adorable because it seems frozen in time four years ago, when it was slightly conceivable that Obama would do anything other than concretize and expand executive power and privilege he railed against when it was in the hands of his predecessor. It is thoughtless because Obama doesn’t need Gitmo: rather than send prisoners to Gitmo, where they receive three squares a day (and reportedly get to keep pets), he is sending them to a Somali hell on earth, where skin disease runs rampant in the overcrowded, sun-scorched cells.

The editorial also suggests he veto the National Defense Authorization Act. Readers might recall that the NDAA, which Obama signed in late 2011, was the moment civil libertarians fully understood that Obama would, contrary to his campaign promises, spend his time in office accruing as much power as he could. The ACLU, with a heavy heart and the scales fallen from their eyes, released a statement: “President Obama’s action today is a blight on his legacy because he will forever be known as the president who signed indefinite detention without charge or trial into law,” pronounced ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. “The statute is particularly dangerous because it has no temporal or geographic limitations, and can be used by this and future presidents to militarily detain people captured far from any battlefield.”

But of course by that time, Obama had ordered military action against Libya without bothering to go to Congress about it and rested his national security strategy on its most secretive element: the drone war. The use of drones to target anyone the Obama administration decides poses a threat has been effective, though it comes at the cost of the deaths of civilians the administration considers collateral damage. And it is in this aspect of Obama’s national security policy that he appears to believe that what he is doing is problematic but doesn’t particularly care. The New York Times reports on a cartoonishly cynical approach to targeted assassination coming from the White House:

The attempt to write a formal rule book for targeted killing began last summer after news reports on the drone program, started under President George W. Bush and expanded by Mr. Obama, revealed some details of the president’s role in the shifting procedures for compiling “kill lists” and approving strikes. Though national security officials insist that the process is meticulous and lawful, the president and top aides believe it should be institutionalized, a course of action that seemed particularly urgent when it appeared that Mitt Romney might win the presidency.

“There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. With a continuing debate about the proper limits of drone strikes, Mr. Obama did not want to leave an “amorphous” program to his successor, the official said. The effort, which would have been rushed to completion by January had Mr. Romney won, will now be finished at a more leisurely pace, the official said.

Obama wants to curtail the power he has accumulated for future presidents, believing as he does in accountability for everyone but him. When it looked like Romney might win the election, the White House feverishly undertook efforts to constrain his power. Now that Obama gets four more years, that effort “will now be finished at a more leisurely pace”–a phrase one hopes was typed out with a modicum of shame.

Will there be a liberal outcry? No, there won’t. What differentiates the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era and the left-wing Democrats of today is that the former believed what they said. Today’s left is an operational arm of the Democratic Party, and thus opposition to national security projects like Somali hell-prisons or drone warfare is simply a matter of partisan politics.

None of this is to suggest that what Obama is doing is unlawful–indeed, I highly doubt he is operating without legal advice and input every step of the way. But let’s remember that George W. Bush did as well, and this did nothing to quell his critics. Additionally, just because a program is secret doesn’t mean it’s nefarious; our national security depends on a great many classified and secret programs. Furthermore, Obama may be making the best of a difficult choice: drone warfare is quite probably a better option than either sending more troops into more countries or allowing a lapse in the vigilant defense of the homeland.

It’s just worth noting that Obama has made it fairly clear that he would be uncomfortable with this power in anyone’s hands but his own, yet continues wielding it. And it’s also worth noting that he will do so without any major challenge from his base.

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Will Enemy Drones Cause the Next 9/11?

American counterterrorism strategy is too often geared to preventing the last terrorist attack. Terrorists and their sponsors are creative, however. They will not pursue a strategy against which they know the United States is well prepared to defend itself but will instead look to maintain surprise. Eleven years ago, it was using airplanes for suicide attacks. In intervening years, it has been using liquid to construct explosives in flight, or concealing bombs in underwear. Counterterror specialists already worry about the possibility that Al Qaeda doctors could surgically implant bombs in terrorists. Other specialists worry that ship-borne cargo could harbor nuclear or chemical weapons.

The United States is not preparing, however, for a new threat which is, literally, over-the-horizon. Drones have become the counterterror tool of choice for the Obama administration, with devastating effect. But the days when the United States monopolizes drones have already come to an end. China and Russia have built drones, and Pakistan is exploring the technology. Using technology provided by the Obama administration, Turkey is building its own drones and preparing to sell them without regard to U.S. national security interests. After all, Turkey’s prime minister even considers Hamas a viable partner. Iran already has constructed and put into operation a robust drone fleet, perhaps enhanced with technology derived from the U.S. drone lost over its territory. Iran is helping Venezuela build its own drones. While the nightmare scenario for the counterterror community is Iran or other states providing terror groups with unconventional weapons, the likelihood that they might provide drones is greater.

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American counterterrorism strategy is too often geared to preventing the last terrorist attack. Terrorists and their sponsors are creative, however. They will not pursue a strategy against which they know the United States is well prepared to defend itself but will instead look to maintain surprise. Eleven years ago, it was using airplanes for suicide attacks. In intervening years, it has been using liquid to construct explosives in flight, or concealing bombs in underwear. Counterterror specialists already worry about the possibility that Al Qaeda doctors could surgically implant bombs in terrorists. Other specialists worry that ship-borne cargo could harbor nuclear or chemical weapons.

The United States is not preparing, however, for a new threat which is, literally, over-the-horizon. Drones have become the counterterror tool of choice for the Obama administration, with devastating effect. But the days when the United States monopolizes drones have already come to an end. China and Russia have built drones, and Pakistan is exploring the technology. Using technology provided by the Obama administration, Turkey is building its own drones and preparing to sell them without regard to U.S. national security interests. After all, Turkey’s prime minister even considers Hamas a viable partner. Iran already has constructed and put into operation a robust drone fleet, perhaps enhanced with technology derived from the U.S. drone lost over its territory. Iran is helping Venezuela build its own drones. While the nightmare scenario for the counterterror community is Iran or other states providing terror groups with unconventional weapons, the likelihood that they might provide drones is greater.

Enemies can launch drones from across America’s borders, or from cargo ships sailing just outside American territorial waters. The drones can carry payloads of increasing lethality, or can simply be deployed into the paths of civilian air traffic.

The next 9/11 could be around the corner. Let’s hope that the Obama administration or its successor will not approach the problem with eyes wide shut. Not every threat can be mitigated by removing shoes or testing colas bought in airports.

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Unleash Drones Against Our Enemies

Congratulations are due to the CIA, which carried out the strike, and to President Obama, who ordered it (and approved the target personally, as the New York Times has revealed) for the elimination of a major enemy of the United States–Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s No. 2 commander. Like many of al-Qaeda’s operatives, Libi was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan. He was the effective, day-to-day field commander of al-Qaeda, and his death will no doubt cause serious disruption to whatever operations al-Qaeda Central is involved in. The importance of his elimination is somewhat decreased, however, by the fact that so many of the terrorist organization’s operations have migrated outside of Pakistan, to regional affiliates from Mali to Yemen; Libi’s death probably will not have much impact on their operations.

This highlights the declining utility of targeting al-Qaeda Central: the organization has already been severely hurt by the continuous elimination of its top cadres. Such operations must be maintained to keep the pressure on, but they can no longer be the exclusive focus of counter-terrorism operations. It is good to see the drone campaign being ramped up in Yemen, but there are limits to what strikes from the air can achieve. There is a desperate need to expand lawful authority in such ungoverned areas to keep groups such as al-Qaeda from regenerating themselves. If the U.S. government has a plan to accomplish that in Pakistan, Yemen or other countries, from Mali to Libya, I have not heard of it.

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Congratulations are due to the CIA, which carried out the strike, and to President Obama, who ordered it (and approved the target personally, as the New York Times has revealed) for the elimination of a major enemy of the United States–Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s No. 2 commander. Like many of al-Qaeda’s operatives, Libi was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan. He was the effective, day-to-day field commander of al-Qaeda, and his death will no doubt cause serious disruption to whatever operations al-Qaeda Central is involved in. The importance of his elimination is somewhat decreased, however, by the fact that so many of the terrorist organization’s operations have migrated outside of Pakistan, to regional affiliates from Mali to Yemen; Libi’s death probably will not have much impact on their operations.

This highlights the declining utility of targeting al-Qaeda Central: the organization has already been severely hurt by the continuous elimination of its top cadres. Such operations must be maintained to keep the pressure on, but they can no longer be the exclusive focus of counter-terrorism operations. It is good to see the drone campaign being ramped up in Yemen, but there are limits to what strikes from the air can achieve. There is a desperate need to expand lawful authority in such ungoverned areas to keep groups such as al-Qaeda from regenerating themselves. If the U.S. government has a plan to accomplish that in Pakistan, Yemen or other countries, from Mali to Libya, I have not heard of it.

Admittedly, it would not be easy to design or implement such a strategy. Much easier, however, would be to expand the drone strikes to a group that has been curiously exempt from such attacks: namely the Taliban. There have been a few drone strikes on the Haqqani Network in and around Waziristan, Pakistan, but none, so far as I am aware, on the Taliban leadership headquartered in Quetta, Pakistan–nor on the operational Taliban hub at Chaman, Pakistan, just across the border from southern Afghanistan. These groups are actively killing Americans all the time–more than al-Qaeda Central can boast of these days. Yet we have not unleashed the CIA and Special Operations Forces to do to them what they have done to al-Qaeda. Why not? Largely because of the sensitivities of the Pakistani government which is an active sponsor of the Taliban and the Haqqanis.

But so what? The Pakistanis have declining leverage over us; they have kept their supply line to Afghanistan closed since last fall and it has not seriously disrupted NATO operations. The administration needs to figure out whether it’s serious about leaving a more stable Afghanistan behind when the bulk of U.S. troops are withdrawn. If it is, it will unleash the Reapers against the Taliban and Haqqanis–not just against al-Qaeda.

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The UN Wants its Own Drones?

A friend on the Hill alerted me to this story which should raise red flags for any number of reasons:

The United Nations is weighing the possibility of using unmanned airplanes (drones) in intelligence operations and to searching for information… The issue was submitted to a committee of the UN General Assembly by the peacekeeping operations department, according to the organization’s official joint spokesman, Eduardo del Buey. Del Buey said that the United Nations is analyzing the potential use of that technology, including the support that the organization needs from the member countries if its use were recommended. The unarmed drones would be used for surveillance operations and to gather information, said the spokesman, adding that no conclusions or recommendations have been made on the matter.

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A friend on the Hill alerted me to this story which should raise red flags for any number of reasons:

The United Nations is weighing the possibility of using unmanned airplanes (drones) in intelligence operations and to searching for information… The issue was submitted to a committee of the UN General Assembly by the peacekeeping operations department, according to the organization’s official joint spokesman, Eduardo del Buey. Del Buey said that the United Nations is analyzing the potential use of that technology, including the support that the organization needs from the member countries if its use were recommended. The unarmed drones would be used for surveillance operations and to gather information, said the spokesman, adding that no conclusions or recommendations have been made on the matter.

The Obama administration unwisely puts the UN on a pedestal on a number of issues, but hopefully will quash any request that the United States share its drones with UN peacekeepers. Putting aside the question of what mandate or authority the UN has to conduct intelligence work in the first place, any UN drone capability—even in the name of peacekeeping—could greatly undermine U.S. national security. Even innocuous missions like the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire include personnel from countries such as China, Russia, and Pakistan, each of which would like to get their hands on the latest American technology.

Providing autonomous surveillance capabilities can provoke conflict rather than prevent it. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has been, for nearly 35 years, an unmitigated disaster. As Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, the Israeli army handed its positions over to UNIFIL to transfer to the Lebanese army. UNIFIL chose instead to provide the posts to Hezbollah. Then, less than five months later, Hezbollah guerrillas—dressed in UNIFIL regalia—kidnapped three Israelis from the Israeli side of the border. UNIFIL personnel were conducting surveillance at the time. They videotaped Hezbollah operatives dressed in UNIFIL uniforms and driving vehicles with UNIFIL markings but, for nine months, refused to acknowledge a video that could have provided the information necessary to identify the perpetrators and rescue the Israelis. Only after the outcry grew too loud to ignore did UN Secretary General Kofi Annan order an investigation. The results were damning.

Too many UN personnel are corrupt, venial, and untrustworthy. To offer them independent surveillance capability when they have so often abused their positions would be unwise and a danger to American national security. Alas, that makes the possibility that Obama would oblige even greater.

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