Obama presses ‘reset’ button for war on terrorPosted: 24/05/2013
In his national security speech on 23 May, President Obama may have focused on the specific issues of the Guantanamo detention centre and drone strikes, but he also used the speech to set out a new approach to national security and counter-terrorism that his administration has been working towards for the past four years.
This speech could mark the point at which the US government begins to shift away from a counter-terrorism approach that has become excessive and unsustainable, towards one that enables resources to be redirected towards more salient national-security issues. Obama noted that the United States could not remain at war forever and needed an exit strategy; the threat from terrorism was now from ‘lethal, yet less capable, al-Qaeda affiliates, threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad, homegrown extremists’.
A new drones policy
Part of this shift is a new policy for drone strikes. In his speech, Obama defended their utility, but announced new presidential guidance for their use, in which drone strikes would only be deployed against those who pose an imminent threat to the security of the United States, and would be subject to ‘clear guidelines, oversight and accountability’. Obama emphasised that Congress had been briefed on all such attacks conducted outside Iraq and Afghanistan, and said he was receptive to the possibility of a special court or independent oversight board to provide greater levels of assurance about the legitimacy of these activities. He did not mention the transfer of primary responsibility for drone attacks from the CIA to the US military, but there is an expectation that this is likely to happen in due course.
The Obama administration has been laying the groundwork for a change in drone policy for some time, despite the CIA’s objections. In January 2012, Obama acknowledged in an online discussion that drone attacks were taking place in the tribal areas of Pakistan. In May 2012, Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan – who made it clear that he was speaking with the president’s authorisation – publicly acknowledged that the US government used drone attacks to target al-Qaeda, and set out some of the legal, ethical and practical issues associated with these strikes. This occurred during a growing international concern not only about their legality, but questions about whether they were an appropriate method of combatting terrorism.
The legal dimension
Since 2002, drone strikes have played an ever larger role in US counter-terrorism efforts. To date, some 425 such attacks have resulted in 3,500 fatalities, an unknown percentage of which are acknowledged to be civilian casualties. These attacks have largely destroyed al-Qaeda’s senior ranks and substantially constrained its ability to plan and execute terrorist attacks against Western targets. The US’ legal justification for such attacks – that it is at war with a globally deployed transnational organisation which makes no secret of its intention to attack the US; that the US has the right to pre-emptive self-defence; and that the targets of US drone attacks are not justiciable – is broadly in accordance with international legal principles, although there are growing doubts about whether the threat from al-Qaeda is still sufficiently serious, and imminent, to justify a pre-emptive military response.
Of greater concern is the failure of the US government to make public the criteria for determining when such attacks can take place, and what steps are taken to minimise the risks of civilian casualties. Such criteria do exist and are rigorously applied, but as UN rapporteur Philip Alston has pointed out, in the absence of publication it is impossible to reach an objective independent view on legality. Part of the problem has been that the CIA has carried the responsibility, and that under US domestic law this effectively precludes such transparency – which will however be possible once the military take control.
The other consideration affecting drone strikes has been that of public perception in the Islamic world, particularly Pakistan and Yemen. It is clear that the governments of both countries have been complicit in US drone strikes. Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, has publicly acknowledged this, while documents uncovered by Wikileaks confirm former Yemeni President Saleh’s complicity. But the governments of both countries have to contend with the reality that such attacks are profoundly unpopular, generate growing levels of anti-US sentiment, and are likely to increase radicalisation.
The use of drones to target operatives is linked with another contentious issue: the question of detainees and the closure of Guantanamo, a campaign promise that Obama has been unable to achieve – partly because human-rights legislation prevents many of the detainees from being sent back to their home countries.
The controversy over detainees, extraordinary renditions and the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ does not only continue to cast a shadow over US counter-terrorism operations, but has also had the perverse effect of making it possible for the US government to legitimise killing terrorists through drone strikes as an alternative to capturing and detaining them. Obama’s speech implicitly recognised this fact. Meanwhile, Guantanamo serves no useful counter-terrorism purpose, and the damage it does to the United States’ international reputation demands urgent attention – which it may now receive.
The ‘reset’ of US counter-terrorism strategy laid out in Obama’s speech is not without risk. Many of his political opponents would not accept the premise that a lighter US footprint offers better assurance of security from terrorism, nor that the threat has diminished to the degree he claims, and any subsequent mass-casualty attack in the United States could reverse this new strategy. On the other end of the spectrum, US civil liberties groups are unlikely to be satisfied by the actual and proposed changes to the approach.
However, on balance the proposals set out by Obama would seem to be a credible option for rebalancing US strategic priorities to match present realities.