Is Obama Deceiving Us About Drone Strikes?

It may be to President Obama's credit that this week, posed with a question about American drone strikes, he answered it rather than ducking it--even though the strikes are technically covert operations. It is not to his credit that his answer seems to have been misleading.

As part of a foray into social media, the president was chatting with some regular Americans on a Google Plus "hangout" when he encountered a question about drones from a guy named Evan in Brooklyn. "For the most part," Obama assured Evan, "they have been very precise, precision strikes against al Qaeda and their affiliates." He added later that the drone strikes are "part and parcel of our overall authority when it comes to battling al Qaeda. It is not something that's being used beyond that." And he reminded us that "there are still active plots against the United States."

Coverage in the mainstream media tended not to question any of this, but Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations questioned it. Noting that Obama had focused his discussion on drone strikes in Pakistan, Zenko wrote: "We know from reporting by Pakistani journalists that the vast majority of suspected militants targeted are not members of al-Qaeda, nor are they involved in plots against the U.S. homeland. Many of the targets are actually anonymous, low-level militants who provide operational support to the Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan."

You can understand why Obama would want to play up the al Qaeda angle and stress that there are still "plots against the United States." Terrorist threats to the homeland tend to shut down critical thinking--and if, as Zenko says, the drone strikes aren't mainly about al Qaeda, much less about al Qaeda's threats to America, then critical thinking could raise doubts about them.

After all, the inevitable drone-induced civilian casualties tend to make life easier for recruiters for al Qaeda and other anti-American terrorist groups. It's one thing if, in thus expanding the ranks of terrorists in the long run, we're at least doing major damage to al Qaeda in the short run; it still may be, on balance, bad anti-terrorism strategy, but at least you'd have to do the math, comparing short-term benefits to long-term costs, before being sure of that. But if--as seems to be the case--most of the drone strikes are protecting American soldiers in Afghanistan from attacks by the Taliban, then there may be no big upside in terms of homeland security.

True, the security of American soldiers may be served, and that's of course a good thing in itself. But many of those soldiers are there because Obama ill-advisedly upped the ante in Afghanistan, rather than start withdrawing as soon as he took office. And, worse still, he seems to have committed to this escalation as part of a political calculation during the presidential campaign.

At one point in his Google Plus conversation, Obama did a masterful job of describing the function of the drone strikes in a way that did allude to their battlefield function, but still appealed to "war on terror" psychology. The people targeted by the drones, he said, "are on a list of active terrorists who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases, and so on." When you're at war, is it really "terrorism" for the enemy to kill your soldiers? If so, why isn't it terrorism for your soldiers to kill the enemy (especially when you sometimes, as with drone strikes, kill civilians)? But of course, the virtue of the word "terrorism" is that it makes us think of al Qaeda, whether or not al Qaeda is in fact involved.

If drone strikes are indeed increasing America's vulnerability to terrorism in the long run--and if in the short term they're a price paid for Obama's 2008 political calculation--then it's no wonder the president is using these sorts of verbal smokescreens.

[Postscript: It was a big week in drone news. Here's Glenn Greenwald's coverage of a story about the state department's use of surveillance drones in Iraq and, possibly, elsewhere. And here's Obama's Google Plus chat. The drone questions start at 26:25.]

[Update, 2/2/12 8 a.m.: Relevantly, the New York Times reports that a new NATO report finds that "the Taliban have gradually distanced themselves from Al Qaeda."]

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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