President Obama, national security, and human rights: A good speech does not make good policy

On May 21, President Obama gave a national security speech at the National Defense University.  In his speech, President Obama essentially reserved what he sees as a legal and moral right to continue to wage his preferred means of warfare without geographic or temporal limits.

President Obama wants the world to know that the deaths of innocent civilians are tragedies that will haunt him for the rest of his life. It is certainly reassuring to know that deaths of innocent people, killed by the President’s targeted killing program, make it more difficult for him to sleep at night.

Yet, President Obama’s claim that he will be haunted is difficult to reconcile with his continued authorization of the use of so-called “signature strikes”, as well as his alleged utilization of “double-taps” and attacks on funerals. The President made no mention of these tactics in his speech.

How can President Obama claim to be haunted by the loss of innocent life if he is willing to authorize the use of strikes when he admittedly does not know the identity of the victims? How can the President claim to be haunted when he allegedly authorizes the use of strikes against first responders and mourners? The continued authorization of strikes that knowingly kill civilians is simply incompatible with true remorse.

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During his speech, President Obama also claimed that “America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists.” This claim comes in direct conflict with the testimony provided by Ibrahim Mothana before the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, a hearing to which the President was apparently unwilling to send a single member of his administration.

Mothana testified that Yemenis believe President Obama has been attempting to avoid “the Guantanamo dilemma of indefinite detentions without charge by killing suspects in Yemen rather than trying to capture them.” Mothana stated, “We Yemenis ask ourselves, how many more of our citizens were killed without any attempt at capture instead?

Why is it that in the four years that John Brennan was the top counterterrorism advisor, only one so-called "high-value target" was arrested anywhere outside the United States?”

How many individuals have been targeted and killed in comparison to the number of individuals who have been captured for prosecution? How many innocent people have been killed during these and other operations? How many innocent people have been killed by unacknowledged CIA drone strikes?

Perhaps the most significant component of President Obama’s speech was his claim that the previous administration’s “global war on terror” is over. In terms of the means with which the war is being fought, that may be the case. Yet, the President’s change in tactics and rhetoric do not succeed in validating his claim.

In the end, the war is the same war. The President continues to propagate the same narrative as that professed by President Bush. President Obama may use more nuanced rhetoric, but his justification for the bombing of a multitude of countries is the same. There are terrorists that want to kill Americans based solely in their twisted ideology. 

While this is true in some cases, what about those who had no intention of ever plotting against the United States until members of their family were killed by a drone strike? Is President Obama aware of the possibility that he may have authorized drone strikes that have killed members of families, only to authorize further drone strikes to kill other members of those same families who were radicalized by the initial drone strikes?

What about those who are victims of a system of structural violence that the United States helps maintain? Neoliberal economic policies, which President Obama avidly supports, and the continued economic and military support for some of the most oppressive regimes in the world undermine the rights of citizens living under these despotic regimes and perpetuate a violent system. This, not surprisingly, fosters anger aimed at the United States and the West.

We should not be applauding good speeches; we should be applauding good and just policies. Those policies that do not achieve such status ought to be challenged. President Obama must be judged, not on his words, but on his deeds.

Professor Bachman is a professorial lecturer in Human Rights and Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs Program Coordinator at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C.