Nobel Peace Prize-winner Barack Obama is once again confronting the consequences of a counterterrorism drone policy that he inherited but has greatly expanded upon taking office.
The deaths of an American and an Italian being held hostage by al-Qaida in a U.S. strike on an al-Qaida compound in the region along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan get to the heart of the dilemma that the drone war has created for Obama.
Obama ran for office promising to end two long ground wars Americans had grown weary of. He has largely been able to accomplish that, thanks at least in part to an increased use of unmanned but lethal aircraft—more limited war by remote control, which has brought its own costs.
The strike was conducted as part of the intelligence community’s ongoing program to kill terrorist leaders in the remote areas where many of them have set up bases. In a hastily arranged speech, Obama said he took “full responsibility” for the operation and that he couldn’t adequately address the grief the families of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto must be feeling.
At the same time, Obama argued, again, his counterterrorism policy has saved innocent lives both here and abroad, and the strike that accidentally killed Weinstein and Lo Porto did, in fact, accomplish its intended objective. “We do believe that the operation did take out dangerous members of al-Qaida,” he said.
Obama promised a full review of the strike to see what went wrong and what could be improved to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It’s unclear whom such a review will satisfy, regardless of its result.
Some of Obama’s most fervent fans were in Europe prior to and following his election. He won the peace prize just nine months into his presidency, largely on the hope that he offered for peace. Now, Europe is home to some of Obama’s harshest critics, when it comes to both counterterrorism and electronic surveillance.
Civil libertarians have criticized him for continuing a policy of killing suspected terrorists, rather than arresting and trying them. These critics come from his own party as well as the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. Sen. Rand Paul raised his profile two years ago with an overnight filibuster following a drone strike that targeted an American citizen. And human-rights activists argue that drone strikes often kill innocent civilians and wind up creating empathy for the terrorist group among the local population.
Obama said that the January strike was conducted when officials determined that it was their only real option. “Based on the intelligence that we had obtained at the time, including hundreds of hours of surveillance, we believed that this was an al-Qaida compound, that no civilians were present, and that capturing these terrorists was not possible,” he said.
Also killed in that strike was Ahmed Farouq, an American al-Qaida leader, while a second strike that same month killed Adam Gadahn, an American who became an al-Qaida spokesman. The White House acknowledged in a statement that intelligence officials were not targeting them, either, and had no idea they were present in the targeted locations—just as they did not know al-Qaida was holding Weinstein and Lo Porto in the compound where they wound up dying.