While America was collectively fawning over President Obama’s "hilarious" appearance on Jimmy Fallon this week, word trickled out of Washington that the White House has issued new, far less restrictive guidelines on the use of Predator drone strikes in Yemen. Apparently feeling overly burdened by a requirement that drone operators make some effort to identify the people on the other end of their missiles, the Obama Administration is now officially sanctioning missile strikes against people whose identities are completely unknown. Now all that is required for an Executive death warrant is a pattern of travel or behavior (known as an "intelligence signature") that the Executive Branch deems suspicious. The frightening implications of this public shift are obviously legion, but I’d like to focus on three.
First and foremost, the broadening of the drone war in Yemen quite flatly destroys the recent declaration of a State Department official that "the War on Terror is over." Unless that statement was meant as the harbinger of some new species of shameless and pernicious wordplay from the Obama Administration (or a bit for the President’s next comedy act), it seems laughably out of touch. Instead, our war (and the terror it inspires) is broadening in scope.
Secondly, if we’re to take the Obama Administration at its word that this directive represents a shift at all, then logic dictates that we view previous drone strikes as having required affirmative identification of the targets. If that’s the case, then the Obama Administration’s perpetual waffling and misstatement about the identities of those killed by our strikes (including 16-year-old American Abdulrahman al-Awlaki) starts to look like intentional obfuscation rather than a genuine lack of knowledge. If, on the other hand, the previous policy was to make an educated "best guess" at the identities of the targets, then it’s difficult to see how this new guideline represents a shift at all. It would simply represent official stamp of approval to what was previously regarded as a non-event when President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan claimed dubiously last year that "there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop."
Third, the use of behavioral "signatures," rather than positive identification, for choosing drone targets risks drastically strengthening the already pervasive perception in the Arab world that the United States is backing a brutal regime against popular resistance. The War on Terror is not the only conflict in town, you see. While American ally (and tyrannical despot) Ali Abdullah Saleh (who, as revealed by Wikileaks, gave the Obama Administration express permission to bomb his country at will) has finally ceded power to his Vice President Abd Rabbo Mansur al-Hadi, resistance to the regime and demands for reform continue. Unfortunately for the U.S., there seems to be considerable overlap between the anti-regime forces in Yemen and the suspected militants the Obama Administration is trying to exterminate. Becoming less discerning in how we choose our targets seems destined to exacerbate this problem, as it’s doubtful that a drone can distinguish between a group meeting to discuss attacking the U.S. and a group meeting to discuss overthrowing the Yemeni government (or, for that matter, a family barbecue). The Obama Administration can continue to crow about its commitment to the ideals of the Arab Spring, but the missiles don’t lie.
While the suggestion that the Obama Administration, already engaged militarily in Yemen without anything resembling a declaration of war, has been holding itself to an overly high standard in its death-dealing is galling enough, the fact that the administration isn’t afraid to publicly declare that it no longer even needs to know whom it’s killing is even more worrisome.
Perhaps, then, it’s fitting that while the disastrous implications of this policy drive the entire discourse into the realm of farce, the President is enrapturing the disinterested American people with late night comedy routines. Almost eleven years into the longest war this nation has ever fought, and with very little tangible evidence of our success, the attempt by the President to expand his authority to unilaterally and summarily kill people in foreign lands should be met with fierce resistance, not laughter and adoration. To those suffering under Barack Obama’s aggressive policies, this is no laughing matter.