If Christmas Day airline bomber Umar Abdulmutallab had been identified by Special Forces in Yemen, rather than being detained in Detroit, he could well have been summarily killed in a drone strike instead of being read his rights. Such are the features of the Obama approach to the war on terror.
The AP has a story today outlining something that has been apparent for months: that President Obama is relying to a much greater degree than Bush did on standoff drone attacks against terrorists in Asia and the Middle East. The AP piece presents this as a fresh, successful strategy, one applauded by Pakistani officials and made possible by the drawdown in Iraq, which is freeing up drones and intelligence assets for use elsewhere. In the AP analysis, moreover, Obama’s choice to leave behind terms such as “radical Islam” and “Islamo-fascism” is amplifying his effectiveness by abetting a policy of reaching out to Islamic allies.
This is one way of looking at it – but it’s a narrative that omits important context. Obama’s strategy isn’t a matter of increasing our reliance on drone strikes while at the same time maintaining the politically comprehensive Bush approach to combating Islamist terrorism. It involves instead shifting our approach away from Bush’s indispensable political element – fostering liberalization, consensual government, and civil security in the Islamic world – toward an emphasis on simply killing individual terrorists. But Obama has also adopted this strategy in the context of a kid-gloves policy toward foreign terrorists who happen to fall, still alive, into the clutches of the U.S. justice system.
We might certainly call the latter factor an ethical paradox, or perhaps simply a double standard. In neither guise does the Obama policy come off as principled from any universalist ethical sense. A policy of what amounts to assassination overseas, coupled with legalist zealotry for the rights of the accused at home, can’t help looking like a cynical combination tinged with domestic-constituency tending and rank hypocrisy.
Terrible things are done in war, of course; and the terrorists being targeted in standoff attacks are known to be ringleaders, most with ghastly bombings on their rap sheets. But the “big picture” justification for this tactic, the mitigating strategic objective of promoting a “better peace” in the Islamic societies, is something Obama has been at pains to shed. This policy trend must at some point call into question the purpose of our campaign of force. I’ve written here and here about Obama’s turn away from the core Bush tenet of fighting terrorism by means of promoting civil outcomes abroad. Whether by excising the promotion of freedom and democracy from our national objectives, or by envisioning for Afghanistan a “less-capable national government and a greater tolerance of insurgent violence” than in Iraq, the Obama administration has backed off significantly from Bush’s policy of shaping conditions for the better overseas.
It bears repeating that Bush chose to go all-in on that policy – with the surge decision in late 2006 – because the lighter-footprint approach favored by Donald Rumsfeld wasn’t working. There is a real risk with the light-footprint strategy that using head-hunting tactics against terrorists will begin to look more and more like taking the worst kind of law-enforcement approach: one that dispenses with the inconvenient constraints of law. Indeed, a diligent UN official has already made this point about our drone strike campaign.
Minimizing our own “skin in the game” may seem like a prudent policy in the short run. But it will not be to our advantage over the long run if Afghans, Pakistanis, or Yemenis come to see us as having arrived not to foster a better future for them, but rather to use their territory as a sniper perch.