Let's Hope Obama's Secret Drone Base in Saudi Arabia Doesn't Inspire Blowback

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The desert kingdom may be the most provocative place in the world to launch unmanned killing missions.

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The United States has a secret drone base in Saudi Arabia, The Washington Post reports, adding that it's known about the base for more than a year but conspired with several other news organizations to keep it from the public at the Obama Administration's request.

Why might the public want to know?

Saudi Arabia is run by duplicitous authoritarians with a history of funding Islamic extremism. Close relations with the democracy-stifling regime is one reason America is so unpopular in the Muslim world. 

Osama bin Laden began his jihad against the United States largely because he was incensed that American troops were stationed in his homeland, Saudi Arabia, proximate to Islamic holy sites. The U.S. troop presence began during the Gulf War, when Americans led a coalition to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. "Bin Laden -- like many Muslims -- considers the continued presence of these armed infidels in Saudi Arabia the greatest possible desecration of the holy land," David Plotz explained in a Slate article published on September 14, 2001. "That is why he sponsored bombings of the American military facilities in Saudi Arabia, why he has tried to destabilize the Saudi government, and why the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed on August 7, 1998 -- eight years to the day after the first American troops were dispatched to Saudi Arabia."

In 2003, after the invasion of Iraq, the United States announced that it would pull its troops out of Saudia Arabia, though some remain there. In a January 2009 Gallup poll, 60 percent of Egyptians said their opinion of the United States would significantly improve if it moved all military bases out of Saudia Arabia. Forty percent of Syrians, 39 percent of Jordanians, 52 percent of Saudis, 40 percent of Palestinians, 55 percent of Tunisians, 40 percent of Lebanese people, and 30 percent of Algerians agreed. How many millions of people is that?

President Obama apparently thought it would still be desirable to have a spot in that country where drone strikes could be launched. "The base was established two years ago to intensify the hunt against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the affiliate in Yemen is known," reports the Washington Post. "John Brennan, who previously served as the CIA's station chief in Saudi Arabia, played a key role in negotiations with Riyadh over locating an agency drone base inside the kingdom."

It would've been nice to publicly debate whether the strategic value of a drone base in Saudi Arabia outweighs the potential for blowback. Operating on a four-year time horizon, Obama has a potentially perverse incentive to over-weight short-term outcomes. If he's especially worried about preventing a terrorist attack on his watch, it's easy to forgive that understandable psychological bias, but it would be nice if politicians with different biases helped shape policy.

Of course, the chance of blowback might have decreased if the drone base had been kept secret forever, but what were the odds of that? Zero. Apparently, multiple news organizations knew about this base, so the notion that it was going to remain secret for long seems foolhardy. American presidents always seem to behave as if more secrets will be kept than wind up being kept.

The New York Times gives the timeline for the Saudi base:

The first strike in Yemen ordered by the Obama administration, in December 2009, was by all accounts a disaster. American cruise missiles carrying cluster munitions killed dozens of civilians, including many women and children. Another strike, six months later, killed a popular deputy governor, inciting angry demonstrations and an attack that shut down a critical oil pipeline.

Not long afterward, the C.I.A. began quietly building a drone base in Saudi Arabia to carry out strikes in Yemen. American officials said that the first time the C.I.A. used the Saudi base was to kill Mr. Awlaki in September 2011.

What has it been used for lately?

There have been at least five drone strikes in Yemen since the start of the year, killing at least 24 people. That continues a remarkable acceleration over the past two years in a program that has carried out at least 63 airstrikes since 2009, according to The Long War Journal, a Web site that collects public data on the strikes, with an estimated death toll in the hundreds. Many of the militants reported killed recently were very young and do not appear to have had any important role with Al Qaeda.

To sum up, a CIA-constructed drone base located in Saudi Arabia is the launch point for numerous lethal strikes, many of which appear to kill people who don't play any important role in Al Qaeda.

Sounds like the sort of thing that could create blowback, doesn't it?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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