THE PUBLIC EYE: Obama’s Legacy: Drone Wars

Friday January 25, 2013 - 08:35:00 AM

After Barack Obama’s stirring second inaugural address, Democrats anticipate action on vital domestic issues, such as immigration reform and gun control. Nonetheless, the national security budget will continue to dominate discretionary expenditures, as the President pursues the “war” on terror using aerial robots – drones. 

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked about Obama’s first-term accomplishments. “Bringing all the troops home from Iraq” and “killing Osama bin Laden” were ranked number one and two. While 22 percent of the NBC/WSJ poll respondents were pleased with the end of the war in Iraq and 21 percent looked favorably on the demise of bin Laden, 16 percent said Obama’s biggest failure was “keeping American troops in Afghanistan.” 

Obama’s aggressive use of drones is a tacit acknowledgement that Americans have grown tired of endless war and military casualties. As a consequence, rather than subvert George W. Bush’s war on terror, President Obama has expanded it; he has increased warrantless wiretapping, military tribunals, indefinite detentions, and killer-drone strikes. Estimates are that aerial robots have killed several thousand suspected Al Qaeda militants, including at least three American citizens. (14 to 19 percent of the drone strike victims have been civilians.) 

On February 4, 2002, the first killer-drone strike occurred in Afghanistan. Since then there have been approximately 423 similar attacks, 52 authorized by George W. Bush and the balance by Obama. Both Presidents used the same legal justification, Congress’ 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force as well as the international law regarding nations’ right to self-defense. The killer-drone strikes have occurred in six countries that we know of: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. The bulk of the strikes, and deaths, have occurred in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province or the adjacent area of Afghanistan, an area known to house both Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. There’s no evidence that the US has used killer drones in Iraq since the end of the war on December 15, 2011, although we continue to use surveillance drones there. On December 4, 2012, Iran claimed to have captured a US drone that flew over its airspace. 

Most of America’s 10,000+ drones are operated by the CIA and the elite military Joint Special Operations Command. The most commonly used killer drone is the Predator MQ-1 equipped with Hellfire missiles. Cruising at 85 miles per hour, the 360 Predators each have a range of 770 miles and can stay aloft for 24 hours at heights up to 25,000 feet. The Predator program has cost at least $2.38 billion; each drone costs $4 million to build and millions more to operate. Drone operations are conducted from an estimated sixty bases around the world. 

President Obama has made killer drones his weapon of choice in the war on terror. This strategy has benefitted Obama in two ways. 

First, it has worked politically. Obama is the first Democratic President in sixty years to have unassailable credentials on national security. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Obama was seen as stronger than Mitt Romney. Obama won the final debate, on foreign policy and national security, because Romney couldn’t differentiate himself from the President – Romney’s stance on most issues was, “Me, too.” Obama’s closing remarks summarized his perspective: “As Commander in Chief, I will maintain the strongest military in the world, keep faith with our troops, and go after those who would do us harm.” 

Second, the expansion of drone usage has given the Administration an inexpensive and popular way to fight the war on terror. A war weary public views killer drones as a preferable alternative to boots on the ground. 

After his victory in 2008, many Democrats expected Barack Obama’s national security policy to be guided by ethical considerations. Instead the White House borrowed from Henry Kissinger’s Realpolitik and adopted a strategy based upon pragmatics. Chief among these is pursuit of Al Qaeda operatives in a manner that minimizes loss of American lives. 

Obama is not the first Democratic President whose national security policy has been driven by pragmatics. Franklin Roosevelt approved the internment of Japanese Americans. Harry Truman authorized the atomic bombing of Japan. John Kennedy approved a CIA plan to invade Cuba. Lyndon Johnson launched the War in Vietnam. 

Many of us expected better of Barack Obama. We did not think he would steal a page from the Bush/Cheney playbook. As journalist Mark Danner observed, “If President Obama has made himself largely invulnerable to the politics of fear it is because he has to a great extent taken it over in advance by his cool and ruthless methods, and left little political space for discussion.” 

During his second term, Obama may take action on vital domestic issues but he will also continue the war on terror with a bloated national security establishment and ferocious use of killer drones. The President’s legacy will be drone warfare. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at