If Trayvon Were Pakistani…

Why isn't Obama outraged about a drone war based on profiling?

President Barack Obama surprised the White House press corps on Friday when he preempted the normal daily briefing to offer his unscripted ideas on the Trayvon Martin case.

Obama departed from his usual reluctance to talk publicly about his personal experience with racial bias, reminding viewers that African-American men -- including him, before he became a senator -- experience prejudice based only on their appearance, not their personality or behavior. He added that the African-American community was interpreting the outcome of the case through a "set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away." And he noted that, while the African-American community is not naïve about violence involving its young men -- they are "disproportionately both victims and perpetrators" -- that fact is no excuse for different treatment under the law.

It is striking to compare Obama's deliberate and thoughtful commentary about the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin with the military tactic that will forever characterize his presidency: killing people with drones. The president posits that it is wrong to profile individuals based upon their appearance, associations, or statistical propensity to violence. By extension, he believes that, just because those characteristics may seem threatening to some, the use of lethal force cannot be justified as self-defense unless there are reasonable grounds to fear imminent bodily harm. But that very kind of profiling and a broad interpretation of what constitutes a threat are the foundational principles of U.S. "signature strikes" -- the targeted killings of unidentified military-age males.

The use of signature strikes began in early 2008, when "instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking," the New York Times reported, drones were permitted to "strike convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run." By the summer of 2008, as a Bush administration official recollected, "We got down to a sort of ‘reasonable man' standard. If it seemed reasonable, you could hit it." Early in his first-term, Obama actually authorized signature strikes before he knew what they were, as author Daniel Klaidman reported. When Steve Kappes, then the CIA's deputy director, explained to the president, "We can see that there are a lot of military-age males down there, men associated with terrorist activity, but we don't necessarily know who they are," Obama declared, "That's not good enough for me."

Apparently, it was good enough for him, though, since Obama vastly increased the scope and intensity of targeted killings in Pakistan and, in April 2012, expanded the practice into Yemen against unknown men, allowing the CIA to henceforth "hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior." As Jo Becker and Scott Shane reported last year, "Counterterrorism officials insist this approach [of signature strikes] is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good." Indeed, transnational terrorist plots directed against the United States have disproportionately originated from Pakistan and Yemen. But, if you apply Obama's logic concerning the Trayvon Martin tragedy, hanging around in the wrong neighborhood or with bad people should not make a person guilty.

Since November 2002, the United States has killed over 3,600 people in non-battlefield settings with drones, cruise missiles, AC-130 gunships, and special operations forces. It is unknown how many of them were unidentified men killed only because of their profile and a U.S. claim that they posed a "continuing and imminent threat." President Obama acknowledged in May that "it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties," though he said that "there's a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties and nongovernmental reports." As first reported by Jonathan Landay, the still-classified CIA assessments of drone strikes conducted in Pakistan over 14 months in 2010 and 2011 found that roughly one-quarter of the 600 people killed were what the CIA termed "other militants," meaning that they were collateral damage or that they were targeted only because of their behavioral profile. Amazingly, no U.S. government official has ever acknowledged that the United States conducts signature strikes.

The day before Obama spoke about Trayvon Martin, Nasser al-Awlaki -- a former Fulbright scholar and Yemeni minister of agriculture and fisheries -- published a powerful op-ed in the New York Times titled "The Drone That Killed My Grandson." His 16-year-old grandson, an American citizen named Abdulrahman, was killed, along with six other individuals, by a U.S. drone strike in October 2011. A State Department spokesperson initially absolved the United States of any responsibility, claiming: "We have not received confirmation of his death from the government of Yemen. We have no additional information at this time." In May, Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that finally acknowledged that, since 2009, al-Awlaki and two other American citizens had died in U.S. counterterrorism operations, in which they "were not specifically targeted by the United States."

Over time, other officials acknowledged -- always anonymously -- that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki had been either inadvertently targeted or was collateral damage. Princeton University doctoral candidate and Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen wrote that the missile that killed al-Awlaki was actually intended for Ibrahim al-Banna, an Egyptian member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Whatever the reason, the available evidence suggests that a 16-year-old U.S. citizen was the unintended casualty of a signature strike.

Nasser al-Awlaki closed his Times op-ed by asking: "The government has killed a 16-year-old American boy. Shouldn't it at least have to explain why?" For a president invested in showing leadership by setting the tone for discussions of race at home, he should answer that question directly. He should then announce an end to signature strikes, since nobody should ever be killed based on how they look or for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

National Security

Don't Know Much About History

What John McCain, Richard Cohen, and Jeffrey Goldberg have in common.

John McCain, speaking at the Canadian embassy in Washington last month, made his customary pitch for bombing the military assets of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and arming certain Syrian rebels. He expressed sympathy for Canada's strong reservations about getting involved militarily in Syria, "as Iraq and Afghanistan [have] shown." However, in a call to action, the Arizona senator referenced the interventions in Bosnia-Herzegovina, "where, we, with air power, went in and stopped genocide from taking place in the very heart of Europe." McCain concluded with the oft-misquoted warning: "There's an old line about those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them."

The actual passage comes from Volume One of George Santayana's The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress (1905) and is worth quoting in its entirety:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

One realm in which "experience is not retained" and "infancy is perpetual" is Washington -- specifically, when it debates whether to militarily intervene in other countries. Proponents and (to a lesser degree) opponents of military intervention rarely assess simply what impact cruise missiles or smuggled guns may have on their political or military objectives in some distant country. They also rummage through the post-Cold War history to marshal evidence on behalf of their position -- which they then cite in ways that are often selective, misleading, or just flat-wrong. And so it has been with Syria.

Last month, columnist Richard Cohen wrote that an "apt comparison" to intervening in Syria "is the 78-day NATO bombing campaign in 1995 that ended the bloodshed in Bosnia." In fact, that campaign took place in 1999 over Kosovo. Even when the piece was updated later in the day, it still contained an error, referring to the "78-day NATO bombing campaign in 1999 that ended the bloodshed in Bosnia," when it should have read "Kosovo." And the correction added to the updated version contained its own misleading statement: "A shorter series of airstrikes by the alliance in 1995 halted Serbian attacks in Bosnia and Herzegovina."

It is true that the Serbian attacks were halted in large part because of the 1,026 bombs dropped on 48 Bosnian Serb target complexes on 11 of the 17 days of NATO's air campaign in August and September 1995. (It is often forgotten that NATO member-states' special operations forces were deployed on the ground as forward air controllers to direct these strikes.) But the primary factor was the combined Bosnian Muslim-Croatian Army ground offensive that reduced the amount of territory controlled by the Serbian army from 70 percent to 45 percent before the Dayton peace talks began. This offensive was supported by French and British ground forces belonging to NATO's Rapid Reaction Force, who shelled the Bosnian Serbs' Lukavica barracks near Sarajevo. Thus, while the lessons of airpower are retained, the boots on the ground required to tip the balance are forgotten.

This misreading of what happened in the summer of 1995 in Bosnia-Herzegovina is not confined to columnists. Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg recently reported an alleged White House confrontation between Secretary of State John Kerry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey over the wisdom of U.S. airstrikes against Assad's airfields. Both sides assumed their expected positions in this civil-military debate, with Kerry arguing for immediate bombing and Dempsey highlighting the complexities and uncertainties of such an operation. According to Goldberg, "a Kerry partisan" later noted that, after a comparable debate between then-Secretary Madeleine Albright and then-Chairman Gen. Colin Powell, "Bill Clinton eventually decided to use air power in the Balkans. And it brought the Serbian government to its knees." Again, this is highly misleading, but accuracy is an afterthought when you have a point to make.

Meanwhile, intervention proponents, ranging from then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair have demanded a no-fly zone (NFZ) over Syria, possibly by using U.S. fighter jets and Patriot missile batteries stationed in Jordan. They have highlighted the supposed past successes of this tactic in protecting civilians on the ground in Iraq, Bosnia, and Libya. In the past month alone, President Obama and Gen. Dempsey have both cited the same statistic in arguing against a NFZ in Syria: the vast majority of Syrian deaths, 90 percent, have not been caused by airstrikes. Instead, the Obama administration is reportedly considering what one official termed a "no fighting zone" -- protecting rebels and refugees from all lethal attacks by ground or air -- a markedly different and more intensive mission, requiring greater surveillance and strike capabilities.

Here, again, history can be instructive. In August 1996, within Iraqi territory that was "protected" by a U.S.-led NFZ, Saddam Hussein deployed five ground divisions to crush a Kurdish uprising within one week. At the time, the United States had twice warned Hussein that using ground troops "would be a serious mistake." The Clinton administration considered using the U.S. air wing based at Incirlik, Turkey, which was enforcing the NFZ, to stop Saddam's divisions, but decided against it -- the planes were not configured to identify and strike mobile Iraqi ground forces, and Ankara would never have allowed its territory or its airspace to be used for strike missions against Iraq. This is a scenario that could face U.S. combat aircraft if they were to enforce a NFZ over Syria, either from -- or over -- Jordan and Turkey.  

Three days before he spoke at the Canadian embassy, McCain hosted President Clinton at an event at the McCain Institute for International Leadership. Clinton told McCain that he thought the United States should deepen its engagement in Syria -- though he offered no specific recommendations -- noting, "Sometimes it's just best to get caught trying, as long as you don't overcommit." However, the former president cautioned: "My view is that we shouldn't overlearn the lessons of the past. I don't think Syria is necessarily Iraq or Afghanistan."

Indeed, Syria is not comparable to Iraq or Afghanistan -- or Somalia, or Bosnia, or Kosovo, or Libya, or any other U.S. military intervention (or non-intervention) in the past quarter-century. The thorough study of these historical examples does offer a range of lessons that should be learned. However, the motivated misapplication of such lessons in order to support policy preferences in Syria should be condemned.