The National Security Challenges that the U.S. Drone Campaign Can't Solve

Obama's excessively-secret targeted killing program has had plenty of unintended foreign policy consequences.

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A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, performs a low altitude pass. (Reuters)

In President Barack Obama's bold second inaugural address, one line was my favorite. "We will defend our people and uphold our values," President Barack Obama declared, "through strength of arms and rule of law."

Obama was right to describe the "rule of law" as a weapon the United States can use to defend itself. But the administration's insistence on enveloping its counter-terrorism efforts in excessive secrecy flouts the rule of law. A proud American ideal is being turned into a liability, not an asset.

"It's not sufficient for the administration to say, 'Trust us, we're taking care of it,' " said Amrit Singh, author of a new Open Society Institute report that raises numerous questions about the United States' use of rendition and torture since 2001. "There needs to be greater transparency."

One reason residents of Pakistan, Yemen and other countries so bitterly oppose covert drone strikes is that they flout the "rule of law." A legal concept that dates to Aristotle, the rule of law means the legal code's supremacy over autocratic rule-by-dictat.

Given the current unrest in the Middle East, Americans' cynicism about the spread of such ideals is understandable. But the "rule of law" is a galvanizing concept around the world. From Syria to Brazil to China, people are demanding governments that are accountable to them, less corrupt and merit-based. Establishing those ideals is extraordinarily difficult, but the popular desire is clear.

The Obama administration's covert drone program is on the wrong side of history. With each strike, Washington presents itself as an opponent of the rule of law, not a supporter. Not surprisingly, a foreign power killing people with no public discussion, or review of who died and why, promotes anger among Pakistanis, Yemenis and many others.

Questions about covert drone strikes are finally being asked in Washington. Hearings tomorrow on whether John Brennan should become the next CIA director will bring rare scrutiny to the program. And NBC News' publication of a leaked Justice Department memo justifying the administration's claim that it has the authority to kill an American citizen without judicial review is finally prompting criticism as well.

While attention has rightly focused on the number of civilians killed in the covert strikes, a story in the New York Times on Wednesday revealed another destructive by-product of the overreliance on drones. The piece described how Yemen's elite, U.S.-trained counterterrorism unit has been posted to traffic duty in the capital in recent weeks. Instead of the force carrying out raids to capture militants, drones are being used.

The approach is counterproductive in two ways. Using local security forces to kill and capture militants is more precise, popular and effective in the long run than drone strikes. And by snubbing local forces, the United States is alienating its allies.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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