08 Jun

Obama’s Drone Wars strain the liberal principles he espoused in 2008



drone strikes 300x204 Obama’s Drone Wars strain the liberal principles he espoused in 2008

Obama’s drone wars have threatened diplomacy with strategically important countries such as Pakistan // Credit Getty Images

 By Clara Cullen

The recent New York Times article on Obama’s use of drones has reverberated across the internet. The fractured lives and fractured diplomacy these attacks have left in their wake has become the subject of articles, blogs and television segments. While drone warfare is nothing new, the article revealed that the technology has become increasingly advanced and drones are now the go-to weapon for Obama’s ‘War on Terror’. Indeed, this lurch towards more hawkish right-wing policiess has some suggesting that the President has become “George W. Bush on steroids”. I believe Obama’s drone strategy is a betrayal of all who supported him. In turn, the silence of all those who voted for “hope” and “change” is worrying; it suggests that the US liberal electorate would rather support Obama, who they perceive as a lesser political evil than his Republican adversaries, than actually questioning the political hypocrisy his foreign policy entails.

The New York Times’ article is disturbing because it explains how Obama has instituted a command structure in which he authorises each drone strike. The now infamous ‘Kill list’ demonstrates Obama’s dramatic political shift. Indeed, he has adopted policies that, as Jack Goldsmith (Bush’s Assistant Attorney General) highlighted in 2009, have “copied most of the Bush programme” and have even “expanded some of it”.

It is understandable that some are finding it hard to reconcile this ‘Call of Duty’ strategy with the poetic election campaigner of 2008. Prior to being elected, Obama was consistently wary of how the ‘War on Terror’ was being conducted. He notably proclaimed in a 2002 speech : “What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war”. And though he did take cover by stating that he does not oppose all forms of war, arguably engaging in drone warfare is “dumb” and “rash”.

The fallout from Obama’s warfaring is especially embarrassing in the light of his Nobel Peace Prize award in 2009 for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples”. By awarding the honour to Obama, more on the basis of his anticipated achievements than actual evidence, an uncomfortable contradiction has developed: here is a man who is noted for talking peace while becoming ever more embroiled in the brutality of war.

Obama’s use of drones is only one element in his transformation from liberal to quasi-conservative. And there are commentators who believe he has always been a pragmatist and that his political record has shown him to be less idealistic than his rhetoric suggests. But even for the less cynically inclined, Obama’s continuation and extension of neo-conservative policy should be a numbing disappointment for liberals.

No doubt, US government officials will argue that Obama is engaging in the reality of modern warfare and that drones are a safer way of executing terrorists than employing ground troops. White House Counter Terrorism advisor John Brennan stated that civilian causalities are “exceedingly rare”. Well yes, they are “exceedingly rare”, but only because the CIA’s definition of a “combatant” is so broad that it effectively means anyone killed in a drone strike, as long as they are “military-age males” can be classified as a “combatant”. Such callousness damns not only those who were enamoured by Obama’s rhetoric of “hope” and “change”, but also anyone who believes civil liberties should not be eroded out of fear of the unknown.

This military policy also inadvertently undermines the US’s relations with countries crucial to its ‘War on Terror’. Diplomacy, particularly with Pakistan, has become increasingly strained following recent attacks, while Sudarsan Raghavan in The Washington Post suggested the use of drones is actually doing more damage than good to the US’s war effort.

Will such evidence against drone warfare impact on Obama’s re-election hopes? Anti-war sentiment was a large factor in catalysing the Republican Party’s electoral demise in 2008. Will it do the same for Obama? Perhaps not; Obama’s poll ratings were highest in the days following Osama bin Laden’s assassination, possibly indicating that an aggressive foreign policy is not always unwelcome. Yet a more probable explanation lies in the transitory upsurge of US patriotism following Osama bin Laden’s death. Tellingly, Obama’s poll figures quickly trailed off suggesting the latter, and indicating that a continuation of this foreign policy may not be a fast track to electoral success.

There has been a disconcerting lack of demonstrations opposing the use of drones. A few dedicated anti-war stalwarts in the Occupy movement spoke out, but they have had scant impact on public opinion. Young progressives, who were so pivotal in getting Obama elected, so fuelled by the optimism of the 2008 election campaign and so vocal in their disapproval of Bush’s war policies have all but disappeared; their voices are silent at a time when the Obama Administration is not just continuing similar policies but actually extending them. Any debate about the morality of drone warfare has not been undertaken en masse but has remained confined to academic discussions and broadsheet column inches. However, it is clear that America’s optimism has faded, and Obama’s failure to deliver on much of his inspiring rhetoric has intensified a climate of apathy. Actor Matt Damon, summed this up on CNN’s Piers Morgan Show when he stated scathingly: “I no longer hope for audacity”.

Drone strikes symbolise Obama’s transformation from a candidate who espoused change to an Imperial president very much in the mould of his predecessor. As Penn and Teller have said, the Obama Administration is “spending money America doesn’t have, to kill people they don’t know, for reasons no one understands”. His use of drone warfare is yet another test of principle for those who ever had the audacity to hope.


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Boy, were we fooled. And were we gullible. I cannot see how I can vote for this man again. It would make me sick to my stomach to do so. We need to find a way to make the voices of those of us who are aghast and angry at the way Obama is conducting his so-called war on terror heard. It is not only criminal, it is stupid. Here is the candidate who said he was against “stupid wars” who has developed a foreign policy that creates new terrorists and kills innocent civilians daily. If it were Bush, we would be calling for impeachment.

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