A report two weeks ago on the effect of the Drone strikes in Pakistan has stimulated a range of quite fierce criticisms of Obama – criticisms that have appeared in publications other than the traditionally anti-war and anti-militarist progressive press.
An article in the New Republic summarized the study’s conclusions:
A new study released this week by researchers at Stanford and NYU has found that American drone strikes in Pakistan are killing far more civilians than advertised, taking out few high value targets, and have become the primary recruiting tool for the terrorist groups the policy is aimed at combating. The report, “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan,” is based on “more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting” conducted over nine months.
The article minces no words in criticizing Obama:
Indeed, Obama has shrewdly–some might say cynically–positioned himself to the right on foreign policy, thereby insulating himself from the “weak on defense” canard that has plagued his party going back to the days of George McGovern. He doubled down on Afghanistan, at the expense of more than a thousand dead American soldiers and marines, at a point when it was obvious the war was unwinnable on the timetable he set. He ignored the hectoring over damaged relations with Pakistan that would result from the bin Laden raid, betting that success would ensure his re-election. And his use of drone strikes makes George W. Bush look like a cautious man
This conclusion, however, is a model of restraint compared to a commentary by Conner Friedersdorf in the Atlantic:
Obama terrorizes innocent Pakistanis on an almost daily basis. The drone war he is waging in North Waziristan isn’t “precise” or “surgical” as he would have Americans believe. It kills hundreds of innocents, including children. And for thousands of more innocents who live in the targeted communities, the drone war makes their lives into a nightmare worthy of dystopian novels. People are always afraid. Women cower in their homes. Children are kept out of school. The stress they endure gives them psychiatric disorders. Men are driven crazy by an inability to sleep as drones buzz overhead 24 hours a day, a deadly strike possible at any moment.
At worst, this policy creates more terrorists than it kills; at best, America is ruining the lives of thousands of innocent people and killing hundreds of innocents for a small increase in safety from terrorists. It is a cowardly, immoral, and illegal policy, deliberately cloaked in opportunistic secrecy.
Writing in The American Prospect, Jamelle Bouie rejects Friedersdorf’s angry call for progressives to refuse to vote for Obama because of his policies but is pretty harsh himself on Obama failings:
Obama campaigned as someone who push back against the civil liberties abuses of the Bush era. As president, he has doubled-down on them. The drone war in Pakistan, expanded by the Obama administration, has claimed hundreds of innocent lives, and is conducted under a veil of secrecy. The “militants” targeted by the United States are often just military-aged men who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Obama’s kill list-his program of extrajudicial killings, directed at American citizens suspected of terrorism–is an affront to the values of the Constitution, and a huge blemish on his record.
It is easy to understand and in varying degrees to sympathize with many of the criticisms and the moral outrage expressed in these articles. From within the particular framework of facts and assumptions that they use, the moral conclusions follow logically.
But when one steps back for a moment and examines the arguments in these articles from a broader perspective, it quickly becomes clear that they leave out a great deal. In fact, in all three, the discussion ultimately seems be about some quite unfamiliar, alternative America.
Consider the fact that in all three of these articles – articles that are entirely concerned with military strategy and policy:
• The Pentagon is not mentioned once.
• The Joint Chiefs of Staff are not mentioned once.
• The Joint Special Operations Command is not mentioned once.
• General Petraeus and counterinsurgency doctrine are not mentioned once.
• The military and national security decision-making hierarchy in the Obama White House and the decision-making process they employ are not mentioned once.
In short, in these commentaries the discussion of Obama’s moral choices regarding the use of drones is conducted as if Obama lives in some alternative universe where the president sits behind his desk in the oval office, listens to briefings from his honest, loyal, hand-picked advisors and then issues inescapable and irrevocable orders and commands. In this alternative universe Obama has an absolutely unrestricted, indeed Olympian degree of power. He can therefore be validly held directly morally responsible for every single nuance of policy that emanates from his administration.
For anyone who has observed the evolution of military strategy and policy since the late 1990’s and the tremendous conflicts between the military establishment and the Obama presidency since his election, this image is – to be frank — so utterly detached from reality and indeed patently absurd that it essentially invalidates any conclusions that might be deduced on its basis. Whatever possible moral or political culpability Obama might hypothetically have for actions he might hypothetically take in some simple alternative universe, they are simply not relevant to the real choices he has faced and now faces in the real world of his administration.
To take a more realistic perspective it is necessary to look at the broader military and strategic context out of which the use of drone strikes emerged: