Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Obama's Reset on Guantanamo, Drones

      It was billed as a major speech on national security policy. Four months after inauguration, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to closing the Guantanamo prison camp. He promised to devise a plan for dealing with detainees who were too dangerous to release but who could not be successfully prosecuted.
      The date was May 23, 2009.
      Last week, almost exactly four years to the day later [May 21], Obama again vowed to close Guantanamo and promised again to devise a plan for dealing with detainees who could not be released or prosecuted. On a new issue, the president announced limits on the use of targeted drone strikes against al Qaeda and promised to look into establishing advance oversight of planned missions.
      Despite the advance buildup for this second-term speech, there was less substance than met the ear. Obama said he would lift his own self-imposed moratorium on transferring Yemenis held at Guantanamo to their home country, but otherwise gave no specifics on how he would move toward closing the prison. As for drone strike oversight, Obama mentioned two possible mechanisms — a special court or an independent oversight board within the executive branch — but raised problems with each one in the very next sentences.
      The speech also appeared to fall short as political public relations. Obama did his best to sound resolute in confronting al Qaeda, but House Speaker John Boehner was among the several Republicans who criticized Obama for going soft on terrorists. Obama got some credit from the political left, but human rights-minded critics feel let down by his failure to close Guantanamo and misled by the expansion of drone strikes done with the president’s full support.
      Guantanamo became a more urgent issue for Obama as a hunger strike spread over the past four months to about 100 of the 166 remaining prisoners, 30 of them being force fed to keep them alive. More than half of the prisoners — 89 — are Yemenis, so Obama’s decision to consider transfers back to Yemen on a case-by-case basis may help counteract the sense of desperation among prisoners held now for more than a decade. Obama also promised to designate a new senior envoy at the State and Defense departments to negotiate transfers to third countries.
      Obama laid blame on Congress for imposing restrictions on detainee transfers from Guantanamo, but critics said the administration could have put more effort into meeting the mandated conditions case by case. One can also ask why Obama is only now asking the Pentagon to find a site within the United States to hold the military trials now being held at Guantanamo. As for the problem of prisoners who cannot be released or prosecuted, Obama said only that he was “confident” that it could be solved – without a hint of what the solution might be.
      Far from apologizing for the drone program, Obama insisted that the strikes were legal self-defense and went on to cite its successes as the reason for now deciding to cut it back. Targeting of al Qaeda leaders and operatives has been so “effective,” the president said, that the “core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat.”
      Obama acknowledged that the strikes had left civilian casualties, but instead of putting a number on the toll said simply that the government’s estimates differ from those of human rights groups. Obama made a modest nod toward transparency by declassifying the deaths of four U.S. citizens, only one of them — the al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al Awlaki — deliberately targeted.
      Otherwise, the number of strikes and the resulting casualties remains classified. The New America Foundation, which maintains a database on the strikes, counts 237 strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in the Obama years (compared to 180 during Bush’s two terms) with more than 3,200 people killed. Surely, most of those killed were innocent civilians, but Obama argued that more civilian casualties would have resulted if al Qaeda had been left untamed and more U.S. casualties would have resulted with boots on the ground instead of drones in the sky.
      Despite those justifications, Obama now says drone strikes will be reduced in what he called “the Afghan war theater” and limited elsewhere to attacks on “al Qaeda and its associated forces” that pose “a continuing and imminent threat” to the United States. But imminence remains for the dronemasters to decide. So too the required determination that there is “a near certainty” that no civilian deaths will result. And nothing in what Obama said limits the targets to high-ranking al Qaeda leaders as opposed to rank-and-file dissidents caught up in anti-American jihadism.
      Obama’s progress in closing Guantanamo — or lack of progress — will be easy to measure, but the results of the reset drone program will be hard to determine as long as the strikes and their tolls remain classified. And there will be no independent oversight of the program unless the president puts aside his ambivalence about both of the suggested possibilities.
      To his credit, Obama wants to get away from the Bush era mentality of an endless and boundless war on terrorism writ large. He says in effect that the country cannot remain on war footing waiting for a formal surrender from al Qaeda that will never come. “This war, like all wars, must end,” he says. But Obama needs to combine strong words with strong actions to make that happen.

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