US President Barack Obama outlined plans on Thursday to limit the use of US drone strikes against extremists abroad, especially in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and took steps aimed at breaking a deadlock on closing the Guantanamo Bay military prison.
In a major foreign policy speech after two weeks of fending off domestic scandals, Obama limited the scope of what his predecessor, George W Bush, had called a global war on terror after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks.
“Our nation is still threatened by terrorists,” Obama said at Washington’s National Defence University. “We must recognise, however, that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11.”
Faced with criticism about the morality of using unmanned aerial vehicles to wage war in distant lands, Obama said the US will only use drone strikes when a threat is imminent, a nuanced change from the previous policy of launching strikes against a significant threat.
“To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance,” Obama said.
Under a new presidential guidance signed on Wednesday, Obama said the Defence Department will take the lead in launching drones, as opposed to the current practice of the CIA taking charge.
Any drone strike will only be launched when a terrorism suspect cannot be captured. The US will respect state sovereignty and will limit strikes to al Qaeda or associated targets, he said.
“And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set,” said Obama.
His policy shift came after the Obama administration acknowledged on Wednesday that four Americans abroad had been killed in drone strikes since 2009 in counter-terrorism operations in Yemen and Pakistan, including militant cleric Anwar al Awlaki.
Obama defended those operations, saying when a US citizen goes abroad to wage war against the US, his citizenship should not be a shield.
Tribute to Pakistani soldiers
During the speech, Obama also paid respect to “thousands of Pakistani soldiers have lost their lives fighting extremists.”
President Obama also spoke of his country’s raid in Abbottabad in 2011 to capture and kill former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, which derailed its relationship with Islamabad.
The president said it was not possible for America to deploy a team of Special Forces to capture every terrorist, and adding that putting US boots on the ground may trigger a major international crisis.
“To put it another way, our operation in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden cannot be the norm. The risks in that case were immense,” he said.
“The cost to our relationship with Pakistan – and the backlash among the Pakistani public over encroachment on their territory – was so severe that we are just now beginning to rebuild this important partnership.”
Closing Guantanamo Bay prison
Faced with congressional opposition, Obama has been frustrated by his inability to carry out a 2008 campaign pledge to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A hunger strike by 103 of the 166 detainees has put pressure on him to take action.
“There is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened,” Obama said.
During the speech, the US president also condemned the killing of a British soldier in London by two suspected extremists as “appalling” and “horrific.”
Heckler interrupts Obama
An anti-war heckler repeatedly interrupted President Obama, prompting him to depart from his prepared remarks. “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to – obviously I don’t agree with much of what she said,” Obama said, after repeatedly asking the woman to sit down.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 24th, 2013.