Obama’s Counter-terrorism Strategy: Drones As The Perfect Balance

Source: REUTERS/Jose Luis Saavedra

The US’ Global War on Terror marked the beginning of ‘war at a distance’. As mentioned in my previous blog, US counter-terrorism operations in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan are the infamous first example of widespread UAVs usage. The Bush administration paved the way for a Militarized Counter-Terrorism strategy with drone warfare as its basis. Obama was the essential and final push for such a systemic change. 

The former President’s role in this turn of events may sound strange to you: didn’t Obama win a Nobel Peace Prize?! Indeed, he did. Just an example of how warfare in distant and poorer countries brings little public attention. 

This turn in events may sound even stranger given Obama’s program during his presidential campaigns, which emphasized bringing peace and stability to his home country. And, in fact, in some twisted way, swapping soldiers for drones could be seen as an accomplishment of such promises. 

If we look closer at the expectations and pressures that Obama faced when entering the White House, as well as the policymaking incentives that LAWS give rise to, we can better understand why an apparent foreign policy dove like Obama made drones the essence of warfare. With Obama, assassination operations abroad didn’t stop but, instead, they were prolonged and extended. Guess what happened when not-so-dovey Trump took over?

Obama Enters Office: Expectations And Pressures

In 2009, Obama ran for US President at a time of popular discontent with the Bush administration and its interventionist foreign policy. The war in Iraq was crippled with pessimism as dead soldiers were kept being sent home during one of the worst recessions in decades. Among the population, 7/10 Americans favoured withdrawing troops from Iraq. Meanwhile, the Afghanistan war and the War on Terror added up to the foreign chaos that Obama would have to face.

Obama’s promises brought a glimpse of hope to a desperate population; domestic stability and prosperity were the basis of his electoral program. Removing troops from Iraq was part of this strategy.

The opposite reaction to Obama’s success was encountered within the US security community, which had experienced an increase in powers under Bush. The Pentagon and CIA fearfully watched as Obama’s popularity increased to finally get him the President and Commander in Chief position. The new President’s promises of a pacifist foreign policy were against the interests of the traditionally aggressive and interventionist foreign policy elite. The spread of the liberal hegemony had to continue. The profits of the military-industrial complex had to persist. The pressure was strong when Obama entered office.

The War On Terror And Drones As Middle Grounds

The War on Terror was, however, a potential middle ground among the exhausted voters, the skeptical security community, and the idealist Obama. In contrast to the Iraq war, the US population still supported counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East and Africa. Years of ineffective war in Afghanistan after the 9/11 tragedy had not shaken off the fear out of Americans’ minds. After all, an abstract foreign enemy called “terrorists” never ceases to disappear.

Obama did favour a more peaceful foreign policy and he aimed at reducing the lost soldier lives abroad. Nevertheless, the War on Terror was not included in these plans. Quite the opposite, defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban were amongst Obama’s priorities. The main objective was to do so without infuriating voters with more dead bodies sent home. Additionally, Obama needed to find a way to appease the sceptics in the Pentagon and the CIA. He found the way.

Of course, the security community didn’t object to expanding the War on Terror. More jobs and more money! The fight for a “free world” had to continue.

And, so, drones came into play. The perfect balance that alleviated voters’ fears of the foreign enemy and avoided more US casualties. The perfect tool to satisfy an intervention-driven security community. The perfect solution for an Obama facing many expectations and pressures. Everyone was happy.

The Perfect Solution…That Increased And Prolonged Conflicts

In my previous blog, I explain the policymaking incentives that (theoretically) autonomous and semi-autonomous weapons give rise to. A reduction in the blood, treasure, and reputation costs make warfare based on unmanned weapons such as drones a tempting path to increase and prolong conflicts. A dove like Obama wasn’t an exception to this theory.

When Obama entered office, his promises were kept. He began bringing US troops in Iraq back home. The new President also retracted decades of hostile relations with Iran and Cuba. Most importantly, the fight against the feared foreign terrorists continued without US lives being put at risk. Three days after his presidential premiere, Obama signed off two drone strikes in Pakistan.

The fight increased and continued. Under Obama, drone airstrikes were used to remove Muammar el-Qadaffi from Lybia (which then led to widespread instability in the country), to fight ISIS, and the counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan continued. Basically, drone airstrikes everywhere. During the Bush administration, there were 50 drone airstrikes in total. Obama topped the record with 506 strikes.

There were no restraints to stop this escalation and prolongation in conflict. Two thirds of Americans favoured using drone strikes to kill (presumed) foreign terrorists in foreign countries. Congress didn’t disprove either.  Due to the lack of transparent procedures that govern drone airstrikes (which Obama didn’t contribute much to clear up), the media has had little information about how many drone strikes have been authorized, where they have been used, and how many people they have killed.

Overall, the lack of political restraints due to a lack of blood, treasure, and reputation costs, as well as the pressures and expectations that Obama faced while at office, incentivized the use of drones. In turn, with drones building an easy pathway to expand the War on Terror, not only did conflict continue but it also increased.

If you are not convinced yet of the role of drones in the escalation and prolongation of conflict, let me make one last argument. Before 9/11, when drones had not been deployed extensively, the Clinton administration was very cautious in attacking presumed terrorists abroad due to the risks to US personnel and civilians. On the other hand, Bush and Obama didn’t restrain themselves in these operations. The difference? They had advanced drone technology. Conclusion? War on Terror + drones = deadly combination.

Oh, and did I mention that Obama’s first drone airstrikes killed one presumed terrorist militant and 10 civilians? Among them were 4 to 5 children. 

The Implications Of Drones: Civilian Casualties And Dangerous Precedents

Aside from an increase in conflict and the prolongation of such, the implications are many. While drones have proved to be more effective in killing presumed terrorists than previous weapons, civilians have been a prominent “collateral damage” of airstrikes. According to reports from different non-governmental organizations, the drone strikes under Obama have killed a total of 3.040 presumed terrorists and 391 civilians. However, for obvious political reasons, civilian deaths are usually under-reported. The lack of public awareness for this human suffering abroad is also concerning.

And who are these terrorists, anyway? Terrorists according to whom? Critics of the US counter-terrorism strategy argue that drones have incentivized killing these foreign suspects instead of trying them through a fair judicial proceeding. Drone strikes don’t take war prisoners. These continuous breaches of international humanitarian law are establishing a dangerous precedent in a world where anarchy can only be avoided with a solid international law framework. Instead of stopping these possibly unlawful practices, other countries have followed the US example in their own counter-terrorism operations.

Lastly, these negative impacts of drones on foreign populations could be incentivizing the creation of even more terrorists. This is the opinion of the former US President Jimmy Carter, the former head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency Michael Flynn, the retired general Stanley McCrystal, and the former director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair.

That is, a War on Terror expanded and continued with drones is just aiding in expanding and continuing the conflict further. And so does human suffering and global instability.

Now, with Trump ‘The Hawk’, in office, the situation has only gotten worse. While, under Obama, there was one strike every 5.4 days, with Trump the average has increased to one strike every 1.25 days.

The conflict continues. Keep an eye out for my next blog if you want to learn more about leaders, drones, conflict, and more!

Adriana Rodriguez

Executive Director of Research and Analysis