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Transition 2012

A guide to foreign policy and the 2012 U.S. presidential transition.

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Defense Update: Obama’s Drone Policy Hits the Campaign Trail

by Newsteam Staff
May 8, 2012

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator remotely piloted aircraft in a hangar at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan June 29, 2011(Baz Ratner/Courtesy Reuters) A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator remotely piloted aircraft in a hangar at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan June 29, 2011(Baz Ratner/Courtesy Reuters)


A recent speech by the White House’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, opened drone strikes up for election-year debate after he publicly admitted for the first time that the Obama administration has been using unmanned aircraft to hunt and kill terrorists.

Going into the general election race, President Barack Obama is trying to beef up his commander-in-chief credentials, touting the death of Osama bin Laden on his watch and the progress made in Afghanistan. But Washington Post columnist David Ignatius writes that, while bringing the drone strikes out into the light was a good thing, the Obama administration’s timing is inappropriate.

“[W]hat troubles me about the speech is that it further politicizes this realm of national-security policy — making it easier for President Obama’s team, and the president himself, to talk publicly about the drone war in the coming campaign,” Ignatius says. “Open debate about drone policy is valuable. I just wish Brennan hadn’t expanded it at the very time Obama’s political advisers are preparing to run partly on his tough-minded role as ‘covert commander in chief.'”

CFR’s Micah Zenko disagrees with Ignatius, saying the strikes have hardly been secret and officially acknowledging them opens up a more fair debate in an election year. “It is precisely because Obama is going to run on a campaign featuring a ‘tough’ foreign policy via targeted killings that they should be openly discussed,” Zenko says. “If such military operations are to be a core pillar of the president’s reelection campaign, Democrats, Republicans, and independents have the right to greater transparency.”

And the degree to which the Obama’s drone policy’s will up for debate with his Republican challenger  is unclear. During the Republican primary debates, now-presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney said he was comfortable using drones to hunt terrorists in Pakistan, in part because that the United States had established the proper agreements to do so. Romney also admonished the Obama administration for not retrieving a downed drone in Iran, and instead asking Tehran to give it back.

Drone strikes have raised tensions in U.S. relations with Pakistan, which has recently demanded they cease. They also raised a number of domestic legal questions after they were used against U.S. citizens (Fox) suspected of terrorist activities in Yemen.

For more on the candidates’ stances, check out CFR’s Issue Tracker on The Candidates and Defense Policy.

Suggested Other Reading:

As drone warfare spreads from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen and elsewhere, it deserves greater scrutiny and increasingly risks foreign policy blowback, says James Joyner at The New Republic.

In Rolling Stone, Michael Hastings looks at the “increasingly central role that drones now play in American foreign policy” and warfare.

This CFR Backgrounder explains the U.S.’s targeted killings policy, which began as a way to pursue those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, but has escalated under the Obama administration.

— Gayle S. Putrich, Contributing Editor

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