Friday, May 24, 2013

President Obama on drones

As I said yesterday, the big picture take-away from President Obama's speech on counterterrorism was that he laid the foundation for ending the indefinite war. Part way through the speech I began thinking to myself that he wasn't hitting that message hard enough. But then I realized that he wasn't just speaking to people on the left who have been screaming about drones - he was talking to the American public that had been traumatized by 9/11 and had their fears exploited ever since. In other words, he was laying the groundwork for all of us to let go of those fears and move forward.

But the President addressed a lot of policy in this speech as well. Specifically, he talked about the use of drones.
As was true in previous armed conflicts, this new technology raises profound questions -- about who is targeted, and why; about civilian casualties, and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under U.S. and international law; about accountability and morality. So let me address these questions.
He affirmed, as I have said before, that any new war technology raises profound questions. I can imagine this kind of conversation happening, for instance, when airplanes first developed the capability to drop bombs from the air.

President Obama then goes on to explain how his use of drones in this war has been both effective and legal. But he said that's not enough.
And yet, as our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power -- or risk abusing it.
Please take note of what a profound statement that is for a President to make. He's talking about making a moral case for limiting his own power. And after pointing out that drones are used to both protect coalition forces in Afghanistan and to target terrorists who are planning attacks, he says this:
And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set.

Now, this last point is critical, because much of the criticism about drone strikes -- both here at home and abroad -- understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties. There’s a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties and nongovernmental reports. Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war. And for the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred throughout conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives.
That is the burden that rests on the President's shoulders.  To carry that burden, it is clear that President Obama relies on the wisdom of people like Reinhold Niebuhr. I recall that way back in 2007, David Brooks asked then-Senator Barack Obama what he thought of Niebuhr's writing. Here's what he said:
“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from na├»ve idealism to bitter realism.”
People can critique the President's actions in any way they see fit. But to have any real legitimacy, they must wrestle with that tension between naive idealism and bitter realism - and what it means to stare the very real evil in the world in the face. Because that's the job we give to this President.


  1. Your post brought me to tears at the end. Just an incredibly poignant reminder (as if we needed one) of what a thoughtful, compassionate, honest, spiritual, hard-working man we have as president. People with minds and hearts open enough to see who he really is are blessed beyond measure and those whose brains and spirits are clogged with lies and fear are to be deeply pitied and prayed for.

  2. As a veteran of the Viet Nam era who also served in uniform for several years after the first Persian Gulf War, I found President Obama's talk to the nation profoundly moral and intelligent. With technological advances come huge responsibilities to deploy weapons only when needed and only when balanced by the detriments to such use. Our President has shown that he has the will and ability to take action, even very risky action, to protect this nation. Now he speaks to a strategy that, in pursuit of such protections, seeks also to protect not just Americans but all humanity as we confront evil in the world.