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 389.

    minsa (369),

    “... Can anyone really still believe that the Zionists are winning their War on Islam? ...”
    If by posting ‘Zionists’, you are referring to Israel, then you are mistaken. Israel is not at war with Islam.

    “... You lost in Iraq ...”
    Had not Saddam Hussein been executed by liberated Iraqis, he might disagree with you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 388.


    It's been good, some intresting issues raised, lots to think about, till next time, peace be with you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 387.

    "Saladin is the European softened form of Salah-ed-din, 'Honour of the Faith.'" Lane Poole, A history of Egypt in the Middle Ages, Chapter VII, Saladin, p. 190.
    Yes, it's the same name, just a different way to write it.
    (PS, there's also a book entitled "Life of Saladin" by the same author)
    sorry, I can't stay for long. I'll try to check again tomorrow

  • rate this

    Comment number 386. must be right
    "America having a 'presence' in mid east does not make 9/11 self defense"
    I meant military presence. Would you want to see Russian military boots or drones in your country?

    "the oppressors Mubarak, Gaddaffi, the Assads, S Hussein, Bashar, Afghan Taliban are/were all Muslims"
    I think they're the product of listening to the West instead of one's own people for too long

  • rate this

    Comment number 385.


    Is Salah El-din, Salah ad-Din? Or are they different people, I'm not familiar with Salah El-din. Just so I know what you're talking about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    #380 (cont.)
    The NATO only added to the suffering. The American military bases, drones &military presence added plenty of fuel to the fire

    I wish there was a strong reaction from the Arab states towards Syria. That's why I think Arabs need to be united as in times of Salah El-din and we need more Islamic institutions. Then, West interference won't be needed in the Middle-East

  • rate this

    Comment number 383.


    America having a 'presence' in mid east does not make 9/11 self defense, and does not justify it.

    Accept that is was done by Muslims, in the name of their understanding of Islam. Just as I accept plenty of despicable things have been done by Brits.

    Also, the oppressors Mubarak, Gaddaffi, the Assads, S Hussein, Bashar, Afghan Taliban are/were all Muslims, and not Americans or Brits.

  • Comment number 382.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 381.


    But as we've seen, when the West doesn't "interfere" in the ME, we get branded as callous, uncaring, inhuman etc. So what should be done? On the one hand you claim the ME just want's to be left alone, yet on the other we have Syrians pleading for intervention from the West. How can this be reconciled?

  • rate this

    Comment number 380. must be right
    I don't think the 9/11 would have happened at all if the USA didn't have any military presence in the middle-east or interfered there. When it happened all people in Egypt denied it has any link to Muslims because no one imagined any group would have such capability among the poor & frustrated population of the oppressed countries of the middle-east. (not the oil countries)

  • rate this

    Comment number 379.

    372 donnie2012
    The Islam-blamers tell us much about their own prejudices but nothing about terrorism.
    No, the terrorists clearly articulate their rationale based on their understanding of Islam, with explicit quotations from the Koran. And you can't hide the Islamic conquests.

    To see prejudice, try going into the streets of Cairo or Tehran and saying clearly how much you love Jews.

  • rate this

    Comment number 378.


    What constitutes fighting Islam though? For example, would being against conversion to Islam be considered fighting Islam? Would being against certain aspects of Sharia Law be considered fighting Islam?

  • rate this

    Comment number 377.

    (cont.) That's something I read some time ago, let me share it espcially with those who link terrorism to Islam:
    - "and when the Christian conquerors massacred 70,000 defenceless Muslims in the Holy City, Afdal at last understood what he had to expect from his presumed allies." - 1099
    What should Afghanistan or Pakistan or any Arab country expect from Nato or USA now?

  • rate this

    Comment number 376.

    'Islam started among Arab tribes that were divided & lawless, worshipping statues. Islam brought them unity in the shared belief of Islam'
    You make it sound so nice and peaceful, as if Islam were simply 'shared' without use of the sword. But it was not self defense; and neither was 9/11. And 9/11 is what drove the US into Afghanistan, and remains much of the motivation for use of drones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 375.

    Good point.
    I'd add that the majority believe, including extremists, that aggression is only against those who fight Islam, kill Muslims or who capture Muslim lands. It's self-defense. It's the human right to fight back.
    Islam started among Arab tribes that were divided & lawless, worshipping statues. Islam brought them unity in the shared belief of Islam, believing in one God

  • rate this

    Comment number 374.

    the real question is why are there so few Muslim terrorists.
    That is one question. Another is, why are so many Muslims in favour of terrorism, even if they don't do it themselves?

    e.g., I believe it was Nablus, but may have been another West Bank city, where there were celebrations in the street when they heard about 9/11.

    Also, the terrorists are very clear about their motives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 373.


    I assume it's down to interpretation, some interpret their Religion as totally against violence whilst others claim their Religion demands it/will reward them for it. I would be catious about saying that Religion plays no part in the violence what so ever though as I assume for some who are active in that kind of behaviour, religion does influence their decision slightly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 372.

    As Prof Kurzman put it in the subtitle to his book The Missing Martyrs, the real question is why are there so few Muslim terrorists.
    If Islam is the root cause of terrorist attacks carried out by particular Muslims then why, with a billion Muslims on Earth, do we not see literally millions of attacks every year?
    The Islam-blamers tell us much about their own prejudices but nothing about terrorism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 371.

    "Islamic attacks in ... churches in Alexandria"
    That one accident that was very shocking to everyone, since the area has been peaceful since ever, was proved to be the work of the old regime, the same regime the USA backed and offered training to its national security men, the ones responsible for the crime.
    The 25th of January revolution started in the same month.

  • Comment number 370.

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


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