Silent but Deadly

How the State Department tried and failed to force Obama’s drone program into the open.

In the summer of 2011, Cameron Munter, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington and asked her to intercede with the White House to give him greater control over the CIA's use of drones along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, and to let him speak openly to the Pakistani people -- who viewed  drone warfare as a gross violation of national sovereignty -- about the rationale for the strikes.

The stakes, in Munter's mind, were very high. A few months earlier, the White House had dispatched Senator John Kerry to Pakistan in the hopes of cooling the public fury over the killing of two Pakistanis by Raymond Davis, a CIA contract officer. Kerry had succeeded, in part by promising greater coordination on counterterror measures -- and then, soon after his plane left Islamabad, the CIA launched another drone strike. By the time Kerry landed in Doha, Pakistan's political and military leaders were apoplectic, and Munter had a new crisis on his hands. Clinton brought the issue to the White House -- and got beat by the CIA. "The State Department threw him under the bus," says Christine Fair, a South Asia scholar and an expert on counterterror warfare in the region.

Today, Pakistanis know next to nothing about the drone program, and believe the worst about it. The same may be said for many Americans. The debate over the use of drones has grown more acrimonious as the administration of President Barack Obama has increased the number of strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and expanded the program to Yemen and Somalia. Critics have denied the alleged pinpoint accuracy of drone strikes, arguing that hundreds of civilians have been killed as collateral damage. Scholars of constitutional law have asserted that targeted assassinations have no basis in American law. But there are many people -- myself included -- who defend the use of drones but decry the pervasive secrecy around them. There is a real danger that around the world drone warfare will come to be seen as the dark arts of the Obama administration, as torture and "rendition" were for President George W. Bush.

It seems blindingly obvious that the United States is not going to refrain from using unmanned vehicles -- naval as well as aerial-- for attack and surveillance. Any technology that can locate and kill an individual combatant without endangering American forces or bystanders (though there is an important debate over how many civilians have been killed) is not going away. Critics like Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the former Obama official Vali Nasr accuse the White House of falling in love with the short-term fix of drone warfare and ignoring the long-term imperative of nation-building in weak states. But experience in Afghanistan and Somalia, among other places, has taught us that nation-building, if it can work at all, is a generational endeavor. The United States can't wait for the jihadist swamp to be drained.

At the same time, drones are not just another arrow in a battlefield commander's quiver. It is precisely the power of drones, the immense temptation they pose, the certainty that they will become yet more central to American counterterror efforts in the future, which compels a much more open debate than we have had to date. To take only a single example, although the Authorization for Use of Military Force voted by Congress after 9/11 permits the president to use "all necessary and appropriate force," against the nations, organizations, and individuals responsible for the terrorist attacks, the Obama administration has authorized so-called "signature strikes" against targets whose individual identity is unknown but whose pattern of behavior matches that of al Qaeda. Is that authorized? Is it morally acceptable? Maybe; I'm skeptical.

The Obama administration deserves some credit for deciding -- after intense debate -- to speak about the legal and ethical rationale of this highly classified program. In the aftermath of the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born leader of al Qaeda forces in Yemen, Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a speech in which he defended the president's right to target an American citizen for killing; soon thereafter, John Brennan, the president's intelligence advisor, laid out in some detail the extensive review process which begins with the determination that an al Qaeda member poses a threat that warrants "lethal action." And that review process appears to be extraordinarily rigorous.

Of course, the level of disclosure was nothing compared to the exquisite detail which administration officials provided on the killing of Osama bin Laden. And many fundamental questions remain unanswered. Brennan's comments shed no light on the rationale for signature strikes. How are those decided? We don't know. And in Pakistan the CIA is targeting members of the Taliban, not al Qaeda, including jihadists who menace Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. Does that fit with the 2001 authorization of force? Is it a judicious use of this Faustian technology? Hard to say.

Brennan announced that the president had de-classified the drone program in Yemen, thus permitting him to speak. But the far larger program in Pakistan remains covert, and classified. (Many of the strikes in Afghanistan are carried out by the military, and thus are not covert.) Why the continuing secrecy in Pakistan? The White House declined to make anyone available to address this question. The widespread assumption, though, is that since Pakistan's military and civilian leaders -- unlike President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi of Yemen -- publicly oppose the program, CIA officials have deferred to their wishes and maintained the cone of silence. The administration may have concluded that if the program were declassified and openly discussed, Gen. Ashraf Kayani, Pakistan's military chief of staff and de facto leader, would finally make good on his endless threats to shut it down.

The CIA doesn't have to care about public opinion; but diplomats do. That was why Munter made his bid for greater transparency last year. Munter, who has since retired from public service, believes that the drone strikes have been and continue to be effective, but argues that the secrecy has allowed Pakistanis to believe the worst about America. "If we are able to lift the veil on the program and talk more openly about what our goals are and how those goals coincide with those of people of good will in Pakistan," Munter says, "I think it could have a very positive effect."

But what about the danger to the program itself? "The impact of the program," Munter says, "has come to a point where it is time for the American authorities and the Pakistani authorities to have a much more open discussion." That might be healthy. But in any case, the United States can not hold itself hostage to Pakistani politics, which runs on perpetually stoked anti-Americanism. The benefits from the drone strikes, great though they may be, do not trump the imperative of democratic debate.

This post-election, pre-Inaugural period offers a moment for taking stock. In the weeks to come, I will be looking at other aspects of President Obama's foreign policy. But perhaps we could ask the president, as a New Year's resolution, to level with the American people about what it is that drones should and should not do, who they do and do not target, where they should and should not be used. It's not too much to ask.

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Terms of Engagement

Secretary Kerry

Would John Kerry do a good job of filling Hillary Clinton’s shoes?

I'd like to tell you who's going to be the next secretary of state. But I can't. It's a secret.

Still, I'm not the only one who knows. One very plugged-in friend of mine says that she's talked to Pete Rouse, the Obama advisor now assembling lists of names for President Barack Obama's second-term cabinet, and he says that Senator John Kerry has the short odds. But a White House correspondent responded by e-mail that, in fact, Kerry is "a long shot," since Obama won't want to risk losing a Senate seat, that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is still the leading candidate, but that national security advisor Tom Donilon "REALLY wants it." Then, the New York Times reports that Donilon doesn't want it, and that Rice is "crippled" because GOP senators will use the confirmation hearing to torture the administration over Benghazi. That's the problem with rumors: Knowledgeable people know things that contradict what other knowledgeable people know.

Since, to be honest, I don't know what Obama is thinking -- and neither does anybody else I've talked to -- let me try to answer instead the question of who it would make the most sense for him to appoint. I think the answer is pretty clearly John Kerry. Tom Donilon is a highly competent administrator who would die of impatience halfway through an interminable lunch with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Susan Rice is a pugnacious team player who, like Donilon, is more insider than outsider, and is notably deficient in that unctuous fluid which issues from the pores of professional diplomats. She would make a very good national security advisor if Donilon goes elsewhere. Obama, by all accounts, trusts Rice's judgment and is very fond of her; but he may be penetrating enough to see her shortcomings.

John Kerry is Hillary Clinton in pants. (Yes, I know, Secretary Clinton also wears pants.) He came within a whisker of being president -- much closer than she did -- and thus enjoys the aura of the almost-commander in chief. He is, like Clinton, a kind of living embodiment of America. He is immensely solemn and judicious, like her, but, unlike her, immensely tall. He is a decorated veteran with the iron grip of the ex-athlete. His baritone voice bespeaks bottomless gravitas. The man looks and acts more like a secretary of state than anyone since George Marshall. As a casting decision, it's a no-brainer.

It's important to understand what space Kerry, or someone else, would be seeking to fill. With a few important exceptions, Hillary Clinton has not been asked to formulate America foreign policy but rather to represent it, to talk about it, and to execute it. And she has done so almost flawlessly. If she is a conceptual thinker, she has kept her vision to herself. The big thinking in this administration comes from the Big Thinker in the White House, and a very small circle of aides. That is unlikely to change. And Kerry, though deeply familiar with everything and everyone, poses no danger of trying to impose a worldview of his own. He is an implementer, not a thinker. Tell John Kerry to take that hill, and he will take that hill or die trying.

Then there's the foreign policy work that needs to be done. The Obama administration will spend the next few years trying to extricate itself from Afghanistan -- and, collaterally, Pakistan -- with the least possible risk to America's reputation or national security. Kerry has been the White House's designated placater of Hamid Karzai and Pakistan's military chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. He visited Pakistan in the aftermath of the arrest of CIA agent Raymond Davis, and the killing of Osama bin Laden; and both times he left cooler tempers in his wake (though the effect didn't last). In 2009, he listened to Hamid Karzai rant for hours about how the world was shafting him before finally persuading Karzai that it was not in his own interest to accept the outcome of the transparently rigged election which had just won him a second term as president. If anyone can talk those guys off a ledge, it's Kerry.

All presidents want to bring peace to the Middle East. They all fail, but that doesn't stop them from trying. Nor should they. In the first term, Obama delegated that task to George Mitchell, his special representative. That won't work; the Israelis need to feel that they are the most important thing in the world, just as the U.S. Congress tells them they are. John Kerry has known Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, since the latter was making a living in Cambridge, Massachussetts, some twenty-odd years ago. I have heard him say nice things about Netanyahu off the record. He knows everyone who matters in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. If a relationship of trust confers any advantage -- and I'm not convinced that it does -- Kerry has that edge.

Kerry is also a world-class listener. When I traveled to Afghanistan with him in 2010, he let me sit in while he met with a leading human rights campaigner. "Tell me where you think we are," he said. And, "What do you think are the chances of a civil war?" And, "What is the U.S. doing wrong?" And "What is your most important advice for us?" It has to be very flattering to be so earnestly interrogated by an enormously tall man who was almost president of the United States. Tom Donilon and Susan Rice can't do that. John Kerry will make heads of state everywhere feel that American policy is in good hands. He is the secretary of state they would choose if anyone was asking.

But this is a limitation, too. The world has been knocked from its moorings; some of the friendly autocrats Kerry had spent years cultivating, like Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, have been toppled by popular outrage. Kerry's understanding of the world has been profoundly shaped by the countless hours he has spent talking to leaders in their palaces. He understands their problems. After repeated visits to Syria, for example, Kerry became convinced that President Bashar al-Assad was a man the United States could do business with. Assad and his wife drove Kerry to a mosque in Damascus and spoke sadly of the decline of secularism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Kerry nodded his great, graven image of a head. He asked Assad to take confidence-building steps, and Assad came through. Good friends like the Emir of Qatar told Kerry that Syria held the key to Middle East peace (see this striking WikiLeaks cable). But the Arab autocrats club is history.

The point is not that Kerry is naïve, or soft on dictators. It's rather that he is, to a profound degree, a status quo figure who deals with the world as he finds it. When I taxed him over his role in Syria, he said to me, "Countries and people and leaders of countries act out of self-interest. Foreign policy is the art of finding those interests and seeing what serves your nation and trying to marry them." Kerry operates one small turn of the wheel at a time. But his caution goes further than that: He also accepts the existing terms of debate. Throughout the 2009 debate on policy towards Afghanistan, when Vice President Joe Biden was torturing the generals with tough questions about counterinsurgency and proposing a sharply different alternative, Kerry was keeping mum. He has never deviated sharply from the administration position on this or almost anything else. Kerry is prepared to pilot the boat in the face of incoming fire, but not to rock it. He has courage -- but not intellectual courage.

Perhaps Kerry would be more outspoken inside the White House than out. He is not one to speak out of turn. The combination of his natural ponderousness and his extreme care about secret discussions often make him maddeningly vague in public. His default public posture is a kind of high-minded WASP propriety. In private, he is a gracious man with impeccable manners, genuinely curious about others, at times touchingly deferential.  And the same restraint and reserve which made him such an unsatisfying presidential candidate have also made him the kind of consummate diplomat whom the White House has counted on to soothe troubled waters in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and elsewhere.

Kerry has shortcomings. Who doesn't? But I can't think of anyone who would be better for the job.

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