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."]