back to

The drone presidency


David Cole writes about Obama’s track record with drone warfare for the New York Review of Books. While Obama is an antiwar president, his record shows a surprising affinity for drone strikes in his first term, though he has cooled off in his second. Cole writes about the various journalists holding the president accountable for this seemingly hypocritical stance on drones, defending and explaining Obama’s position. Read Cole in partial below, or the full version via NYRB.

So what is Obama’s record? If it is to be a guide for future conduct, it is important to understand precisely what he has and has not asserted and done. And as Obama looks to the end of his tenure, the critical question is, what can and should he do now to mitigate the risks that a world armed with drones will become a place in which lethal force is a first rather than a last resort?

Some critics equate Obama’s drone record with the war crimes of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Glenn Greenwald, for example, charges in his afterword to The Assassination Complex that Obama’s drone policy “embodies the worst of what made the Bush-Cheney ‘war on terror’ approach so destructive.” Fordham Law School professor Karen Greenberg maintains, in the collection Drones and the Future of Armed Conflict, that Obama’s drone war “is but a refocused and incrementally more legally rationalized version of standards and assumptions that have persisted since the beginning of the War on Terror.”1

Greenwald summarizes Obama’s approach to drones as follows:

The centerpiece of his drone assassination program is that he, and he alone, has the power to target people, including American citizens, anywhere they are found in the world and order them executed on his unilateral command, based on his determination that the person to be killed is a terrorist.

If this were indeed Obama’s policy, the charges leveled by Greenwald and Greenberg and echoed by many other critics would be justified. But it is not accurate. First, Obama has not claimed the power to kill “terrorists,” but only those fighting on the other side in an armed conflict authorized by Congress against al-Qaeda and organizations allied with it. The power to kill the enemy in an armed conflict is as old as war itself.

Second, Obama has not asserted the power to use lethal force “anywhere…in the world,” but only in war zones—where drones are just another weapon—and, outside war zones, only where an enemy fighter poses an imminent threat that cannot otherwise be addressed, usually because the host country is incapable of capturing the fighter. When the host country is capable of arrest and prosecution, according to the administration, killing is not an option. Thus, under Obama, hundreds of persons suspected of engaging in or supporting terrorism have been arrested—in the US, the UK, and many other nations—and brought to trial for their alleged crimes. Obama has never claimed the authority to kill individuals who are outside a war zone and subject to capture.

Third, multiple sources, including Greenwald’s own website The Intercept, have reported that Obama hardly chooses targets on his own, but has set up an elaborate process that involves the review and input of many high-level military and government officials before any targeted killing is approved. Obama has insisted on taking ultimate responsibility, as he should, but it is hardly “he, and he alone,” who makes the decision.

It is also important to note that Obama’s policy and practice of using drones have evolved significantly over the course of his presidency. His initial years in office were marked by an aggressive expansion of the drone program. In Pakistan, for example, according to the New America Foundation, President Bush oversaw forty-eight drone strikes, killing between 377 and 558 people, whereas President Obama has overseen 355 strikes, killing between 1,907 and 3,067 people. But the number of drone strikes in Pakistan under Obama peaked at 122 in 2010, and has dropped every year since then. There were only ten strikes in Pakistan in 2015, and thus far only three in 2016. The number of strikes has also dropped in Yemen, from a high of forty-seven in 2012 to twenty-four in 2015 and nine thus far this year. In short, President Obama has shown significantly less proclivity to rely on drones in his second term than in his first.

*Image of Obama via