Gwynne Dyer: President Barack Obama, drone strikes, and Guantanamo Bay

John Bellinger is the last person in Washington you’d expect to criticize President Barack Obama for making too many drone strikes. It was he who drafted the (rather unconvincing) legal justification for targeted drone killings when he was legal adviser to the Secretary of State in George W. Bush’s second administration, and he still supports them. But he went ahead and criticized Obama anyway.

Speaking at a conference at the Bipartisan Policy Centre in Washington on May 1, Bellinger said: “This government has decided that instead of detaining members of al-Qaeda (at Guantanamo), they are going to kill them.” Leaving aside the question of whether most of the people detained at Guantanamo were ever actually members of al-Qaeda, there is a certain amount of plausibility in this accusation.

President Obama wants to close the U.S. prison camp on the Cuban coast where hundreds of suspected supporters of al-Qaeda have been held without charge, some for more almost a decade.

There are still 166 prisoners at Guantanamo, and just last week Obama, having been thwarted by Congress in his first-term pledge to close the place, announced his intention to try again with the new Congress.

The U.S. president was quite eloquent about why Guantanamo should be closed.

“It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”

It also flouts international law, but even foreign-born Muslim socialist presidents of the United States can never concede that the whole enterprise was illegal. The furthest Obama will go is to say that it was counterproductive from the start, but that alone should be a sufficient justification for closing the place.

So why did Bellinger, of all people, then accuse Obama of using drones too often? The U.S. president certainly does seem to like them: the vast majority of the 370 U.S. drone attacks, killing an estimated 3,500 people, have been carried out on his watch.

According to Bellinger, it’s because Obama knows that if he can’t send the evil-doers to Guantanamo, his only alternative is to kill them with drone strikes.

What we actually have here is an unusually subtle Republican argument: if you don’t like the drone strikes (because they kill lots of innocent people), then you should keep Guantanamo open. But subtle is not the same as valid.

There are two unstated assumptions at the heart of this argument. One is that the U.S. could put its drones away and just capture the people it suspects of being al-Qaeda supporters by conventional means and lock them away in Guantanamo. No fuss, no muss, and no innocent “collateral damage”.

That’s ridiculous: the United States is not going to have much luck in tracking down alleged al-Qaeda supporters in the wilds of Yemen or Afghanistan and spiriting them away to Guantanamo. If it doesn’t target them with drones, then most of them will go on living (and so will the innocent people nearby). But you can’t just leave such dangerous people alive, can you?

This brings us to the second unstated assumption: that if all those dangerous people had been allowed to live, then there would have been hundreds of terrorist attacks against the United States. Or at least dozens. Okay then, how about a couple?

Probably not even one. After all, there were no drone strikes for the first three years after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, because the technology was not yet available. Yet even then, when al-Qaeda was still a relatively strong and cohesive organization, there was not one further terrorist attack on the United States. The link between drone strikes and possible terrorist attacks on the United States is purely rhetorical.

There might have been one or two fewer attacks on American forces in Afghanistan if the drones had not been killing people in the tribal territories of Pakistan, but a simpler remedy than drone strikes would just be to withdraw those forces from Afghanistan as soon as possible. They are not serving any American interest by being there, and they cannot determine who will rule the country after they finally go home.

Indeed, since the Taliban’s guerrilla war against the foreign armies in that country only got underway after the drone strikes had begun, and has grown in almost every year since, it’s hard to argue that drones have prevented many attacks even there. The whole “war on terror”—the militarization of what should have been a counterterrorist campaign conducted by  intelligence services, diplomats, police, and courts—was a ghastly blunder from the start.

Never mind. The whole argument is moot. Obama won’t get the Republican majority in the House of Representatives to go along with closing Guantanamo this time either. And he won’t stop the drone strikes because he needs to be seen by the American public to be doing something “positive” as he brings the American troops home from another needless and lost war.

There is not one iota of strategic thinking in any of this. It’s all about American domestic politics, as the response to 9/11 has been from the beginning.

Comments (11) Add New Comment
Andrew B
Drones are a totally illegal tresspass of other countries. Watch out when they use them on their own people.
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Alan Layton
The drone strikes will probably turn out to be a better recruitment tool than Guantanamo. I agree Dyer that they should get just get their troops out of the region as soon as possible.
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Jeremy
Yes, Mr. Dyer you are dead on as far us our policy since 9/11, a waste and foolish misadventure.
What is worrisome is the military has new laser technology that will be minimal cost after it is developed.
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I. Chandler
"the vast majority of the 370 U.S. drone attacks, killing an estimated 3,500 people, have been carried out on his watch."

The New York Times has proposed that U.S. presidents should present evidence to a drone court before placing Americans on a kill list. A "drone court" would be a mindless rubber-stamp like the FISA court:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/03/fisa-court-rubber-st...
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I. Chandler
Eric Margolis describes how hunting bad guys is an American tradition dating from the days of the indan wars and Pancho Villa:

http://ericmargolis.com/2013/05/bin-ladens-movement-is-thriving/

"there were no drone strikes for the first three years after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, because the technology was not yet available."

Predator technology was available on Serbians in 1995. Predator drones were flown from Uzbekistan before 911, and used with Stinger missiles in Iraq in 2002.

A Frontline documentary interviews some amnesiatic that forget that 75 cuise missiles killed some bad guys in Afghanistan in 1998. The keystone cops claim that their gloves came off, only after 911:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/topsecretamerica/#b
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SPY vs SPY
Could someone please inform me as to how many innocent people in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been killed by the Taliban and Ultra Orthodox Muslims?????

The Taliban are financed by Saudi Arabia, recruited from Morocco to Malaysia, sent to Pakistan for training and then go and kill soldiers and anyone else who they like in Afghanistan.

You cannot win a war financed with $$$Billions$$$ of Saudi Dollars, with millions young Muslim potential volunteer soldiers and a country like Pakistan willing to house them and provide them with training.

It seems like this impoverished country of Afghanistan with only 25 million people with a percapita income of about 6 goats, 5 sheep and 10 chickens, is now some sort of symbol of Islamic Prowess.

This war is not Afghanis killing Afghanis, it's Global War Zone with many Wealthy and Powerful People acting out their Religious and National Fantasies at the expense of the Poor and Defenseless.
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Richard T.
American governments, like all empires in the past, are obsessed with their own prestige. Once they start a war,like in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan they simply cannot stop until the war is won. Or until they can convince the Their public that it has been won, even if it isn't true.
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RUK
I am epically disappointed in Obama, who was elected to be the anti-Bush but has carried on the same imperial hubris that got America to its current position as the despised bully of the world, morally and actually bankrupt, and a morass of depraved, ignorant, and unhealthy citizens with no future.

No one can be surprised exactly but when an actual Constitutional professor is elected to the White House you might have thought he would have applied some mild traction on the evil policy of killing without trial.

As usual, America thinks it owns the world and therefore can do what it wants. So far China has let America think this, to protect their own currency and trade, but a reckoning cannot be delayed indefinitely.

As for the choice between Guantanemo and drone murder, is there not a third option? How about closing those 800 foreign military bases and deploying some of those expert warriors and their materials into *defensive* positions around their OWN country? Or does that not make the world sufficiently loose and pliable for the stockholders?
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Syed
Obama won Nobel peace prize but killed more innocent woman and children.
Obama Your not white people can see through you!
Also you criticize Israel on its wrong action the gang of AIPAC will get you, they own the media and you promised them so be provide service to them.
Enjoy!
US government look after Israel more then it should pay attention to Americans, Billions of dollars of aid to Israel but not money toward Health care for Americans.
Congress and senate take Jewish holidays when they are not even 1%.
Peace don't comes from war.
after All " John F. Kennedy Opposed Israel’s Power "
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D Ritchie
> Syed

I agree with your stance regarding the blindless US support for Israel but not for the anti-Semitic reasons you suggest, ie "they own the media" which is a ridiculous cliche and totally untrue. After all, Mr. Dyer is also the "media".
The "media" is controlled by an even more sinister group, shareholders of giant corporations.
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Bill Cameron
GITMO is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.
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