Obama’s overdue step on drones
President Obama’s decision to restrict drone strikes and again try to close the Guantanamo Bay prison are overdue steps in the right direction. Myself and many other analysts have called for these very measures over the last year.
Obama must actually follow through on implementation of his proposals, including pressuring Congress to close Guantanamo. And he should fully enact changes that can be carried out by the executive branch, such as handing over responsibility for drones strikes to the U.S. military and making them fully public.
As already occurs in American air strikes in Afghanistan, the military should fully investigate claims of civilian deaths and pay compensation where innocents are killed. The current practice of keeping CIA drone strikes secret allows militants to exaggerate the number of civilians who die. Drone strikes do kill senior militants at times, but using them excessively and keeping them secret sows anti-Americanism that jihadists use as a recruiting tool.
The immediate criticism of Obama’s proposal from the right was both predictable and political. Any terrorist attack that occurs in the future, conservatives will argue, will be cited as proof that Obama and Democrats in general are not tough enough on terror.
“The president’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory,” said Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. “Rather than continuing successful counter-terrorism activities, we are changing course with no clear operational benefit.”
Chambliss is wrong and his comments reflect a core misunderstanding of the struggle against militancy. A terrorism threat definitely does exist. And as Obama said, the Unites States must aggressively dismantle networks that threaten the United States.
But we must also focus on how our methods are perceived among the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, not simply how they impact militants. Moderate Muslims oppose jihadists as well and embrace many of the same international norms as the United States – such as transparency, accountability and basic human rights.
Many Americans question whether moderate Muslims exist but today hundreds of thousands of police and soldiers across the Islamic world are fighting militants. They rarely appear in the western press but more Afghan soldiers and police have died fighting the Taliban than American soldiers. Predominantly Muslim government security forces are fighting militants in Yemen, Somalia and Mali as well.
The argument from conservatives that being imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay or being killed in a drone strike somehow deters terrorists is false. Jihadists are eager to die and suffer for their cause. If we wish to imprison suspected terrorists, we should try and jail them in military or civilian courts depending on the facts of their cases.
An amorphous and endless American “war on terror” plays into our enemy’s conspiracy theories. Washington wantonly kills innocent Muslims across the globe, jihadists argue. Carrying our secret drone strikes worldwide with no explanation bolsters their claim. Holding prisoners for twelve years in Guantanamo Bay without trial bolsters extremists’ argument that we honor basic rights for our own citizen but blithely ignore them for others.
As I’ve written before, we need to adopt a less military and more economic approach to countering militancy. And we need to revitalize the anemic civilian agencies that can carry out such efforts. Since 2001, the United States has spent $1.2 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan. Roughly 95 percent of that money went to the military effort. That balance must shift.
Obama’s speech was a step in that direction. He must now implement his promises. Dismantling networks that specifically target the United States, standing by our ideals and working with moderate Muslims is the most effective way to marginalize militants.
This post was updated and revised on Saturday, May 25th at 8:00pm. An earlier version incorrectly stated that Sen. Chambliss made his comments to The New York Times.
PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about his administration’s counterterrorism policy at the National Defense University at Ft. McNair in Washington, May 23, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing