Image Credit: Defense Images

Earlier today, I read “Learning to Kill: President Obama’s Evolution in the War on Terror“, a post by fellow blogger and Coloradan newsofthetimes that really got me thinking. The post below was originally going to be a comment on that blog, but it got a little long, so I decided to put it here instead.

I’ll admit that I, like many progressives, was much more willing to criticize President Bush for his actions in the “war on terror” than I have been to criticize President Obama for his.

Obama ran, more or less, as an anti-war candidate, so the fact that he has continued many Bush-era policies regarding the “war on terror” has led many on the left to declare that Obama has broken his campaign promises about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and on the war on terror in general.

However, I think it’s probable that the shift away from those promises indicates that there are national security concerns that Presidents Bush and Obama are privy to that most other politicians and regular Americans aren’t. These are national security concerns that Obama was likely not aware of as a presidential candidate in 2008, and once he became aware of them he may have come to view some of his campaign promises as hopelessly naive.

It’s also important to note that Obama officially ended several Bush-era policies, including torture, early in his presidency. He also had significant reservations about the use of drone strikes. According to an excerpt from Daniel Klaidman’s Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, printed in Newsweek,

Obama remained unsettled. “The president’s view was ‘OK, but what assurances do I have that there aren’t women and children there?’” according to a source familiar with his thinking. “‘How do I know that this is working? Who makes these decisions? Where do they make them, and where’s my opportunity to intervene?’”

That said, I think his decision to redefine combatant to mean “all military-age males in a strike zone” sets a particularly dangerous and terrifying precedent. Even if the majority of people being killed are militants (or terrorists or whatever you want to call them), I think there’s too much potential for similar policies to be abused by future presidents, even if it isn’t being abused by the current one. And how can anyone really know if Obama is abusing it or not?

In all the fuss about Obama’s definition of ‘militant’, it’s easy to forget that he has displayed a great deal of concern for civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Again, as Newsweek reported,

The president had come a long way in a short time. Schooled as a constitutional lawyer, he had had to adjust quickly to the hardest part of the job: deciding whom to kill, when to kill them, and when it makes sense to put Americans in harm’s way. His instincts tilted toward justice and protecting the innocent, but he also knew that war is a messy business no matter how carefully it is conducted. He saw the drones as a particularly useful tool in a global conflict, but he was also mindful of the possibility of blowback.

As Journalist Peter L. Bergen reports in his recent book Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for Bin Laden, the President chose a special ops raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound partly because of the reduced possibility of civilian casualties, even when Vice President Biden, Secretary of Defense Panetta, and several of Obama’s top military advisors advocated a drone strike.

The AP reports that the UN recently released a study that said that civilian deaths in Afghanistan in 2012 have dropped by 36% compared to last year. (Something tells me the UN is not using Obama’s “militant” criteria here, but I could be wrong.) That report also states that the Taliban and its allies bear the responsibility for about 79% of civilian deaths, while the Afghan government and foreign powers (including the US) are responsible for about 9%.

It leaves 12% of civilian casualties unexplained. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that these deaths were caused by US military action, including drone strikes. Is it possible to argue that, while civilian casualties are never acceptable, the US is probably doing more to reduce the total number of civilian casualties by killing Taliban and al-Qaeda commanders with drone strikes than it would by not targeting those commanders?

Granted, many drone strikes also occur in the tribal areas of Pakistan, which were not included in the UN report. But it’s reasonable to assume that if civilian casualties are down in Afghanistan, they are also down in Pakistan. Should we judge the President and his policies by the fact that civilian deaths have decreased, or by the way the administration has chosen to define “militant” and the potential ramifications thereof?

There is also evidence that the drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen are contributing to the severely negative view of the US in those areas. As the Washington Post reported, “Across the vast, rugged terrain of southern Yemen, an escalating campaign of U.S. drone strikes is stirring increasing sympathy for al-Qaeda-linked militants and driving tribesmen to join a network linked to terrorist plots against the United States.”

I’m not suggesting we should ignore the threat posed by al-Qaeda and its allies, but maybe we need to find a better way to address that threat, if such a way exists. Is the legacy of the Bush and Obama drone campaign in these countries going to be a new wave of anti-American sentiment that fuels the same organizations that we’re trying to eradicate?

Honestly, I’m torn. Are drone strikes worth the cost? I don’t dispute that the targets of these strikes pose a threat to US national security, but what are we achieving if we’re driving Afghan, Pakistani, and Yemeni people into the arms of terrorist organizations?

I’d really appreciate your input.

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