Obama nails it on drones
May 23rd, 2013
07:23 PM ET

Obama nails it on drones

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”).

More from CNN: Five questions on drones

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.

Post by:
Topics: Afghanistan • Barack Obama • CIA • Pakistan • Terrorism

soundoff (139 Responses)
  1. advocatus diaboli

    "Yep – keeps us in perpetual war – right?"
    What a naive comment that comes off as cowardly.
    One is at war when another party determines they'll attack them: you cannot chose not to be at war when someone has vowed to attack you and does repeatedly—you can ignore it or fight back and end it.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Reply
  2. burnabyjoefan

    I'm a little confused... so are people speaking out against drones really just against war? If it's just drones.. Why do you care if the craft is unmanned? Do you feel there is just not a sporting chance enough for the terrorists? If these are US Military targets and they are going to take them out.. by all means.. send a drone to do it and not have to risk the lives of US Servicemen and Women.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Reply
    • abmri60

      Other countries do not agree with the drone program.

      May 24, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      These are not people who are "against war" – they are against America being at war. Do you see any postings from them criticizing anybody else who kills? No. Take that into consideration when you evaluate their authenticity.

      May 24, 2013 at 7:11 pm | Reply
  3. Quigley

    I find it truly sickening to see all these ignorant people posting here about how these drones are "saving American lives" and killing only "militants". Neither is exactly true. Far more civilians than "militants" are actually being slaughtered despite all the right-wing propaganda one hears to the contrary and American military people already have far superior weapons on the battlefield rendering the other side ineffective in killing!

    May 24, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Reply
  4. adamwill

    "These numbers are modest by the standards of war."

    You are _not at war with anyone_. No, you cannot be at war with an abstract concept.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Reply
    • Lobelia

      It was interesting to me that Obama made a point in his speech of stating who we are at war with: Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Reply
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      • Johnathan

        I had a rather hard time chsoniog just one type of physician I would want to work for. So many of them fascinate me, and with me not really going into any medical field other than support, I never gave this any thought in the past. After reading the list, I am more favorable of working for a neonatologist. It is difficult to think about how neonatologist physicians sometimes have the most difficult job in the world, but I can only imagine how amazing it would be to be a part of saving a baby’s life. I had a coworker once whose baby was born at 36 weeks, and her baby had a lot of heart and lung problems. There were concerns about whether or not they would ever fully develop once she had him, but after many months in the NICU, and many scares that happened during it, the doctors were able to save him and he is now a very healthy 5 year old. It is because of that I have a higher interest in the neonatologist field.I hate to say which type of physician I would care less to work for, and it is because I worry that many will take it the wrong way. When I was 16, I used to help my mom at an assisted living home as a caregiver. We would get to work at 7:00 A.M. every morning to prepare breakfast for four of the elderly men and women that we were caring for. We would then make sure that all bedding was changed, rooms were cleaned, meals were prepared, and appointments were handled. We worked 12 hour days, and they were always grueling. The owner of the home made sure that everyone had their medicine and made it to their doctor appointments on time. However, she was more worried about getting paid for her services than actually helping the elderly. She would yell at them if they did something wrong, and even call them terrible names. My mom reported her and we both quit our job, but it has always left a sting in my heart since then. It is because of my experience with that situation that I do not think I could ever work for a gerontologist. I know that the situations would be much different, but ever since my experience with caring for elderly individuals it is very hard for me to think about assisting a physician in geriatrics because I worry that someone else might treat the elderly in the same way the owner of the home did. I am a firm believer that the elderly deserve the ultimate care and comfort when going through any treatment and aging in general, but I do not think I could ever work in that environment again.

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    • minnie mouse

      The September 11 massacre by radical Islamists of 3000 unarmed American civilians didn't feel very "abstract" to me.

      May 24, 2013 at 7:35 pm | Reply
  5. m123

    Where is all the outrage over this drone program?
    Obama drone hacks like Fareed can't wait to lick Odumphuc's boots.
    I see, it only mattered when Bush did it.
    Now it's ok because of Obama.
    No trial, no interrogation, just someone saying "kill them" and a deadly drone takes out another "terrorist' AND THEIR FAMILIES.
    Nothing to see here, move along
    Just your average incompetent Peace Prize president being a total hypocrite

    May 24, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      I see you've figured out that there aren't any "real terrorists" anywhere except Americans. Incisive and balanced analysis.

      May 24, 2013 at 7:14 pm | Reply
  6. ted

    Aren't these HIS drones? Isn't HE the Drone President?

    May 24, 2013 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  7. banditos

    Did Fareed plagiarize this one or is this an original thought. What happened to due process? I am sure if a Republican ordered these hits, Fareed would be screaming injustice. Allowing this hack to comment shows you the debt of talent and corruption at CNN.

    May 24, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Reply
    • sly

      Ha ha ha - gotta love them tea-billies. "Corruption at CNN"? Whoa Nellie – yeah, the American media sure is liberal huh, with 85% of newspapers owned by either the right wing facist Austrailian Rupport Murdoch, or the military industrail complex known as McDonnel-Douglas.

      Yep you ignorant Republicans – almost ALL newspapers and news shows are owned by the FAR right wing.

      Oh well .. I should know better than use facts on tea-billies – after all, y'all still believe some fat white man sits in the clouds sewing wings and legs on tiny butterflies.

      Ho ho ho .... y'all are fun to laugh at.

      May 24, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  8. jimmy

    in what bizarro universe is it "modest" for 20-25% of war fatalities to be innocent civilians? or "modest" to kill "at most several hundred" innocent civilians? yet we still act surprised when someone sets off a pipe bomb in retaliation.

    May 24, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Reply
  9. abmri60

    Obama signed of on more than 350 drone strikes against Al – Qaeda and allied groups in Pakistan.
    That is more than 6 times the number of attacks carried out during the years of George W Bush.
    ( strikes have also been carried out in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries.

    May 24, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Reply
  10. SurePal

    Where were you when leftist trash everywhere claimed Bush was an international war criminal for doing the same thing? Please post a verifiable link to the article you wrote supporting him at the time, otherwise you are just another coward of convenience. I'll wait right here.

    May 24, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Reply
  11. PeterD

    President Obama is worst than President Bush..................................

    May 24, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  12. Chicago

    He needs the drones in the US so he can spy on the media.

    May 24, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  13. PeterD

    President Obama has lost all Accountability and Responsibility unlike President Bush...............There is no Comparision between Incompetant President and Compassionate Patriotic President.................

    May 24, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Reply
    • sly

      Ho ho ho – you are joking I presume.

      GW Bush? Laughing stock of the world – the man who got 5000 Americans killed overseas, and let 3000 Americans die on 9/11?

      GW Bush? The biggest deficit increase in the history of our nation?

      President Obama enjoys the support of 78% of Americans for a reason: We are smart people and we appreciate a President with wisdom and policies. Our stock market is soaring to 17,000. Jobless rate going down to 4%. He ended the 2 Bush Oil Wars.

      That's ok – I know you were being sarcastic, since NO ONE likes any Bush's.

      May 24, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Reply
      • minnie mouse

        Wow. And I thought that islamist terrorists killed 3000 unarmed American civilians on 9/11 .... but it was actually President Bush?

        May 24, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
    • bspurloc

      Really? I dont recall Bush/Cheney answering to the Hague... very Odd u do...

      May 24, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  14. Mark B.

    One can easily imagine what this hack of of a foreign, defense, immigration policy pundit would be saying If George Bush had made the same speech. Obama rambled and still has a death list. You hypocrites were worried about waterboarding.
    Nobody died in that.Liberals are like sheep in a pinball game. To and fro bouncing, from cause to cause for points.

    May 24, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Reply
  15. juan cruz

    more nails in the obamabinmuslimallhislife coffin

    May 24, 2013 at 4:17 pm | Reply
  16. bspurloc

    except when as NOTED by CIA ops on the ground.... 1 tribesman is angry at another so he tells the CIA the other is Taliban, then his Uncle and cousin confirm it and BAM Drone strike on Innocent Afghanistan citizen.
    Look the primary mission was to get Osama bin Laden OBAMA Mission Accomplished that. now let us get out of this country so Russia can invade it next.... OK?

    May 24, 2013 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  17. TX Patriot

    What would Jesus do? Who would he target for the next drone strike? Who would he single out for the next torture session in Gitmo? We call ourselves a righteous, Christian nation. I think the entirety of Christians in this country would fit inside the New Orleans Superdome.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:07 pm | Reply
  18. Hafsa Fatima

    It's strange why Obama continues to declare the drones as justified, regardless of the fact that it's not just the innocent people that die, but the drones also killed the US soldiers. A statement like this from a super power is the last thing this world wants to hear, especially when a war to end a war was the most ignorant decission anyone could've made.
    On top of it the silence for the kids and the innocent people that die because of the drones, and this war has been deafining. Are they not human enough? Or is there only a 'particular' sort of human being that deserve all protest? I equally loath the view that the 'methods' of warfare are much improved and that not many innocents are dying.. Well for that i must quote: "You may try to cover up but just answer exactly what is the acceptable number of innocents harmed?"

    May 25, 2013 at 10:30 am | Reply
  19. bug

    i live close to a major base. a few weeks back, we had the privilege to witness drones doing maneuvers over our houses at allhours day & night. the drones do let u know they are in the vicinity.as i explained to my children; "imagine that when they(the collateral) hear this noise, this horrid, ugly, loud-a** noise, the panic & heartache they feel knowing there lives r at an end. i doubt they have the moments to even finish such a thought before being killed, for the greater good. children, who wants cookies

    May 26, 2013 at 6:48 pm | Reply
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