Washington, DC – “Don’t believe what you read in the papers,” my father used to say. And as with most of the sage advice I ignored in my youth, experience would later prove him to be right. It eventually occurred to me when in government that if on topics I knew as an insider the press was at least half wrong, it was unlikely that they could be right on everything else.
And so it is with some scepticism that one should greet the latest journalistic sensation which has set tongues wagging and the blogosphere ablaze in Washington: Last Tuesday’s blockbuster article in the New York Times concerning drone operations and US President Barak Obama’s counterterrorism “kill list”. The piece is putatively based on interviews with some three dozen current or former Obama administration advisers. As at least one wag has pointed out, an article featuring that degree of willing cooperation from the administration might more accurately be labelled a press release. Indeed, as one might expect given the context, the take-away is highly complimentary of the President and, presumably, highly advantageous to him politically, save perhaps among the sort of left-leaning hand-wringers with whom Obama’s Republican political opponents would love to see him identified.
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Here in the pages of the New York Times we see the stern, steely-eyed American president, prepared to do what is necessary to defend the nation against its terrorist enemies, dealing death from the air at a pace which would put George W Bush to shame, first in Pakistan and now in Yemen, as well. But here also we see a model of benign, humanitarian restraint, determined to limit civilian casualties to the maximum extent possible by imposing his personal discipline on an otherwise rampant national security structure. And finally we see the lawyerly paragon of justice who, as advised by his warrior-priest counterterrorism advisor, insists upon taking personal moral responsibility for the targeted assassinations through which the US war on terror is, in important part, being waged. Not content to delegate to others the ultimate decisions of life and death, this president insists upon personal approval of every addition to the death roster after an elaborate bureaucratic process through which, putatively, only those targets which pose an imminent threat and who are not otherwise susceptible of capture are winnowed out. And when judgments must be made as to whether a target poses a sufficient threat to justify the collateral killing of innocents, it is the president himself who weighs the scales.
Creating an image
In US political terms, the broad outline of this profile as traced by the president’s minions past and present could hardly be more laudatory, appealing to as broad a spectrum of domestic opinion as any highly political chief executive could hope. This should make us wary – wary enough to look at the details. And given the impossibility of controlling an aggregate message to which dozens have contributed, there are details indeed, many of which do not accord with the broad themes the White House is promoting.
One can start with the White House’s insistent profession that it employs this brand of violence with such limited firepower, such precision and such restraint as to have avoided “collateral” killing to an almost preternatural extent. Honestly, what are we to make of this? This narrative hardly accords with the oft-reported fact of “signature strikes” in Pakistan, in which the identities of the intended targets are simply not known. The fact is that in Pakistan the US has gone far beyond a limited campaign against international terrorists, and appears instead to have embraced the drone strike as a counter-insurgency tool, employed regularly against militant gatherings which appear to represent a threat to allied troops in Afghanistan. And as for the supposedly carefully drawn distinction between combatants and non-combatants, the New York Times reports that this has simply become a matter of definitition: Now, any male of fighting age in the militant-influenced tribal areas of Pakistan is deemed an enemy – which, given prevailing popular sentiments in those areas, may not be far from the truth. We have come to a place where the distinctions among terrorists, militants, and mere sympathisers have largely lost their meaning, and where the differences between intended and unintended consequences of US actions have simply ceased to matter.
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Perhaps all of this was inevitable. But as a description of messy reality, it hardly accords with the almost antiseptically clean moral image which the Nobel Peace Prize-winning occupant of the Oval Office wishes to convey to his more left-leaning constituency in the US.
Unsurprisingly, then, this week has also brought us yet more press evidence that the US has put itself on a similarly slippery slope in Yemen. Strikes against individuals who pose a clear and present danger of international terrorism have inflamed local sympathisers of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to join them, which in turn has led to many more, and more broadly-targeted strikes. Now we see journalists, perhaps reflecting a similar inability in the US national security establishment to make important practical distinctions, referring to the domestic militants of the heretofore parochial Yemeni organisation Ansar al-Sharia as a wing of al-Qaeda. More significantly, popular anger over innocent casualties is rapidly eroding the willingness of anti-militant tribal forces to take actions against al-Qaeda-supporting local militants which they would otherwise be motivated to take. Just as we have seen elsewhere, American short-term counterterrorism goals are working against, and permanently undermining, the far more important goal of denying safe haven to the terrorist.
To describe the problem is not at all the same as prescribing the solution. But as last Tuesday’s New York Times article also makes clear, political considerations in the US will continue to make it impossible for US policymakers to take the risks which a wiser and more discriminating approach to counterterrorism would demand, in Pakistan, in Yemen, and elsewhere. The nearly successful effort to bring down a US airliner landing in Detroit on Christmas Day of 2009, we are told, had a visceral effect on President Obama. Under circumstances where that sort of risk is not an option, a slide down a slippery slope instead becomes a race to the bottom of lowest-common-denominator counterterrorism policy.
It has been said that the Roman Empire was forced to conquer the known world in self-defence. America’s counterterrorism policy has placed it on an analogous path. In the face of such domestic political fear, there is simply no countervailing power to stop it.
Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004 to 2006.