Columns » Gene Lyons

Obama's realpolitik drone strategy



There's a definite Catch-22 aspect to the presidency. Anybody crazy enough to want the job probably shouldn't be allowed to have it. That said, anybody who thought Barack Obama was going to deal with terrorists by sending flowers and proposing group therapy is certainly naive enough to work for the Nobel Peace Prize committee.

Sweet reason never works with religious fanatics. When candidate Obama criticized the Bush administration's "false choice between our safety and our ideals" in 2008, he was mainly talking about torture and Guantanamo. The notorious concentration camp remains open because President Obama ducked a confrontation with congressional Republicans determined to portray him as soft on terror.

Easy on al Qaeda, however, this president is not. See, it turns out that there's a paradoxical aspect to disengaging from Iraq and Afghanistan too. A recent front page story in The New York Times about Obama's personally selecting targets for drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan puts it this way: "war is a messy business, and his actions show that pursuing an enemy unbound by rules has required moral, legal and practical trade-offs that his speeches did not envision."

Maybe not. But then with the famous exception of Winston Churchill on warning Britain on the eve of Dunkirk that he had "nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat," politicians' speeches almost never do.

Based upon interviews with three dozen current and former White House aides, The Times depicts the president as a cool realist who "approves lethal action without hand-wringing," using his "lawyering skills ... to enable, not constrain, his ferocious campaign against Al Qaeda — even when it comes to killing an American cleric [Anwar al-Awlaki] in Yemen, a decision that Mr. Obama told colleagues was 'an easy one.' "

Obama appears to have concluded what any bloody-minded pragmatist would: That a second mass casualty terrorist strike against the U.S. would not only lead to innocent deaths, but change the nation's politics profoundly. Think how 9/11 sent the Bush administration blundering into Iraq. A third strike, and we'd find ourselves living on a different planet — terrorism's goal.

Thus, "surgical" drone attacks, eviscerating al Qaeda's leadership even as ground troops exit Muslim countries. Aides helpfully told The Times that as a student of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Obama believes it's his duty to assume direct personal responsibility — moral, military and political.

Ancient theologians aside, the article itself, which couldn't have been written without White House cooperation, definitely shows the president's laid it all on the line.

The feebleness of his critics makes that doubly clear. Sen. John McCain complains that the purpose of White House leaks is to "enhance President Obama's image as a tough guy for the elections."

Um, yes. And your point, senator?

The libertarian left, in the person of Salon's influential Glenn Greenwald, objects to "access journalism" in which reporters help "government officials to propagandize the citizenry ... from behind the protective shield of anonymity."

Anonymity? Having broken my own pick with the New York Times over its disgraceful Whitewater and Iraq coverage, I nevertheless counted 14 high-ranking named sources in the article in question. They included John Brennan, the 25-year CIA veteran who's Obama's go-to guy on al Qaeda.

"The purpose of these actions is to mitigate threats to U.S. persons' lives," Brennan said. "It is the option of last recourse. So the president, and I think all of us here, don't like the fact that people have to die. And so he wants to make sure that we go through a rigorous checklist: The infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things."

Writing in The Guardian, Greenwald accuses The Times of omitting "any discussion of many of the most controversial aspects of Obama's policies ... the number of civilian deaths caused by Obama's drone strikes, and the way those drone attacks have strengthened al-Qaida by increasing anti-American hatred."

Troubling, if true. Alas, none of these allegations survives even a cursory reading of Jo Becker and Scott Shane's 6,000-word epic. The authors quote Cameron P. Munter, Obama's ambassador to Pakistan, complaining "he didn't realize his main job was to kill people."

"Drones," they write, "have replaced Guantanamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants; in his 2010 guilty plea, Faisal Shahzad, who had tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square, justified targeting civilians by telling the judge, 'When the drones hit, they don't see children.' "

As even Greenwald concedes, sources are quoted bitterly criticizing the tendency to declare all military-aged men in the "strike zone" terrorists, although one anonymous source provides context: "Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don't hitch-hike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs."

Longer term, Obama's actions could obviously cause unintended bad consequences. Right now, however, real-world alternatives seem in perishingly short supply.

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