By Michael O’Hanlon, Special to CNN
Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at Brookings and author of The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity. The views expressed are his own.
President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism speech Thursday did not deliver any radical policy changes or huge revelations, but it was well done nonetheless. It explained his reasoning behind the use of certain techniques of warfare including drone strikes and Guantanamo detentions, even as he also promised to minimize the use of these methods in the future and try to move towards a world in which the 2001 authorization for war against al Qaeda and affiliates would no longer be needed. It was an intelligent blend of the tone of his more idealistic speeches, such as the Cairo address of June 2009, with his more muscular messages like the December 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
But one section of his speech is worth particular focus – the use of armed unmanned combat vehicles or drones. Even though President Obama did not specify exactly how drone strikes would change in the future, and did not provide a great deal of new information about them, the modest amount of detail he did provide was welcome. That is because U.S. drone strikes are badly misunderstood around the world, a point underscored by a New York Times op-ed today contained the following statements:
“...the C.I.A. has no idea who is actually being killed in most of the strikes. Despite this acknowledgment, the drone program in Pakistan still continues without any Congressional oversight or accountability.”
Such statements are incorrect and inflammatory, causing problems for example in U.S.-Pakistani relations. Indeed, even so-called “signature strikes” have typically been conducted only after a great deal of surveillance of a given site, very robust establishment of the fact that such a site is an enemy headquarters or related facility, and considerable care in ensuring that noncombatants are not present (and as Obama said, Congress is “briefed on every strike that America takes”).
To be sure, American methods have gotten more careful over the years – they were not originally as good as they are now. But the suggestion that the United States has no idea whom it is targeting, or that large numbers of innocents are being harmed in the process, is incorrect.
For example, careful work by Peter Bergen and colleagues at the New America Foundation suggests that over a decade, at most several hundred innocents have died in such operations – perhaps 20 to 25 percent of all casualties from drone strikes. These numbers are modest by the standards of war.
And other estimates with which I am familiar are much lower. The president said in his speech that “...before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.” From briefings I have received, I believe that to be an accurate and fair explanation of American practices. There have been a couple of controversial strikes in the last two to three years, and that is, to be sure, a couple too many. But I believe that to be the extent of the serious problems of late. Indeed, innocent deaths from drones probably total in the dozens over the course of the Obama presidency.
Of course, none of the noncombatant casualties are “acceptable’ or “reasonable” or even necessarily “inevitable.” But the widespread view that U.S. drone strikes outside Afghanistan have been cavalier or careless is incorrect and needed to be rebutted. Indeed, I would have preferred that the president be even more specific, and somewhat quantitative, in giving his estimates of innocent casualties.
But what he did say today was a lot better than nothing – it was overdue and important.