While most of us celebrated the beginning of 2013 with friends, resolutions, and hope for a fulfilling new year, President Obama has been busy expanding on what is sure to be the defining legacy of his presidency: drone warfare and targeted assassinations.
In less than week since 2013 began, Obama has launched multiple drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, killing a few "suspected militants" and dozens of civilians in the process. And with top members of the Obama administration hinting at the indefinite nature of the drone program combined with eyes on Africa, Obama looks to be ushering in the New Year — and his second term — with an even more aggressive drone warfare campaign.
The problem, of course, is that Obama's drone-a-holic foreign policy is shrouded in secrecy, usurps the rule of law, and with the amount of civilian deaths that it is causing is incredibly counterproductive in its stated goal of fighting terrorism.
Proponents of the drone war, including the president and his administration on the rare occasion that they do discuss it, claim that drone strikes are precise and only target terrorists. A study, however, from Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute finds that the number of Pakistani civilians killed in drone strikes “significantly and consistently underestimated" and that as many as 98% of those killed by drone strikes are civilians.
While it is ultimately impossible to get exact numbers, this means that for every "terrorist" killed by a drone strike, anywhere between 10 and 50 civilians are killed. This is eerily reminiscent to what General Stanley McChrystal dubbed "insurgent math" during Obama's Afghan war surge. Same hyper-militaristic foreign policy, same results, creating far more enemies than are killed.
Even this estimate of civilian death rates from the drone program may actually be a bit conservative when judging simply by the Obama administration's own standards. The president has been counting all "military-age males in a strike zone" as combatants, assuring that nearly every person vaporized by a drone missile is labeled — and reported as — a "militant."
While President Obama claims that he is only using his secret, lawless power to kill those that pose an imminent threat to the U.S., a closer look at the individuals targeted tells a different story.
According to the New York Times, the White House is mainly targeting enemies of "allied governments" in Yemen and Pakistan. Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation estimated that among those killed by drones, only 13% of them could be considered "militant leaders" who want to harm the U.S. The rest, according to Bergen, "want to impose some degree of sharia law where they live, they want to fight a defensive jihad against security service and the central government, or they want to unseat what they perceive as an apostate regime that rules their country."
In other words, the drone war is basically a counter-insurgency Air Force (with the help of the Saudis) for governments like Yemen and Pakistan against internal rebellions in their countries. Should the litmus test for lethal overseas intervention really be the defense of cruel and authoritarian governments against internal dissent and tribal rivalries that possibly go back centuries? This is a dangerous precedent, and as I mentioned previously, it appears that this will guide U.S. policy until at least 2016.
This is why the recent news that the president is nominating former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense admittedly left me a bit surprised and optimistic. Hagel has a history of sober foreign policy prescriptions — at least compared to the Beltway establishment and his fellow senators — and best of all, believes that U.S. foreign policy should defend American interests, not Israel's.
But even if Hagel is confirmed, it is highly unlikely that he will have the ability to sway Obama's hand. The president, after all, is someone who relishes his nearly universally unquestioned authority to create "kill lists," suspend due process, and dispense arbitrary death from the sky. Besides, Obama wants drone-lover John Brennan to be the new CIA director, and Hagel's voice would likely be drowned out by the screeches of the hawks that surround the White House.
t looks like 2013 will be eerily similar to the last four years, and by the administration's own promises, quite possibly even worse and more reckless. The precedent set by the drone war, signature strikes, kill lists and "double-taps" has warped the rule of law, restraints on presidential power, and left a body count of innocents that grows by the day.
Since much of Obama's drone program was a direct extension of what the Bush administration pursued at the end of his second term, unless there is a radical shift in foreign policy consensus or a collapse of the dollar that allows this empire to limp along, a President Hillary or President Rubio will likely pick up right where Obama left off.