Barack Obama: Drone Warrior

President Obama has taken personal command over lethal drone strikes against alleged al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen and other countries. To some, this is an inappropriate use of presidential power. But ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar sees some benefit in Obama accepting direct responsibility.

By Paul R. Pillar

An illuminating feature article by Jo Becker and Scott Shane of the New York Times about the use of lethal missile strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles evokes memories of Lyndon Johnson personally approving the individual targets for bombing sorties against North Vietnam.

President Barack Obama, according to the article, signs off on each strike in Yemen and Somalia and on the “more complex and risky strikes” in Pakistan, or about a third of the missile strikes overall.

President Barack Obama walking to the Oval Office on May 3, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Former Navy Admiral and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair mentioned an additional memory by critically comparing reliance on the drone strikes to the use of body counts in Vietnam.

Despite such echoes from a painful past war, and despite the legitimate concerns about use of the drones that Becker and Shane explore, their account is in another respect reassuring. It gives us the most extensive public picture so far of the process and criteria that go into each decision to kill someone by remote control from high altitude, and sometimes to kill others who are not the target but happen to be nearby.

We still aren’t getting to see the secret Justice Department memorandum that makes a legal case for using this method to kill U.S. citizens, as was done with the strike in Yemen last year that took out Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. But we do read of White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan talking about how before each decision to fire a missile the president insists that his subordinates “go through a rigorous checklist: the infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things.”

Then there is the reassurance of knowing that the chief executive is directly involving himself in weighing the considerations that need to be weighed before the trigger is pulled. That is probably the best safeguard against overlooking the broader strategic factors that need to be taken into account at least as much as the narrow tactical one of taking a bad guy out of commission.

Some possible drawbacks of this presidential involvement come to mind. An obvious one is that the process is a drain on presidential time and attention. Another possible drawback, which parallels Blair’s criticism about heavy reliance on the drones, is that by getting down in the weeds of individual target decisions, the President himself becomes more tactical and less strategic.

This carries the associated risk of the drone strikes being increasingly equated with counterterrorism, the killing of men in Asian and African hinterlands being equated with keeping Americans safe from terrorism and our thinking starting to resemble the body-count mentality of the Vietnam War.

On balance, however, an appropriately broad rather than narrow approach is more likely to be applied when this president, the former law-school professor who has evinced good awareness of the political and diplomatic repercussions overseas of the application of U.S. military force, makes the task one of detailed and careful analysis by himself.

The antithesis to this approach toward the use of lethal capabilities is provided by Mr. Obama’s Republican challenger, and in ways that go beyond the obvious differences in what an incumbent president and a non-incumbent candidate can demonstrate.

Mitt Romney has accused President Obama of not spending enough on the military. As Christopher Preble has noted, Romney’s “Fire. Ready. Aim” approach of pledging to devote at least 4 percent of the nation’s GDP to the base defense budget would bring that spending to levels not seen since World War II and represent something like an additional $2.5 trillion in expenditures.

But as inchoate as the financing is how all this military capability would be applied. Romney returned to his keep-the-military-strong theme in a speech on Memorial Day, in which he still did not address the matter of application.

In his speech, Romney mentioned countries that in his view make the world an unsafe place: bête-noir-du-jour Iran, of course, as well as Russia and China. He spoke of deterrence through strength but not of exactly what it is the United States would be deterring.

Even more to the point, he has not explained how, bearing in mind that the United States currently spends far more on its military than any conceivable combination of foes put together, the difference between spending levels he favors and levels favored by Obama or anyone else would make any difference in being able or unable to deter a threat or do whatever else the United States would need to do with military force. This is not only not down in the weeds; it is not even hitting the treetops.

One of the legitimate concerns about the drone strikes is that they are coming to exhibit the “if I have a hammer then everything looks like a nail” syndrome. The same danger, as was exhibited in such a costly and tragic way by the Iraq War, is true on a larger scale of the overall military capability of the United States.

Avoiding that danger, at the level of either a single weapon system or the nation’s entire armed force, requires careful and detailed deliberation, including at the presidential level, of costs and risks as well as needs and benefits.

Postscript: A lead story on the front page of The Washington Post was headlined: “Drone Strikes spur backlash in Yemen; Outrage over civilian casualties; Escalated U.S. campaign fuels support for al-Qaeda.”

If the President of the United States were not already personally weighing the pros and cons of each prospective drone strike in Yemen, the reactions described in this article are a good reason to expect him to do so. These reactions also are a reason the overall gain or loss to U.S. interests of the drone-based killing program would be a legitimate topic for discussion in the presidential campaign, if any candidate wanted to make it an issue.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

12 comments for “Barack Obama: Drone Warrior

  1. Paul G.
    June 4, 2012 at 10:42

    This article leaves me baffled by what it minimises, the author should know better. Why does it mention the Washington Post article only as a postscript with little detail. That article refers to what is obviously the most important issue- the drone campaign doesn’t work as it is having the opposite effect. Al Quaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has doubled in size since 2009 under Obama’s escalation. Every (real) militant that is killed becomes an instant hero and martyr in a society that reveres and is inspired by martyrs. Every innocent person killed pisses off even those who have no use for Al Quaeda as well as the relatives.In addition, hundreds of tribesmen have joined AQAP in the fight against the U.S.-backed Yemeni government.Guantanamo is no longer the poster child for AQAP’s recruiting; the drones are. The program is doing a good job of increasing their numbers.
    Without going into detail here, most of America’s terrorist problems can be seen as the result of blowback. Now we have the President naively creating more because he thinks Hellfire missles will prevent the next terrorist attack from happening on his watch. Even Hillary has criticized(privately) his reliance on a purely military approach.
    Read both the full NY Times article and the Washington Post for a much better view. Another good article on this is on Buzzflash with another CIA vet:Michael Scheuer, ex-CIA bin Laden Unit Chief, Explains Why Insurgents Are Willing To Die Fighting Us.

    • Paul G.
      June 4, 2012 at 13:10

      P.S. Let me add that I was pleasantly surprised at the Times and WP articles; an all too rare occasion when they showed true journalistic skill and integrity of the sort I have only expected in the alternative media or foreign press.

      • incontinent reader
        June 4, 2012 at 22:25

        In one sense you are correct. Yet, nothing the New York Times or Washington Post do is without their finger in the air testing the political winds, and positioning themselves for the next occupant
        of the White House.

        This is information they have sat on for a while, just as with the Risen article about unlawful NSA domestic wiretapping (about which if the public had known, Kerry may well have defeated Bush in 2004), or the recent article questioning the Libyan connection and Megrahi conviction for the Pan Am Lockerbie bombing (something every legal expert worth his salt questioned years ago).

        I notice these newspapers still remain silent or one-sided about the Israeli Occupation and Israel’s daily “haircut” of the Palestinians, and still continue to demonize Iran, Syria and every other non-aligned country on the Pentagon’s list to overthrow in pursuit of its “cold war” against Russia and China. And they are doubtless cheering the extradition of Assange to Sweden in the hope that he will ultimately prosecuted and shut down forever in the U.S.

        So, two articles of some merit that might have been published some years ago should not blind us to the greater reality of these media organizations.

        • Paul G.
          June 5, 2012 at 02:54

          This is why I only read the two (except Krugman) if the articles were referred from somewhere else, an alternative media source.
          It is also possible that some elites realize Obamascam is out of control and creating an on-going train wreck. There are always factions among the ruling circles. They never all agree, consensus is not in their vocabulary. On the other hand sometimes a good reporter is allowed to do his/her thing. Of course that doesn’t change the overall flavor of the papers; and it gives the illusion of objectivity.

        • Paul G.
          June 5, 2012 at 04:55

          On the other hand apparently some Admin officials think the Times article makes Potus look tough and resolute.I was initially unable to comprehend this sociopathic thinking, as his policy seemed to me more the idea of a scared-that a terrorist event might happen on his watch- individual unable to come up with anything more than crude solutions.

  2. June 3, 2012 at 21:04

    I’m sorry that the PTB here have decided in their wisdom that my pitch for the petition at whitehouse dot gov to create a do not kill list for American Citizens to sign – as a shock to our complacency really – was unsuitable for ‘their’ readers … but you could look it up, as Casey Stengal used to say. It’s not mine.

    While in general I admire this site I’m afraid that it has the liberal media disease, that deep in their hearts they are ‘reluctant’ Obama supporters … who do not want to see any effective (I can’t imagine this petition as being wildly effective … though hope dies last) opposition to him mounted. Four more years at consortiumnews? Sotto voce, of course.

  3. dahoit
    June 3, 2012 at 13:17

    The alternative is exactly the same,driven by the same Ziomonsters that drive Obomba.
    A vote for Obomba is a vote for a stab in the back,repeatedly.
    Masochists love it.

  4. incontinent reader
    June 3, 2012 at 12:55

    Is it possible that these revelatory articles by the NYTimes and General Hayden’s disingenuous comment it published, that Obama may have gone too far with secrecy, is a shift of MSM support to Romney?

    The fault is not in Obama’s stars- they were, notwithstanding Republican obstructionism, aligned to provide him the opportunity to reverse the excesses of Bush’s Presidency and lead America to the path of a great nation – the fault is in himself, his political alliances, and his Presidential judgments and policies. Whether he wins or loses, he has spent his moral capital and, it seems, there is little trust left for a second term Obama Administration.

    The shame of it is that our Government has been trumped and manipulated by the Likud and its lobbyists, by our bankers, by our national security industrialists, by their propagandists, by the mainsteam media, and by our own blindness, ignorance, and lack of long term moral and practical long term vision, and Obama, Biden, Clinton, et al have been complicit in all of this from the very start.

    The result has been that we find ourselves violating international law on a regular basis, pillaging instead of trading with other countries in order to survive and prosper, and deluding ourselves into thinking we are promoting human rights.

    Just as Bush was irrelevant, so it now is with Obama, and the alternative is too painful to contemplate.

    • F. G. Sanford
      June 4, 2012 at 03:13

      I wouldn’t necessarily agree that the alternative is unthinkable. A victory for Romney would serve as a reminder that a second term is not guaranteed. Obama should have been faced with a primary challenge in response to his abject failure to represent the will of those of us who elected him. His re-election will be a mandate to continue doing what he has been doing. After all, Bush lost the popular vote in 2000, and regarded his 51% re-election in 2004 as a “mandate”. What everybody is really concerned about are potential Supreme Court nominations. I have seen no indication based on the current Justice Department behavior that nominations by Obama would necessarily be an improvement. After all, we should be able to count on Congress to thwart the nomination of particularly vile nominees, but unless there is a big turnover in Congress, we’re going to get more of the same regardless of who is in the Oval Office. The truth is, anyone who finds the current state of affairs in contradiction to the Constitution should be rallying for impeachment, not re-election. The simple fact is that military action without a military objective in a war that is other than defensive is a prima facie war crime. Assassination by remote control fits that definition. Failure of the electorate to hold these people responsible is the problem, not which one is the “lesser evil”. After his imprisonment in Landsberg Prison, Adolf Hitler decided to utilize strictly democratic means to achieve his goals. As Dr. Martin Luther King pointed out, “Everything he did was legal”. Horrifying, but true. We are watching the same legal dismantling of representative democracy in the United States by the merger of corporate and state power. The “right” in this country does not hate big government. What it hates is real democracy. Obama has been no improvement over Bush. But a Romney presidency will be one that fears the power of the electorate. He can always be impeached. Elect him, and let him be a Dionysius beneath the Sword of Damocles. Unless you all really believe that nonsense about the Mormon White Horse Prophesy. Any other strategy is an affirmation of the “Imperial Presidency”. And that’s exactly how Germany got Hitler.

      • incontinent reader
        June 4, 2012 at 07:12

        Your comments here and elsewhere have been some of the most insightful I’ve read in understanding the problems both today and from an historical perspective. Unfortunately, every branch of government, including the judiciary, has been infected, and everyone not closely aligned with a political movement that I have spoken with in different parts of the country is oblivious to those problems, so I wonder if even the threat of impeachment of the next President is a realistic possibility if he does what the wired Congress has been demanding up to now of this one, and if Congress’s agenda, paid off and/or intimidated as Congress is, remains the same

  5. June 3, 2012 at 02:28

    David S of Denver Colorado created a petition on 30 May!/petition/create-do-not-kill-list/HwqFwRtG

    asking the White House to

    Create a Do Not Kill List

    The New York Times reports that President Obama has created an official “kill list” that he uses to personally order the assassination of American citizens. Considering that the government already has a “Do Not Call” list and a “No Fly” list, we hereby request that the White House create a “Do Not Kill” list in which American citizens can sign up to avoid being put on the president’s “kill list” and therefore avoid being executed without indictment, judge, jury, trial or due process of law.

    It needs 25000 signatures by 29 June to work. It has just 4239 right now, and at the rate it is going will 94 days to get there. It’s all theater, but I think it’s worth a shot. Actually adding one’s name to a Do Not Kill List has gotta make you think. I’m number 2879 on the petition to create the list.

    A friend mentioned that in a recent poll 83% of Americans said they support drone strikes against “terrorist suspects”. 25000 is .0083333% of 300,000,000 Americans. We oughta be able to muster eight thousandths of 1%, doncha think?

    I’m afraid its Springtime for Obama and Amerika.

    Remember, among others, American citizen Abdel-Rahman Awlaki, Anwar’s 16-year-old son, one of his cousins Ahmed Abdelrahman Awlaki, and several of their friends, who were all teenage boys.

    The teenage boys weren’t out “doing terrorism” in some vague non-specific manner in the Shabwa Province [Yemen]. According to a statement from relatives, they were out to dinner, eating “under the moon light” when US missiles landed.

    • BARBBF
      June 6, 2012 at 15:59

      The MSM seems to have forgotten the 24 Pakistani soldiers were incinerated by US drone strikes in November of this past year. The US reportedly has never apologized for their deaths.

      BBC News Asia
      26 November 2011 Last updated at 09:01 ET
      Pakistan outrage after ‘Nato attack kills soldiers’

      Pakistani officials have responded with fury to an apparent attack by Nato helicopters on a border checkpoint they say killed at least 24 soldiers.

      The “unprovoked and indiscriminate” attack took place in Mohmand tribal region, the Pakistani military said.

      Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani called it “outrageous” and convened an emergency meeting of the cabinet.

      Nato’s force in Afghanistan is investigating and has offered condolences to the affected families.

      The night-time attack took place at the Salala checkpoint, about 1.5 miles (2.5 km) from the Afghan border, at around 02:00 local time (21:00 GMT).

      A statement from the Pakistani army said 24 people were killed and 13 were injured.


      Bush reportedly authorized the use of approximately 40 predatory drone strikes during his whole 8 year term. Obama has upped the number to the hundreds in less then 4 years of his administration. What also has been consistently under-reported by the MSM and the thousands of innocents who have also been incinerated.

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