John Bellinger is the last person you’d expect to criticize President Barack Obama for making too many drone strikes. It was he who drafted the (rather unconvincing) legal justification for targeted drone killings when he was adviser to the Secretary of State in George W. Bush’s second administration, and he still supports them.
Speaking at a conference in Washington earlier this month, Bellinger said, “This government has decided that instead of detaining members of al Qaeda [at Guantanamo], they are going to kill them.” Leaving aside the question of whether most of the people detained at Guantanamo were ever actually members of al Qaeda, the accusation is plausible.
Obama wants to close the U.S. prison camp on the Cuban coast where hundreds of suspected al Qaeda supporters have been held without charge, some for more than a decade. There are still 166 prisoners at Guantanamo, and just last week Obama, thwarted by Congress in his first-term pledge to close the place, announced his intention to try again.
The president was quite eloquent about why Guantanamo should be closed. “It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counter-terrorism. It is a recruitment tool for extremists.” It also flouts international law, but no president of the United States can ever concede that.
So why did Bellinger, of all people, then accuse Obama of using drones too often? Obama certainly seems to like them: The vast majority of the 370 U.S drone attacks, killing an estimated 3,500 people, have been carried out on his watch. According to Bellinger, Obama knows that if he can’t send the evildoers to Guantanamo, his only alternative is to kill them.
What we actually have here is an unusually subtle Republican argument: If you don’t like the drone strikes (because they kill lots of innocent people), then you should keep Guantanamo open. But subtle is not the same as valid.
There are two unstated assumptions at the heart of this argument. One is that the U.S. could stop the drones, capture suspected al Qaeda supporters by conventional means, and toss them in Guantanamo. No fuss, no muss, and no innocent “collateral damage.”
That’s ridiculous. The United States is not going to have much luck in tracking down alleged al Qaeda supporters in the wilds of Yemen or Afghanistan and spiriting them away to Guantanamo. If it doesn’t target them with drones, most of them will go on living (and so will the innocent people nearby). But you can’t just leave such dangerous people alive, can you?
This brings us to the second unstated assumption — that if all those dangerous people had been allowed to live, there would have been hundreds of terrorist attacks against the United States. Or at least dozens. OK then, how about a couple?
Probably not even one. After all, there were no drone strikes for the first three years after the 9/11 attacks, because the technology was not available. Yet even then, when al Qaeda was still a relatively strong and cohesive organization, there was not one further successful terrorist attack on the United States. The link between drone strikes and possible terrorist attacks on U.S. soil is purely rhetorical.
There might have been one or two fewer attacks on American forces in Afghanistan if the drones had not been killing people in the tribal territories of Pakistan, but a simpler remedy than drone strikes would just be to withdraw those forces from Afghanistan as soon as possible. They are neither serving any American interest nor determining who will rule the country after they leave.
But it’s hard to argue that drones have prevented many attacks even there. The whole “war on terror,” the militarization of what should have been a counter-terrorist campaign conducted by intelligence services, diplomats, police, and courts, was a ghastly blunder from the start.
Never mind. The whole argument is moot. Obama won’t get the Republican majority in the U.S. House to go along with closing Guantanamo this time either. And he won’t stop the drone strikes because he needs to be seen by the American public to be doing something “positive” as he brings the troops home from another needless, lost war.
There is no strategic thinking in any of this. It’s all about American domestic politics, as the response to 9/11 has been from the beginning.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose work is published in 45 countries.