Moral Low Ground

War & Peace

Obama Delivers Major Foreign Policy Speech on Drones, Targeted Killing, Guantánamo

President Barack Obama delivered a major foreign policy speech on Thursday in which he addressed hot-button issues including drones, civilian casualties, force-feeding of hunger striking Guantánamo detainees and the targeted assassination of US citizens.

Speaking at the National Defense University at Ft. McNair in Washington, DC, the president’s remarks were unusually candid, even as he defended some highly controversial policies and practices.

Addressing the use of unmanned aerial drones, which have killed hundreds of innocent civilians along with a relative handful of top terrorist commanders, Obama asserted that such strikes are “effective,” “legal” and “have saved lives.” Drone strikes, the president insisted, are part of a “just war– a war waged proportionately, in last resort and in self-defense.”

Since September 11, 2001, Islamist terrorism has claimed the lives of 3,000 Americans. In that same period, retaliatory US-led attacks, invasions and occupations have resulted in the deaths of more than 130,000 AfghansIraqisPakistanisYemenisLibyans and Somalis.

Immediately after defending the use of drones, President Obama acknowledged that “to say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.” He then referenced the Presidential Policy Guidance he signed on Wednesday, which listed the criteria for the approval of drone strikes:

  • A near-certainty that the intended target is present, and that no civilians would be killed or injured.
  • Capture of the intended target is not feasible.
  • Authorities of the nation in which the strike will occur are unable or unwilling to deal with the threat posed by the intended target.
  • No other reasonable alternatives to a drone strike exist.

The president called drone strikes “the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life,” pointing to the enormous cost of “the history of putting American troops in distant lands among hostile populations.”

“In Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of civilians died in a war where the boundaries of battle were blurred,” Obama stated. “In Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the courage and discipline of our troops, thousands of civilians have been killed.”

As for the innocent men, women and children killed by US drone strikes, Obama said that “for me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Obama then mentioned the one American targeted for assassination by drone strike, the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in Yemen in 2011. On Wednesday, the Justice Department officially acknowledged for the first time that drone strikes have killed four Americans since 2009, including a 16-year-old boy guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The president, whose secret ‘kill list’ of suspected terrorists (which reportedly includes the names of American citizens and children) made worldwide headlines last year, defended the targeted killing of Americans without constitutional due process.

“When a US citizen goes abroad to wage war against America… his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team,” Obama stated.

The president reserved his harshest words– which were directed at the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay– for the final part of his speech. Calling GITMO “a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law,” Obama asserted that “there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened.”

At that moment, Obama was interrupted by Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the anti-war group Code Pink, who decried the killing of innocent Muslims by US forces and called on the president to close Guantánamo.

Surprisingly, President Obama said he was “willing to cut that young lady interrupting me some slack, because it’s worth being passionate about.”

“The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to,” the president added as Benjamin was hauled from the room by security.

Then, this major announcement: “I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case-by-case basis,” Obama said. “To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries.”

“History will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it,” Obama predicted. “Imagine a future– 10 years from now, or 20 years from now– when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not part of our country.”

Fully 87 of the 166 remaining Guantánamo detainees have been cleared for release, some of them since George W. Bush’s first term in office. Most of these men are from Yemen, a nation to which Obama banned repatriation of cleared detainees in 2010 due to the volatile political situation there.

More than 100 GITMO detainees have been on a hunger strike, some of them for more than 100 days, to protest this state of affairs. The president also poignantly addressed the hunger strike, as well as the decision to force-feed hunger striking detainees via painful naso-gastric tube insertions– a violation of medical ethics and, according to the United Nations, a form of torture— near the end of his remarks.

“Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike,” Obama said. “Is that who we are? Is that something our Founding Fathers foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?”

“Our sense of justice is stronger than that,” the president insisted, calling for terrorism suspects to be tried in civilian courts, where the government has a great record of success in securing convictions and lengthy prison sentences.

Notably, the president also discussed “addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism” and acknowledged that the United States “compromised our basic values by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.”

But beyond promising to “work for peace between Israelis and Palestinians” and calling on the US to “help countries modernize economies, upgrade education, encourage entrepreneurship… [and] patiently support transitions to democracy in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya,” Obama failed to address many of the stated motivators behind Islamist terrorism. There was no mention of reducing the US military presence in the Muslim world (in fact, Obama vowed that America would not “retreat” from the region) or of ending support for brutal regimes in nations like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Obama also chose not to speak out against Israel’s ongoing occupation and illegal settler colonization of Palestine.

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