Is Obama's drone doctrine counter-productive?

US President Barack Obama discusses the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden with his national security adviser Tom Donilon at the White House 1 May 2011 White House officials say President Obama takes the final decision for every drone strike himself

US President Barack Obama personally approves every single drone strike against suspected terrorists, so he can take full moral responsibility for the deaths these cause.

That is the main thrust of a long, detailed and fascinating piece in the New York Times.

It comes as experts have been telling me that the president is wrong to see drones as a "silver bullet" that solves some critical problems about the morality and efficacy of America's use of military power.

The New York Times paints a picture of a regular, 100-strong video conference meeting that decides the names to be put on a "kill list": the next suspected terrorists to be targeted.

It quotes the president's national security adviser, Tom Donilon: "He is determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go… he's determined to keep the tether pretty short."

White House spokesman Jay Carney says he will not discuss specific details of decision-making.

The article confirms that the care taken by the president is significant and he takes "extraordinary measures" to avoid civilian casualties.

Obama's drone doctrine

In reality, I cannot believe that as many officials spoke as freely as they apparently did without being given the presidential green light.

At a time when Republicans want to paint Mr Obama as a ditherer, unwilling to take firm action, it paints him as tough and strong, willing to take hard decisions and kill America's enemies.

But this goes beyond political spin. It is a doctrine of warfare.

We have known for a while that drones are the president's weapon of choice.

He believes that they kill America's enemies with minimum risk to the innocent and are a "light foot-print" compared to the heavy boot of invasion and occupation. The Obama administration is becoming more and more frank about the useof these unmanned planes.

Some are appalled.

There are plenty of blogs which say that drone attacks are murder, plain and simple. Others argue that they are illegal under international law.

But some say they simply do not have the desired result. Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University is an expert on Yemen and he told me that the rain of drone attacks has strengthened the hand of terrorists there.

"Look at Yemen on Christmas Day 2009, the day the so-called underwear bomber attempted to bring down a flight over Detroit.

"On that day al-Qaeda numbered about 200 to 300 individuals and they controlled no territory. Now today, two-and-a-half years later, despite all the drone strikes al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has tripled in size, it's now around 1,000 members and it controls significant territory.

"The more the US bombs, the more they grow."

No 'silver bullet'

He says drones strikes have killed women and children and al-Qaeda are adept at using this to recruit people for revenge.

Someone else who questions the light foot-print theory is David Rhode. He speaks form very personal experience. While a New York Times reporter, he was held hostage in the tribal areas of Pakistan by the Taliban. He recalled to me one attack.

"There was one drone strike close to the house where we were being held. It was so close that shrapnel and mud showered down into the courtyard.

"Just the force and size of the explosion amazed me. It comes with no warning and tremendous force."

He says that is not a light foot-print.

"They are a constant presence, you hear them circling over head the whole time.

"It's terrifying for everyone on the ground because they can hear it, like a small plane. What is so unsettling is you have no idea when this missile is going to come and kill you. There's a sense that your sovereignty is being violated.

"… It's a serious military action. It is not this light precise pin prick that many Americans believe."

Gregory Johnson says politicians can become mesmerised by this one tactic.

"The problem with drones is there is almost a seduction of simple solutions going on here. It is like a 'silver bullet', a magic missile solution to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and I think that's very dangerous.

"What needs to happen is that the US has to do the very hard policy of diplomacy, or intelligence on the ground. The United States has a huge tool box at its disposal in Yemen and it is only using one of these tools."

I suspect the sci-fi allure of bringing retribution from the skies, with no risk to any American lives, will out-weigh such considerations.

The president may think very carefully before he approves individual killings, but in the end, as a strategy, drone attacks have too many attractions compared to doing nothing or sending in the troops.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

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  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    When one 'power' stamps its view of the world on the rest of humanity, expect some dissent.

    People take up arms for many reasons.

    Dropping bombs on another state's domain, from the safety of a great distance, de-humanises murder.

    It makes the US no different to its perceived enemies and encourages new ones all the time!

    The shame is the whole country is demonised for the profit of a few.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    The U.S appears to be attempting to take the lessons of Vietnam.
    In Vietnam the US killed innocent men, women and childen and put them down in the body count as members of the Viet Cong. Thus losing the sympathy of the Vietnamese population and with it the war. They clearly haven't learnt the lessons of Vietnam.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    103. Geoff

    Geoff if this is really about fighting terrorism, then why have companies deriving from NATO countries (and particularly the U.S and U.K) moved to secure control of the resources of Afghanistan, Iraq, and -as we speak- Libya? Should these countries not only focus on the "threat of terrorism" rather than making a healthy profit for their companies?

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Who can ever forget seeing and hearing the sadistic enjoyment of those US militia while they cut down those poor Iraqie's...
    I wonder what pleasure runs through the mind of those on the bomb release trigger of a drone as he or she murders yet another Afghan family or two?

    And mr obamba? He's just doing what he's told, no one votes for his bosses...

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.


    Geoff (100)

    You have a stupidly romantic view of the IRA who were a repulsive terrorist organisation which relied on murder, mutilation and terror to try to impose their views on Northern Ireland.

    PLEASE think and read about their rein of terror.


  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    The U.S appears to be attempting to take the lessons of Vietnam. It was only following the en masse return of dead U.S soldiers that the Anti-War movement picked up pace and gained support from some of the more conservative segments of society. This way the U.S troops will not suffer the effects of an inevitable escalation in violence as a result of the suffering caused by the murderous drones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    98. zipperty
    What I'm saying is killing terrorists & their supporters is acceptable when you're in a fight to the death which we & the US are in. Where you & I differ I suspect is in the definition of the threat we face. It is far more serious than most people think it is & in the next couple of decades, I suspect it might end up right on our doorsteps not thousands of miles away as at present.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    Hey, does this mean I can buy a remote-control high powered rifle with a silencer and position it in various strategic locations and started knocking carefully selected people I didn't like?
    Might is Right, there is no other debate necessary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    95. myhammers

    Stop drinking the communist kool-aid and wake yourself up from the delusions that are clouding your brain. Get real. America's actions have not be noble, no. But neither has Russia's. Or Syria's. Or China's censorship and civil rights abuse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    96. pg55555
    I don't have a romantic view of IRA. Yes they performed plenty of acts of pure thuggery ditto Loyalist gangs but their main attacks engaged Loyalist para-military & UK military/economic targets not primarily civilians.

    But, Islamic attacks in Bali, Madrid, Stockholm, Nigeria, churches in Alexandria, Iraq, France etc. aren't directed at US/UK policy or Govt, they're aimed at us!

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Drones DO work well in Somalia. They have led important Shabaab leaders to turn against international terrorism. This has caused a rift in Shabaab, after which they lost the capital, and internationalist members fled to Yemen. That partly explains why AQ-Yemen grew.

    Also Afghan Taliban want to throw out Al Qaeda and international terrorist agenda, after USA leaves. Also because of drones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    Geoff at 93

    Please specify all the different types of terrorism and include acceptable methods of combatting them.

    You seem to be saying that death generated by terrorism has differing values attached to it depending upon the motive for the terrorist act

    An interesting position to hold

    A little bit like "one rule for our terrorists, another for theirs"

    A point which I made in my previous post

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    90. Tony of Britain
    Attack on Iraq

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Geoff (no. 93)

    In what universe did the IRA "generally target military/economic targets" ?

    They were REAL terrorists & ran huge protection rackets within the Catholic community with vast numbers of knee-capings & punishment beatings.

    Any "romantic" view of the IRA is stupid beyond words.

    More than 3,000 deaths in a population of only 3 million

    The IRA wanted to impose their views on Ulster


  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    America remains the biggest threat to world peace. Hardly a day goes by without a report of them having bombed another country. Barack Obama is no different to George Bush.
    The sooner there is another military superpower to stand up to these bullies, the better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    36.MidwesternSue You do need to get hold of the facts. Afghanistan was not used as a base to launch the attacks on the US. The attacks were launched from the US. The only link to Afghanistan is that Bin Laden was in Afghanistan. Thats it. The people who actually committed the atrocity were not from Afghanistan. They learnt to fly in the US.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    89. zipperty
    I was going to make the same point as pg55555 at post 75.

    Vast difference twixt IRA & Islamic terrorism. IRA generally target military/economic targets (yes some civilian casualties) & specific target of "free" Ireland. Al_Qeada etc want to impose their rules and laws on us all. US also provides remedies thru legal system etc. which Pakistan etc won't do but SIS aid Taliban it seems

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.


    Drones are a cowardly way to fight. It's kind of like big game hunting....the animal doesn't know you're coming and has no gun to shoot back with. Its simply wholesale assassination.
    When you find yourself in a fair fight, it is time to rethink your strategy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    As an American, I hate to condone drone strikes, but I do. Having boots on the ground would be much more intrusive, and would attract suicide bombers, in turn threatening civilians. But these radicals must be dealt with. Strikes must be carried out VERY carefully, and only for leaders. We know they are effective, and even Pakistan gives them tacit approval. The world wants these men dealt with.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    It shows that US propaganda works well on the US population. They now even think that Iraq was involved in the tragic events of the 11th of September 2001.
    Sadly Blair got us involved for his own agenda.


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