Sunday, November 4, 2012

Drone War Needs Close Look From Next President

      Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 on a promise to turn the country’s back on the Bush administration’s war on terrorism policies. Guantánamo was to be closed, “enhanced interrogation techniques” ended, and a friendlier face presented to the Muslim world. Four years later, Guantánamo remains open, military trials continue to be used, and remote-controlled U.S. drones are targeting suspected al Qaeda operatives in three Islamic countries — Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen — with the inevitable risk of collateral damage to innocent civilians.
      With the present campaign dominated by a single domestic issue — the U.S. economy — human rights concerns have gone all but unaddressed. But U.S. human rights groups have presented Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney with ambitious agendas for the next president. In separate papers, Amnesty International USA and a coalition of groups led by Freedom House renew the call to close Guantánamo, urge more accountability on the use of drones, and ask for stronger U.S. measures to support democratization and protect human rights abroad.
      Both papers stress the importance of U.S. leadership on international human rights issues. That theme should resonate with internationalist liberals as well as conservative adherents to the doctrine of American “exceptionalism.” And Freedom House takes time to pat the Obama administration on the back for taking a lead role on such issues as LGBT rights, Internet freedom, and general women’s rights. Perhaps those policies will be maintained whichever candidate wins.
      Conversely, many of the proposals in both papers are unlikely to make much if any progress whatever the outcome of the presidential election. The next Congress seems all but certain to look much the current one: a Republican-controlled House, Democratic-controlled Senate, and no sudden outpouring of bipartisanship. On that basis, it seems unlikely that Congress will relent in its stubborn opposition to closing Guantánamo or trying the suspected “enemy combatants” in civilian instead of military courts. And Amnesty International is all but certain to be disappointed in its wish list of human rights treaties for the Senate to ratify. Nor is the United States likely to join the International Criminal Court in Obama’s second term or in a Romney administration.
      By contrast, the president himself is the decision-maker on the common demand in both papers for a re-evaluation and recalibration of the Obama administration’s expanded use of drones to target al Qaeda. Amnesty asks the two candidates: “Will you end unlawful killings, bring the use of drones in line with international human rights and humanitarian law, and make public the Department of Justice memo that reportedly details the legal rationale for ‘targeted killings?’”
      In like vein, the Freedom House-led coalition calls on the next president to “reevaluate and publicly clarify the criteria and the basis for targeting . . . decisions, the process by which such decisions are made, and the mechanisms in place to ensure compliance with international law and the protection of civilians.” Amnesty International USA signed on to the coalition’s letter, which also drew support from such leading human rights groups as the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights First, and Human Rights Watch.
      Obama’s embrace of the drone war discomfits his supporters on the political left even as it strengthens his national security credentials with centrist Democrats and independents. For his part, Romney endorsed the use of drones in the final presidential debate, but with a significant caveat: “We can’t kill our way out of this.”
      The human rights groups’ call for greater transparency echoes the view of news organizations that have attempted to report on the drone war. “Accurate information is hard to come by,” Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times’s newly appointed public editor or ombudswoman, wrote in a column in mid-October. The Washington Post endorses the use of drones, but called in a Nov. 1 editorial for “greater disclosure, more political accountability, more checks and balances and more collaboration with allies.”
      In her column, Sullivan cited a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in Britain that what Sullivan calls this “push-button war” claimed between 282 and 535 civilian lives, including 60 children, during Obama’s first three years in office. The administration insists the number is far lower. Sullivan goes on to quote Sarah Knuckey, a human rights investigator now at New York University Law School, as having found widespread fear of drone strikes among Pakistanis when she visited Pakistan recently.
      The casualty count of al Qaeda militants is likewise a subject of sharp dispute. The government appears to count any adult males killed in drone strikes as militants unless there is exonerating evidence. A new report by human rights investigators for Stanford and New York University law schools urges journalists to make that notation in any body-count stories. The report also contends that the drone strikes have aided recruitment for anti-American groups and, on that basis, questions how valuable they are in making the United States safer.
      With Obama and Romney in seeming agreement, the conflicting accounts and assessments went unexplored in the presidential campaign. But the next commander in chief would be well served to heed the calls from many quarters to take a clear-eyed, hard-headed look at the drone war before deciding how much further, if at all, to extend it.

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