Let’s Stop Droning On About Unmanned Arial Aircraft

Readers with memories that extend beyond the current headlines will recall the criticism that was levelled at the George W. Bush Administration for its utilisation of a variety of platforms and initiatives in its Global War on Terror. Whatever it did, whatever it tried, was a transgression too far and a violation of American principles in the eyes of organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Practises such as enhanced interrogation, rendition and the use of drones all came under attack by civil liberties groups eager to highlight the apparent disregard for the Constitution and international law by the supposed rogue regime between 2001- 2009.

And then, oh happy day, the Bush Administration was gone and America could return to its previous path of virtue and light, as embodied by the soothing tones and humble liberalism of Barack Obama, who promised ‘change we can believe in.’ No more would the United States be on the side of darkness and ill-virtue; it would revert to its earlier incarnation and adhere to the better angels of its nature.

However, as Secretary of State John Kerry flies into Europe at the start of Obama’s second term in office, certain facts have become inescapable regarding the use of practices, techniques and technologies in America’s continuing war with political violence. The most glaring of these deals with the use of unmanned aerial technology; commonly referred to as drones. In Obama’s second term, they will continue to be the weapon of choice for hunting down and eliminating those deemed to be incompatible with the common good.

This technology is not the creation of the Obama Administration. Neither, intriguingly, was it devised by the Bush Administration. Drone technology was widely utilised by the Clinton Administration, and indeed, it was hoped that bin Laden’s demise would be witnessed in real time, using drones, long before George W. Bush ever took office. Their previous use by previous administrations, however, pales into insignificance compared to their utilisation by the supposedly ‘liberal’ Obama White House.

Like an addict that has suddenly become aware of a new way to score an easy fix, the Obama White House has exploded the use of drone warfare to an extent beyond the wildest imagination of the George W. Bush Administration. In its four years in office, drones have become the weapon of choice in the continuing battle against the forces of political violence. Outgoing Defence Secretary Leon Panetta made this clear in his recent address to King’s College, London and when one considers the benefits to the United States, it is easy to see why this is the case.

Firstly, there is the financial element to consider. Drones are cheap, especially compared to the alternative. A Tomahawk Cruise missile could cost approximately $1 million to launch. A state of the art aircraft could cost tens of millions of dollars in hardware alone, in addition to which is the cost of training a pilot and compensation in the event of his or her death in action. Drones have no such overheads. Likewise, if a drone is shot down, all that is lost is the hardware, which could be programmed to self-destruct. There is no risk of providing the enemy with potential prisoners of war, or any repetition of the events that surrounded the downing of the Black Hawks in Somalia; no bodies to mutilate, desecrate and humiliate.

There is also the degree of separation from reality, as the drones are ‘piloted’ remotely with no opportunity for a last minute moral rendering by the crew, ensuring that missions are more likely to result in the delivery of their payload to its planned destination.

Like the president who has overseen their expansion, drone technology is cool and detached. Now, there is even an African connection, as it has been announced that the U.S. has secured access to a series of bases from which to operate this technology across North Africa. This comes at a time when the Congress has been particularly critical of the administration’s inability to address a rising tide of anti-American sentiment that was best expressed in the incidents in Benghazi that resulted in the deaths of 4 Americans, including Ambassador Stevens. The backlash from this event caused the administration to jettison its first choice as Secretary of State. However, the eventual office holder, John Kerry, will inherit substantial plans for the expansion of drone warfare into Africa, as the administration takes the continuing battle against the forces of political violence to a whole new region. Having withdrawn from Iraq, having announced a timetable for the end of hostilities in Afghanistan, the Obama Administration has decided upon the new theatre of operations. From Senegal in the West, to Ethiopia in the East, a new front is quietly being opened in the on-going battle that exploded above the skies of Manhattan in 2001. Quite where it will end up is anyone’s guess, but the use of drone warfare is at present, Obama’s true presidential legacy. For now, the only guarantee is the further expansion of this technology as the weapon of choice in Obama’s ongoing war with an apparently growing number of dissident groups, and on the continuing silence on the issue from those organisation who where previously lamenting such actions under the Bush Administrations. How they must give thanks for having a good, old fashioned liberal in the White House to reveal the Bush Administration for the travesty that it was….

JDB Media Coverage of John Kerry’s Visit to UK

I’m happy to report that it’s been a busy day with the new U.S. Secretary of State in town. John Kerry flew into London late Sunday night ahead of breakfast meeting with Prime Minister, David Cameron, in Downing Street this morning before meeting with Foreign Office officials including the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, at lunchtime.

I have been involved in media coverage of the event throughout the day, providing comment to FM4 Radio in Austria this over breakfast, Monocle24 Radio mid-morning, BBC Radio Five Live at lunchtime and finally discussing the visit on The Brenner Brief this evening.

The new SecStat was at pains to stress the importance of the Special Relationship and declared that it was ‘no accident’ that his first overseas visit was to London, hopefully dispelling too many concerns over the notion of a Pacific Pivot by the Obama Administration. His sentiments on this issue mirror those expressed by former U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta in a speech made at King’s College London in January.

Whilst the following image will not win me any extra followers, I thought it was fun, taken at the New Broadcasting House headquarters of the BBC in central London.

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How Executive Hubris Trumps Bipartisan Reform Efforts

During their respective time in office, both Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton asserted their believe that legislation stood a greater chance of succeeding if no one cared who took the credit. Ronald Reagan believed this so strongly, that he had the words inscribed on a plaque that he kept on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. (Replicas are available for purchase at the Reagan Library). Bill Clinton, speaking in reference to reducing the national dept, stating the approach explicitly in his first State of the Union address. Much has changed in the ensuing years.  Now, in 2013, it appears that the Obama Administration has inverted this sentiment and would rather see legislation fail if it can’t be covered in all of the glory and receive all of the credit. If this is not the explicit approach being adopted by the Obama Administration, then the Congressional Liaison staff is going out of their way to make it appear so.

Over the past four years relations between the White House and Congress have been testy at best, even when Democrats controlled both houses with a super majority in the Senate. The situation deteriorated sharply following the 2010 mid-term elections and a federal budget has not been passed since. Any hopes that a new era would emerge following the 2012 election cycle have vanished, as both Republicans and Democrats have clung to their respective mandates as reason to continue to obstruct and delay for at least the next two years. Whilst flaws exist on both sides, the White House has, in rapid succession, demonstrated a stunning disregard for political process and for the nuance required to pass legislation in Congress. In a political system explicitly designed to frustrate, the Obama Administration appears determined to make matters worse rather than better. Two incidents highlight what appears to be administration obstructionism of the worst possible kind that threatens the economic, political and cultural integrity of the nation.

The first issue arose in the last days of 2012, as the United States was hurtling towards what became universally known as the Fiscal Cliff. Economists, political consultants and media pundits speculated wildly as to the potential repercussions of such an event, whilst in D.C., high-level negotiations continued in an apparent effort to prevent such an incident. This, of course, had been an artificial deadline, imposed to ensure that politicians of both sides of the aisle worked together to agree upon a budget. This apparently was too much to ask for. However, with the deadline looming politicians gathered into the early hours to thrash out a deal that would be mutually agreeable to Democrats and Republicans alike. Yet whilst these negotiations were moving forward, President Obama chose to stage a campaign style rally on the White House campus surrounded by a group of children who he claimed would suffer under the proposals put forth by the Republican Party.

Now, to be clear, the Republican Party and its leadership hardly covered themselves in glory in this process and as a result questions were asked as to the continued viability of John Boehner’s Speakership. However, putting Republican ineptitude to one side, the decision of the president to stage such a politically inept event at the very moment that negotiators were meeting to flesh out an agreement spoke volumes as to the tin ear that that the administration has and to its appalling capacity to deal with Congress. Just as negotiations were nearing completion the president elected to play politics rather than work to ensure an agreeable solution. It should not surprise anyone that the final deal appears to have been struck by Vice President Biden, and the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, two old boys from the Senate who have known each other for decades and who are used to working together to solve problems; In other words, two politicians who understand how and why Congress works and importantly, how not to get things done. Even then, the best that they could do was to kick the problem 3 months down the road, so that we are faced with the dilemma once more. In the coming days the spectre of Sequestration will loom large once more as the U.S. hovers above a financial abyss. Once more the world will look on aghast and ponder the fate of the world’s most important economic powerhouse and the childish antics of its leading politicians.

The second incident involved a similar situation but a different set of circumstances. For years, politicians in Washington have been debating immigration reform. However, only rarely do serious proposals see the light of day and make it out of various committees. In Washington, failed legislation can become toxic and persuade any career minded politician to avoid the issue for years, possibly even decades (as occurred with health care). So when a bipartisan group of serious minded, intelligent Senators (known as the Group of 8) got together in an effort to present a balanced and logical series of initiatives on the issue, you would have imagined that this was something the White House would have been supportive of, but you would be wrong.

Instead of welcoming such moves and working either quietly or openly to promote a bipartisan initiative to solve this long-standing issue, the White House appears determined to kill it at birth. The first inept move was for President Obama to insist on delivering a speech in Las Vegas within hours of the Group of 8 press conference on the issue, which had been the very image of bipartisanship. This immediately drew attention and political momentum away from the work that had been conducted on the issue and muddied the waters in relation to the situation. As if this wasn’t bad enough, USA Today has now been provided with draft legislation from the White House that would appear to directly challenge the bill being proposed by the Group of 8.

If passage of immigration reform was the political priority of the administration it had a perfect opportunity to pursue a bipartisan bill that would have put Obama and his former 2008 adversary John McCain and his potential successor in 2016, Marco Rubio, on the same side of the issue. Instead, the White House has sought to politicise the issue and risks torpedoing the issue. One must ask at what point ineptitude becomes a deliberate attempt to obfuscate and be bloody-minded. Whichever approach is being adopted, the end result is the same; bipartisan legislation is being undermined, politics is becoming sullied and confidence in the United States is being shaken at precisely the moment that it needs to provide global leadership in time of economic crisis.

This continuing escapade is a clear and telling reminder of Obama’s lack of legislative experience and should be a warning the next time a candidate has the hubris to declare himself ready for the presidency after little more than 18 months in the U.S. Senate.  Leadership, it appears, was not on the ballot in 2012, let us hope it will be in 2016.

JDB on The Brenner Brief Monday Night

I am delighted to announce that I will be returning to the international airwaves on Monday evening as a guest of Sara Marie Brenner on The Brenner Brief, broadcast out of Ohio. I will be discussing the latest developments in U.S. politics and focusing upon the deployment of drones on the African continent.

For details of the show, how to listen in and for news on other guests, click HERE

JDB on Monocle 24 Radio Tonight

I am delighted to announce that I will be returning to the airwaves this evening. I will be on Monocle 24 and discussing Immigration Reform and the news that the White House has leaked draft legislation on the issue to USA Today, which is causing repercussions on Capitol Hill. I will be joined by the US Editor of The Independent, David Usborne on a show hosted by Louise Beale and Markus Hippi, live from 22:00 UK time this evening.

A Word of Thanks…

Late last week I received word that my article on Obama’s State of the Union had been selected for inclusion on the Freshly Pressed section of WordPress. I was naturally flattered that my work had been noted but was totally unprepared for the very positive reaction it received in the process.

My web site appears to have been inundated in the last 48 hours and I am most grateful to those of you who have visited, read my work and chosen to sign up for updates. I hope that my observations and commentaries continue to draw you back to the site and that you will take some time to look over the various sections of the platform to gain an understanding of my work to date.

The broadcast page is hyper-linked up to provide feedback of my work with the world’s leading outlets and a selection of my publications can also be accessed, along with a complete archive of this site, as well as my various podcasts. Enjoy and feel free to drop me a line or follow me on Twitter.

The State of Obama’s Union

After the glitz and glamour of President Obama’s second inauguration, Washington finally got down to business last tonight with the State of the Union Address. This was another opportunity for the president to talk at Congress, if not necessarily to Congress. Certainly, he has not proved very adept at talking with Congress so far. The State of the Union is the equivalent of the budget speech in the UK, an occasion of high politics and low manners, at which the president’s supporters cheer, his opponents boo and the pundits ponder. It is, if you will, presidential pantomime.

The State of the Union address has evolved with the nation. Until 1913 it was merely a written report delivered to Congress as required by the Constitution. Later, it was delivered in person, but as late as the 1960s it was delivered in the afternoon with little consideration for the growing TV audience. However, with the rise of the Imperial Presidency came the emergence of the State of the Union as a Prime Time event, scheduled with military precision and designed to be one of the signature events in the Washington, D.C. calendar. It is an all too rare opportunity for the president to address both houses of Congress, the members of the Supreme Court and a TV audience that has reached as high as 52.4 million in 2009.

Of course, give ‘em and inch and they will steal the evening, and some presidents have been known to talk and talk, none more so than Bill Clinton, who in 1995 and 1999 came dangerously close to talking for 90 minutes. That’s the length of a football game, but without the change of ends at half time. Perhaps Clinton’s verbosity can be forgiven in light of his incredible capacity to ad-lib the first 20 minutes of his 1994 State of the Union Address, when the incorrect speech was loaded into his TelePrompter. Slick? Absolutely. Thank goodness he never went into the car business. For this, after all, is a presidential sales pitch; an opportunity for the president to demonstrate his mastery of Washington and to talk directly to the American people, literally over the heads of Congress and to ask for support on issues that half of the chamber would resist tooth and nail.

This year was no different. Forget any misperceptions about a new term and a new start in which Republicans and Democrats put aside their differences for national unity. The State of the Union, despite the theatrics, is about cold, hard politics and the stakes are higher than ever with the president determined to push ahead with his priorities; climate change, nuclear weapons reduction, gun control, tax reform, immigration reform and the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. All were touched on, dwelt on or in some cases lingered over last night, as the president sought to press the right buttons within the chamber, with viewers at home and with the all important ‘randomly selected group of voters’ who were being polled for instant feedback and which will do much to drive the direction of policy in the months ahead.

Obama opened by announcing, “The state of our union is stronger.” But stronger than what precisely? Mexico? Greece? A house of cards? Bill Clinton used to intone, “The State of our Union is strong.” Such a declaration would be welcome in 2013, but would appear to be merely a useful fiction. Obama’s address covered a wide range of issues; a smorgasbord of delights for his supporters, and a sack of ashes for his opponents. There was little here that was unexpected, little here that was conciliatory and little here that will alter perceptions or feelings on either side of the political aisle. As expected there were no niceties from the president, or anything except superficial pleasantries from his opponents in the chamber. Neither side are in the mood for compromise. Both have recently been re-elected, with new mandates to continue doing what they have been doing for the past 4 years.

Medicare reform was proposed, coupled with a plea to “save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected.” Tax reform was not going to be a topic that kept viewers glued to their seats, but it was what was being proposed, along with job creation proposals to stimulate the economy. This was, in many ways, a speech that could have been given a year ago as America prepared for an election campaign, and was, therefore, an indication of how little has been achieved in the last twelve months.

Immigration reform was addressed as the president laid claim to having put “more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history,” and having reduced “illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.” One wonders how the government claims to be able to record the rate of illegal crossings whilst being unable to prevent them? Obama proposed a concept of Earned Citizenship, “a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.” The big question, however, must surely be: How long before drones are patrolling the boarders to prevent such incursions? Perhaps that will be addressed next year.

It had already leaked that 34,000 American personnel would be withdrawn from Afghanistan this year and that the combat mission would be complete in 2014, but the president reiterated the fact nonetheless. Good news, it seems, will be taken wherever it can be found. For that matter, enforced measures are always better if they can be presented as a generous offer, hence the president’s revelation that the White House would “engage with Congress to ensure…that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws.” Such a declaration was the result of revelations that have emerged from the Senate Confirmation hearings that have been continuing on Capitol Hill and which look set to rumble on, with questions remaining in relation to kill or capture policies.

The time allocated to foreign as opposed to domestic affairs was telling. Traditionally, presidents have spent their first terms addressing domestic issues and their second on international relations, seeking to win Nobel Prizes. President Obama, of course, has done both already, having passed health care reform in his first 2 years and won the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office. Accordingly, this does all rather risk becoming The Curious Case of Barack Obama; the man who lived his presidency in reverse and so what Obama does for his second act will be telling. He cannot run for re-election, so he could be courageous and take on vested interests and lobby groups that have previously been untouchable. Last night he addressed the issue of gun violence that has received so much media coverage of late. However, he didn’t campaign on this issue and has said previously that he has no intention of removing guns from gun owners. This has not prevented gun shops from doing a roaring trade from customers who fear the end is neigh for their right to bear arms. This was, however, the emotional highpoint of the speech, as the president insisted that victims of gun violence “deserve a vote” and urged Congress to declare where they stood on the issue that has killed over a thousand Americans since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Long before that vote is even contemplated, however, it appears that the chance of reform in this area is dissipating fast.

For whilst Obama is beyond the reproach of voters, his party is not, so again, discount any notion of a president free to do as he wishes for the next four years. He will come under intense pressure from those who are seeking to replace him in 2016 not to stray from the mainstream for fear of driving voters from the Democratic Party and into the hands of the Republicans on a whole range of contentious issues that could decide the next two election cycles. For make no mistake, the American system of government is geared up for campaigning, not governing. In less than two years the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate will have been re-elected, and once that is out of the way, all eyes will turn to the presidential election of 2016 and any residual political clout that Obama retains at that point will rapidly disappear.

With so much at stake it is little wonder that the president’s opponents are ill-prepared to allow him the entire spotlight and now they get the chance to respond in a rather down at heel address shortly after the president speaks, in a process that actually serves to demonstrate the gulf that exists between the President of the United States and any other mere mortal. This year’s lucky contestant was Marco Rubio, the Republican Senator from Florida, by way of Havana. Senator Rubio is the Republican Party’s Great Hispanic Hope in 2016, so it was no surprise that he was selected to respond to the president, in what is in all probability the opening salvo of the 2016 election. In his response, Senator Rubio urged the president to abandon his ‘obsession’ with higher taxes, but his moment in the national spotlight was sullied by his decision to take a breather and provide Poland Spring bottled water a much needed product placement. Such are the little things that memories of such events are made of.

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Dr. James D. Boys is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College, London. He maintains a website at www.jamesdboys.com and can be followed on Twitter @jamesdboys