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.

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  • Comment number 129.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    119.Controlled Pair
    The "animal" in question likes to put suicide vests on and walk onto buses and blow up civilians, or carry out attacks against kids in schools.
    Islamic terrorism is the most cowardly form of warfare.
    WW2 Bomber crews had a 50% chance of being killed bombing civilians. Is this more or less cowardly than having a 100% chance ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    MM: "The United States has a huge tool box at its disposal in Yemen and it is only using one of these tools."

    Another nonsense. One cannot have effective UAV strikes without having first good actionable intelligence, and in many cases, even an illumination of the intended targets by forward ground controllers.

    And pres. Obama certainly knows that, just his National Security advisor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    Geoff (120)

    PLEASE read up on the IRA's treatment of "civilians" (both communities) they were true terrorists.

    You have to forget the romantic propaganda & remember what they did (& what their successors in N. Ireland still are doing).

    Your strange idea that somehow the IRA were some sort of honourable foe is so unhistorical as to be laughable. Just, for example, look at the "disappeared".

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    The lessons learned from Vietnam were keep the press on a tight leash and minimise US causalities.
    The military Newspeak of 'surgical strikes' , 'targeted assassinations'and 'reduced collateral damage' hide the reality of remote control killing.
    Whose effect is to recruit more jihadists.
    As long as it is happening over there and not a home, the politicians can say we are winning.

  • Comment number 124.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    MM: "experts have been telling me that the president is wrong to see drones as a "silver bullet" "

    I'm not pres. Obama's aficionado but I've never heard from anybody he considers UAV strikes as "silver bullets" solving all US national security problems. One may disagree with some of his policies but the man is not a village idiot who puts all his eggs in one basket.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    114.Igloo White
    Very effective and the number one reason why we haven't had more attacks in the UK.
    The actual reasons are strict gun laws, lack of access to explosives, and the fact our home grown terrorists aren't that bright.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    50 years from now, all mid income countries will also have drones, but those drones will be much smarter in avoiding detection. Some of those countries will strongly disagree with our policies.

    The only way to protect our grand children from such drones is to take out the explosives (so they kill only one) and to make their use subject to international court approval.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    105. pg55555

    No, I've a hard-headed realistic view of matters. IRA/ Loyalist gangs certainly have been brutal & attracted many criminal elements but they generally gave warnings for their bombs. How many warnings were there for 9/11, 7/7, Madrid etc? The ideology we face is politics & religion rolled into one & presented purely as religion. Waken up to that fact!

  • Comment number 119.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Let us ask another question which the BBC would never ask.

    New Head line.

    Is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the murderous attacks of 9/11 7/11 and many more.
    Constant creeping Islamification promoting increased recruitment for our Armed Forces
    and a growing suspicion that Islam is on a aggressive path of domination ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    110. Anarchist_Communism

    'I'm asserting that the U.S lost the hearts and minds of their own population primarily due to the deaths of their own soldiers'

    Yup.This has repeatedly happened, Homeland sick at heart. But it can only happen when they fail in strategy

    So now there is nothing to stop failed strategy. They will drone on potentially without end, for there is no obvious end

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    The IRA had a rational and achievable political gold - a united Ireland.

    The US in Afghanistan is trying to turn a theocratic feudal society into a liberal, secular, western democracy. This isn't going to happen, no matter how many space-age weapons you deploy against peasants with small-arms.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    Drones keep things as close to personal as you can get. They can't run and they can't hide, being anyone important in Al Qaeda is becoming too dangerous. When that shadow falls on them like the wings of Morrigan their number is up...flash, bang, gotcha!

  • Comment number 114.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    107. Anarchist_Communism
    "Geoff if this is really about fighting terrorism, then why have companies..."

    We're fighting an ideology of which terrorism is a component. Powers that be focus on terrorism because that's an easy thing to explain to public. Unfortunately, skewing our focus that way means we're losing the war because we haven't defined our true enemy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    Alien forces in the skies with advanced technology. War of the Worlds. Difficult to see it promoting a single positive reaction. Terror and hatred maybe. If you have a many headed monster and every time you cut a head off more replace it then its not wining is it. Which is the fundamental problem when you are an alien

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    The armchair generals will always find fault with tactics and deployments. Drones work with minimal risk to our forces lives therefore they can only be good.
    Tanks fufil much the same role in saving the lives of Syrian soldiers when deployed against civillian targets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Shaunie Babes
    I think you've misinterpreted me. I'm asserting that the U.S lost the hearts and minds of their own population (they never cared about what happens to the population of the countries they invade) primarily due to the deaths of their own soldiers. This is why I believe they are trying to minimise the risk of this occurring now, whilst still securing their interests in the region.


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