LAMBRO: Broadcasting the rules of engagement

Obama tips off the enemy on how to avoid drone strikes

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President Obama’s proposed policy changes on the use of drones to kill key terrorist leaders have raised more questions than it has answered.

Under pressure from leftist, anti-drone activists among groups such as Amnesty International, Mr. Obama has suggested making the rules governing these airborne weapons more stringent when a strike might result in civilian casualties.

While he defends their use as legal and necessary in the battle against terrorists, he made it clear in last week’s address at the National Defense University that he intends to place further restrictions on the use of drones in what he still refuses to call the war on terrorism. “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,” Mr. Obama said.

He added that “by narrowly targeting our [drone] action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”

Message to al Qaeda terrorists in the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere: Surround yourself with civilians, and you’ll very likely be protected from one of our drone attacks.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for opportunities where deadly terrorists can be taken out without the loss of innocent life, but we needn’t broadcast our rules of engagement to the world and to our enemies. Better that they think there are no safe places to hide.

The use of pilotless aircraft, begun by President George W. Bush and vigorously expanded under Mr. Obama, has given the United States a major strategic advantage in the war on terrorism.

American military forces and the CIA have carried out nearly 400 drone attacks in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia during the Obama presidency. They have killed hundreds of the most dangerous military leaders in the al Qaeda terrorist network.

Now, under pressure from the drone program’s leftist critics, the administration is preparing strategic changes in its operations, narrowing rules of engagement and curbing the CIA’s enlarged role in drone warfare by turning it over to our military forces.

The tone of Mr. Obama’s address and the changes he wants to implement, including closing the Guantanamo Bay military prison, have triggered a firestorm of Republican criticism.

Needless to say, the president’s critics do not agree with his repeated insistence that al Qaeda is “on the path to defeat,” the questionable theme of last week’s national security address.

“We show this lack of resolve, talking about the war being over,” said Sen. Lindsay Graham, South Carolina Republican.

He said Mr. Obama is sending a message of weakness at a time when terrorists have stepped up their plots against the U.S. at home and abroad.

“What do you think the Iranians are thinking? At the end of the day, this is the most tone-deaf president I ever could imagine,” Mr. Graham said.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, was similarly troubled by the president’s remarks in the wake of deadly terrorist attacks on civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as the horrific bombings at the Boston Marathon that killed three and injured more than 260 people.

“I see a big difference between the president saying the war’s at an end and whether or not you’ve won the war,” Mr. Coburn said. “We can claim that it’s at an end, but this war’s going to continue. And we have still tremendous threats out there that are building, not declining, building, and to not recognize that, I think, is dangerous in the long run and dangerous for the world.”

Yet Mr. Obama went to great lengths during his address to propound that “the Afghan war is coming to an end” and that “core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self.”

There was a disturbing tone of “not to worry” sprinkled throughout the president’s speech. At one point, he said that “not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.”

Is that what he thinks these terrorist cells are? Merely toothless, benign, street thugs who cannot harm us or our allies?

Then there was this troubling passage in Mr. Obama’s speech: “Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight.”

No sooner did Mr. Obama take the reins of the presidency than he stopped using the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism” designation. Redefining the words and terms of war is not an effective strategy to defeat terrorism. We are in a long twilight struggle against Islamist extremists, and it’s not going to go away anytime soon.

What are we to make of Mr. Obama’s efforts to shift the CIA’s drone program out of the shadows of covert operations and return it to the Pentagon?

“You have to go into this with some concern,” a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official told The Washington Post about the administration’s plan. “It didn’t work before. Will it work this time?”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, voiced similar doubts this year when she learned of the changes being considered.

Mrs. Feinstein maintained that the CIA had exercised “patience and discretion specifically to prevent collateral damage,” and she “would really have to be convinced that the military would carry it out that well.”

Twelve years ago, Congress enacted the Authorization for Use of Military Force to combat terrorism. Now, Mr. Obama, eager to declare victory, wants Congress “to refine and ultimately repeal” the authorization, vowing, “I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further.”

More cautious, grown-up minds think it is dangerously premature to talk about winding down a war against the very real threat that terrorism still poses to our freedoms and our way of life.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is the chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, the author of five books and a nationally syndicated columnist. His twice-weekly United Feature Syndicate column appears in newspapers across the country, including The Washington Times. He received the Warren Brookes Award For Excellence In Journalism in 1995 and in that same year was the host and co-writer of ...

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