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The risks and rewards of Obama's drone policy

President Obama has come under intense fire for his use of drones to kill suspected terrorists. FRANCE 24 talked to top defence and security specialists for their opinion on a complex, controversial issue that many have been hesitant to address.


Between winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and overseeing the killing of Osama bin Laden, US President Barack Obama earned high marks for his navigation of foreign policy during his first term.

But since his re-election in November, Obama has come under fire for his aggressive counterterrorism programme, particularly the use of drones (unmanned aerial combat vehicles) to kill suspected terrorists – including American citizens deemed threats to US security.

The White House has defended its use of drones as an efficient way to target high-ranking terrorists without relying on US troops or causing excessive collateral damage.

The Obama administration has also reportedly been trying to establish what the president has called a “legal architecture” to delineate why the US, in its effort to crack down on al Qaeda, should be able to defend itself by taking out enemies wherever they are found.

Still, several politicians on both sides of the aisle, as well as human rights activists, have rung the alarm on the drone programme, expressing concerns about casualties, the possibility that the use of drones would only antagonise al Qaeda, and the ethical justification for killing American citizens.

FRANCE 24 interviewed a handful of US defence, foreign policy, and national security specialists for their take on a thorny topic that few have chosen to address directly.


Peter Mandaville, former advisor on Islamist politics to Hillary Clinton at State Department

Are drones effective in stopping imminent security threats to the US? In some cases, absolutely. But their tactical utility always needs to be weighed against -- and this is the tricky and uncertain part -- the extent to which their continued use serves as a source of grievance and as recruiting fodder for would-be supporters of al Qaeda and its various franchises. Not to mention the difficulties associated with gaining the support of local communities and civilians caught up in these strikes. I think the jury is still out as to whether, on balance, US drone policy ends up on the right side of that equation.


Norman Ornstein, political scientist, American Enterprise Institute (right-leaning public policy think tank)

I believe that the drone program is an effective and necessary element of American strategy to limit the impact of terrorists trying to kill Americans and others. American citizens who join active terrorist groups are fair targets if it is clear their goals are to implement terrorist attacks. But a process of vetting individuals who will then be targeted should not be left simply to an administration -- any administration, whether one supports it and trusts it or not. I think the idea of a special panel to consider each case of an American citizen who might be targeted is a good idea.


Wells Bennett, national security law specialist, Brookings Institution (left-leaning public policy think tank)

The targeted killing program certainly has reduced al Qaeda’s ranks; in that regard it has been effective. As for justification, this is highly fact-dependent, and will vary from one case to the next. A man carrying a cache of AK-47s, while exiting a known al Qaeda guesthouse in Afghanistan, or a high-ranking al Qaeda operative in Yemen, putting the finishing touches on an imminent attack against US airports? Strikes against these individuals are more easily justified under international and US law. But the less obvious the connection a target has to al Qaeda or its associated forces, or to an imminent threat against the US, the more difficult the justification can become.

Add to this the questions about the targeting of US citizens, and disputed figures about collateral damage, and you have the makings for a controversial policy -- despite the White House’s laudable attempts to explain, publicly, why the drone program is not merely lawful, but wise in the long run.


Aaron David Miller, former advisor and negotiator for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, political analyst at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

The advantages of using drones are clear. They avoid putting Americans in harm’s way; they are sophisticated enough that, unlike aircraft, they can hover for hours, be readjusted and called back if the target is not appropriate; and they can be redirected in flight.

The liabilities are very clear, too. Military force, whether it’s counterterrorism or special operations, has to serve objectives that are in line with broader goals of American policy. Using drone strikes can alienate people on the ground. You can’t operate these things without the willing acquiescence of host governments. You need a friendly host government, like Yemen for example. Another issue is: who are we targeting? Are these drones attacking low-level operatives or leadership targets that pose a real threat to the US, and are in the process of planning terrorist operations? Then there is the issue of legality. The US takes a while to get around to evaluating these things, as we saw with enhanced interrogation techniques and abuses at Abu Graib. There’s been little transparency on drones. And, of course, the moral and ethical problem of collateral killing. Is it OK to attack a funeral if you see a high level al Qaeda operative there, but you can’t guarantee that he will be the only casualty?

Finally, there’s the issue of precedent. How a nation uses its weapons reflects on how others will use them. This is not just an American problem. We and the Israelis are the only ones who produce drones in large quantities. But Russians are developing them, Hezbollah has surveillance drones. It’s just a matter of time before others develop the technology. Someone could make a fabulous movie, called “Drone”, in which the world is separated into warring countries all using drones. That would be truly scary.

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