Obama's drone wars could cost him the election

By John Sexton
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, August 6, 2012
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The egregious Sarah Palin was rightly ridiculed for claiming President Obama's health care reforms would mean state death panels deciding the fate of US citizens.

But in May the New York Times revealed the existence of a real live death panel chaired by Obama. At so-called 'Terror Tuesday' meetings, the President inspects mug-shots and biographies before approving a kill list of militants to be eliminated by CIA-operated drones - the current weapon of choice in the War on Terror.

Obama is fighting what even political friends call a ferocious war on Islamist militants in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Hundreds of drone strikes - five times more than under George W. Bush - have killed thousands - almost all militants the administration says, but opponents say many civilians have died.

And although the long-winded Times story suggested painstaking investigation by its reporters, close reading reveals a calculated administration leak designed to boost Obama's reelection campaign. Obama wants the public to know about his extraordinarily hands-on role in targeted killings.

Why is the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who opposed the Iraq War, promised a new start with the Muslim world, and won the presidency on a ticket of change, carefully honing a tough guy image in the run-up to November?

One answer is that those who took Obama for a peacenik were not paying attention. He opposed the invasion of Iraq because he saw it as the wrong war, a diversion from the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

But another reason for playing the international tough guy is that the President has nothing good to report on the economy. After five years of economic pain, Obama is running barely neck and neck in the polls with the gaffe-prone corporate raider Mitt Romney. The President calculates that posing as the hammer of Al Qaeda and reminding voters it was he, not Bush, who hunted down Osama bin Laden, may be his best chance of defeating the former hedge fund manager.

And using high-tech smart weapons that supposedly minimize civilian casualties allows Obama to play hard ball while cultivating an image of moral rectitude. Yet more important for a country wearied by 11 years of warfare, drone strikes involve no risk of US military casualties.

But the drones are not nearly as clinical as the administration would have us believe. The UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has named 317 civilians killed by drone strikes in Pakistan alone - compared with only 170 named militants. And as many as 500 other unnamed civilians may have died in the attacks. The numbers are small compared to the hundreds of thousands killed in Iraq and Afghanistan but dead civilians are recruiting sergeants for the militants. The Washington Post and others have reported how anger at the strikes in Yemen has boosted support for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Quite apart from likely future blowback, Obama's drone wars are alienating his natural supporters. He may revel in his role as Imperial dispenser of justice, ticking off names like Octavian after the Ides of March, but Terror Tuesdays have played badly with liberals. His highest profile critic is former President Carter who attacked the 'administration's cruel and unusual record' and 'top officials targeting people to be assassinated, including American citizens.'

The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen was a turning point. The militant cleric, a US citizen born in New Mexico, had condemned the 9/11 attacks but later preached jihad against the US. The administration claimed he was also involved in planning AQAP operations. In early 2010, Obama ordered his assassination, describing it as an 'easy decision'.

Al-Alawki's father and the American Civil Liberties Union applied for an injunction to stop the killing but in July 2010 the court ruled it had no jurisdiction over 'matters of policy.' Al-Alawki was killed by a Predator drone on September 30, 2011. A second strike two weeks later killed his 16-year-old son, also a US citizen.

For many former supporters Obama had crossed a line, effectively abrogating the constitutional rights to due process and habeas corpus.

Meanwhile on the campaign front it costs Romney nothing to outbid the President. Obama pivots to the East; Romney says he will declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in the White House. Obama stands shoulder to shoulder with Israel; Romney says he will recognize Jerusalem as its capital, and so on.

Obama may think he can afford to alienate liberals because they have nowhere else to go. But a bigger worry is that the disillusioned may simply not vote. Obama swept to power on a wave of euphoria and hopes of a clean break with the Bush era. If his supporters stay at home because they feel he has morphed into Bush-lite, it could hand the White House to Romney.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.


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