President Barack Obama’s speech last week on counterterrorism may have proposed the end of one open-ended war for the US but it also signalled the start of a new war – albeit more restrictive and contained. The use of drones in the first got out of hand, but there is no guarantee yet that they will not do so in the new one.
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The fallacy and danger of the use of drones is not that they kill terrorists covertly. It is a good thing, after all, that they have decimated al-Qaeda. It is that, rather than being just one tactic in a wider US counterterrorism strategy, drones have become the strategy itself.
To his credit, Mr Obama’s speech disentangled him from the drone era and the criticism that flowed at home and abroad. He has finally opened the door to enabling the US tentatively to embrace a broader counterterrorism policy.
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Nonetheless, his first term will probably be defined by the widespread use of drone warfare against terrorists – not a legacy the liberal lawyer-turned-president would appreciate. “America is at a crossroads,” he said this month in Washington. “This war, like all wars, must end.” He went on to outline a range of restrictions in the drone campaign to make their use more legitimate in the eyes of the US public, the legal fraternity and the world; and to introduce oversight of who is targeted and why.
This would – according to the many US pundits who praised the speech – help us forget the image of the US president at breakfast ticking names off a list of terrorists needing to be taken out that morning. Instead, we now have a layered process for the selection of targets, with Mr Obama saying the threat from al-Qaeda has diminished, justifying new criteria and guidelines for deploying drones against those who pose a “continuing imminent threat” to the US.
So the era of open war against terrorists everywhere, begun under George W. Bush, is over – officially, at least. If only this speech had been made before drones raised such constitutional conundrums and created such widespread anti-Americanism in the Muslim world.
For the rest of the world, the issue is not the use of drones per se but what they signify about US policy. Can the White House honestly claim it has spent as much time furthering diplomatic efforts to end war in Afghanistan, or enlisting global support for rebuilding failing states, or providing aid and expertise to crumbling societies – all of which would show the world that it had a grand counterterrorism strategy not represented by a piece of machinery – as it has spent finding targets for drones?
The real tragedy of the war against terrorism, which Mr Obama has merely redefined and which will continue, is that he has yet to spell out a strategy, a series of steps to counter and combat the causes of burgeoning militancy in the Islamic world and increasingly among a small minority of Muslims in Europe.
Drones will not help America deal with the symptoms of terrorism nor teach societies how to eradicate those symptoms and move on. These newfangled lethal toys, in some countries, are the only face of US foreign policy. As Mr Obama said in his speech, they will now be used not in a boundless “global war on terror” but “rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks”.
Mr Bush never intended to become involved in years of nation-building abroad. He reluctantly accepted it as a consequence of the wars he fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mr Obama has not until now even considered nation-building, or dealing with the symptoms of terrorism, a subject worthy of a speech. The excellent speech he delivered in Cairo at the start of his first term, about reaching out to the Muslim world, is long forgotten.
Yet the president’s latest words do offer tantalising glimpses of a return to the Cairo approach, which could mean that he will offer measures of economic, social and political support to countries beset with terrorism – and a wider strategy to combat terrorism. He needs to do so if he wants to build a better legacy than he has so far.
What concerns the president most of all is overcoming the legal and constitutional morass that the drones have created for the US, and to offer plausible legal logic for their continued use. Mr Obama’s speech constituted a significant effort to do that. He has reduced the burden for himself at home but he has yet to chart a new course for the world.
And what about the rest of us, who have to live under the shadow of the drones (I reside in Pakistan, for example); and, worse still, under the drone-based propaganda and anti-western and anti-democratic sentiment that both extremists and moderates now use in Muslim societies to whip up public frenzy?
For us, at the bottom of the pile as far as the White House is concerned, we will have to wait for another presidential speech that offers a wider strategy to counter extremism than just pounding it with missiles.
The writer is an author of several books including ‘Descent into Chaos’ and ‘Pakistan on the Brink’