Ameya Naik has written a critique of U.S. President Barack Obama's latest big foreign policy speech, delivered at the West Point commencement ceremony last week.
Read it; it's not too long. To summarize, Mr. Naik argues that inconsistencies between U.S. practice and the stated approach laid out by Obama are undermining the country's foreign policy and the international order in general. He picks out drone strikes and indefinite detention at Guantanamo as two key examples.
I have a few problems with the argument. The superficial ones are these:
First, Mr. Naik argues that targeted drone strikes do not meet one of the president's tests for viable tools of policy: “We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.”
The President points to their use in decimating Al Qaeda’s leadership, and no doubt they have, but judging by the influence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Tehreek-e-Taliban in Pakistan (TTP), or Al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa today, the appeal of conducting terrorist activities against Western interests has grown nonetheless.There are several problems with this argument, which is nonetheless a potentially valid one: there is no clear evidence (aside from the anecdotal type) that resentment against drone strikes directly drives recruitment into active terrorist organizations (as opposed to simply lowering opinions of the United States); there are a multitude of local factors that could be contributing to terrorist strength in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or the Horn that have little or nothing to do with U.S. actions; and the argument fails to take into account the possibility that drone strikes are deterring disaffected youths from joining militant groups. As I said, however, the argument is still a plausible one; my issue with it is solely that it remains unproven. (If anyone has published something on this, please point me in the right direction!)
More critically, it is entirely possible that the White House understands well the blowback potential of drone strikes, but has calculated that most of that blowback will be locally contained. The United States could well be relying on local allies to both absorb most of the subsequent violent indignation and to suppress the spread in awareness of strikes. Time and time again, Obama has emphasized that he is most concerned by those actors which pose a direct threat to the U.S. homeland. By limiting strikes to those which target 'direct' threats, Obama may be calculating that the costs may be 'outsourced' enough, and the direct benefits for U.S. security great enough, to produce a net benefit for U.S. interests. If that is the case, then the drone policy may not be inconsistent with the West Point speech at all.
Second, Mr. Naik also argues that U.S. drone activity in violation of international laws against noninterference and the use of force could lead to copy-cat behavior and legal justifications by other states:
How will U.S. leaders respond when China, invoking this precedent, attacks a fishing vessel carrying, what they label “Philippines-based terrorists” and launch a military strike causing “minimal civilian casualties,” or if President Putin sees an “imminent threat” in Estonia?As far as drones go, for a long time, this particular flavour of blowback has been limited by the U.S. dominance in technology and capabilities. That dominance is fast eroding and military analysts are now predicting an era of rapid drone capability proliferation. So, the copy-cat problem has become a real one. I would also venture to argue that it is an overstated one. Drones are vulnerable in a contested environment, and have only become a key U.S. instrument of choice because of the nature of the enemy (and the acquiescence of host authorities).
Moving beyond drones to aggressive actions in general, the potential 'bad behaviour' of other states, such as China or Russia, that would most concern the United States would be behaviour against other states. The nibblings around the edges of use force law that subsequent U.S. administrations have engaged in have all come in campaigns against conventionally weaker opponents. There are very obvious and very strong limitations on the ability of non-state adversaries to push back against U.S. legal arguments, and there are even stronger limitations on their ability to resist U.S. action. If copy-cats begin throwing their legal weight around, they would likely be resisted.
So, those are the superficial points of dissent. As far as Guantanamo goes, I have nothing to add - Mr. Naik is spot on.
But I have a deeper problem with his piece: it misconstrues the importance of international law in contributing to the international order. In areas of high politics, where the debate about the role of law is most spectacular, laws matter not because they bind states, but because they serve as guidelines for acceptable and expect-able behaviour. Laws center norms, which are what give any raw distribution of power a sense of order. The norms, not the laws, contribute to order. As Daniel Philpott once analogized, the international system is like a game of sandlot basketball - the rules might be broken often, but they are still recognizable as such.
What does this abstract point say about the inconsistencies in U.S. policy?
First, U.S. violations of international laws on the use of force (both jus ad bellum and in bello) and sovereignty do not necessarily undermine the underlying norms that motivate those laws: that states do not engage in military conflict with one another in the way that they used to. The problem of managing global terrorism is new and troubling, but the U.S. solution - covert operations and drone strikes, do not automatically challenge the underlying expectations of international society. This speaks directly to Mr. Naik's second point about copy-cat behaviour.
Second, the real problem with Obama's speech, and this administration's foreign policy in general, is that it fails spectacularly in articulating that distinction. Further, it did not take seriously the real threats to the normative underpinnings of the international system - the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the belligerent actions of China in its regional waters. The true inconsistency is the gap between the administration's claims of success in deterring Russia and building coalitions in Asia and the facts on the ground.
More on Ukraine later. For now, I am satisfied that I've sufficiently exposed the limitations of my fluency in counterterrorism law and policy, neither of which are issues I have examined closely.