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 269.

    The Israelis were only one of several Semitic tribes that inhabited the region and, no doubt, DNA tests could prove that as well. Taking land from it's present day owners on the basis that people of the same DNA as yourself lived there 2000 years ago doesn't seem to prove title. Does it now?
    I note you don't address the theft of North American native lands. A bit to close to home?

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.

    262.Igloo White
    If there's a spare drone not currently on a mission, perhaps Mi5 can key in the coordinates of Shaunie babes and Tim0thy's gaffs.
    Just in case. I sense a bit of extremism from them.
    Only if you class extremism as a dislike of American imperialism and Zionism. Which is the current Pentagon defintion

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.


    Geoff (265)

    Again you are showing your ignorance, strangely enough Nigeria and Egypt aren't in the UK which is what was being talked about - you need to study more geography as well as history.

    Oh ! and throw in some theology, Islam does NOT dictate its spread by all means.

    Same sanity, PLEASE.


  • Comment number 266.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 265.

    232. pg55555 - Do tell me exactly where this enforcement action happened? Your analysis faults UK/US for invading countries etc. Doesn't explain attacks on churches in Egypt, shooting of card players & drinkers in Nigeria & too many more 2 mention. My analysis that Islamic doctrine dictates the spread of Islam by all means & then its enforcement thru violence (attacks on teachers 4 teaching girls)

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    The proof is in the pudding. Al Qaeda is all but done-its leadership decimated-thanks in large part to the drones. The Princeton Professor's comparison of Yemen 2009 to 2012 conveniently omits mention of the power vacuum created by the 2011-2012 Yemeni Revolution that was part of the Arab spring as the true cause of the growth of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula not drones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 263.

    262. Igloo White

    It is, however, not extremist in any way to advocate the bombing of two individuals who express a different viewpoint to yours is it now.

  • Comment number 262.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    As if the modern Israelis can prove that they are descended from the fractious tribe that the Romans chucked out 2000 years ago"
    I think thru DNA tests they can.

  • Comment number 260.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    The Cuban "battalions" were volunteers who went to those countries during a point in time when Pan-Africanism was picking up pace and rebellions swept the continent. Much like many British, French, Italian, U.S etc volunteers went to Spain during the civil war to assist the democratic movement. That hardly constitutes an invasion. As for Iran. Is this the same evidence that stated Iraq has WMD's?

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    231.Controlled Pair
    Can you explain how Muslim Arabs got to control parts of Israel if it wasn't through an invasion?
    I would imagine it was the same reason that caused the Jewish population of Palestine to go from 10% to 60 % in the 20 years prior to 1948

  • Comment number 257.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    "Cuba did not invade a single country"

    So those Cuban batallions went to Angola and Mozambique just to sightsee?

    "Iran has not invaded a single country"

    Iran has invaded many a country tacitly. Revolutionary Guards ight along al-Qaeda in Iraq as we speak.

    And Iran proxy Hezbollah is occupying half of Lebanon.

    [forget Quds Force bombing attack in Argentina]

    As we speak.

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    231.Controlled Pair
    Ah yes the 'we lived there first' argument. As if the modern Israelis can prove that they are descended from the fractious tribe that the Romans chucked out 2000 years ago. They have, of course, been carrying around the title deeds for all these years. If you are going to use historic title as a rationale be careful as you only stole your land some 200 - 300 years ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.



    tricky subject, I don't want to have to say we ethnically cleansed the Kainite’s and Jericho because God told us to

  • Comment number 253.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    Timothy: "when Mr Boehner blocks the deficit increase the agencies can downgrade the USA agin."

    Pentagon's budget is being substantially reduced.

    But even if it weren't a significant majority of Federal outlays go for unsustainable WELFARE programs. [check]

    P.S. When US federal deficit goes down our ratings will go up.
    Though even now they're much higher than in most of EZ countries.

  • Comment number 251.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    Isn't the problem with the Arabs that they've tried to invade Israel several times and each time got their bottoms spanked?

    Then the Arabs go crying to the international community backed by Oil-rich blackmailing countries to pass yet more anti-Israel resolutions at the absurd UN.


    Yes I agree ! It took Israel 1400 years to succeed so what is 50. Keep getting spanked until you succeed


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