U.S. President Barack Obama announced in a May 23 speech at the National Defense University that the United States would be redefining the role of targeted strikes with unmanned aerial vehicles, colloquially known as drones. According to Obama, management of the drone program will shift from the CIA to the military, and there will be additional parameters on the use of drone strikes.
Specifically, the target must "pose a continuing and imminent threat" and be in a situation in which "there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat." While acknowledging that terrorism perpetrated by radical Islamists remains a threat, Obama also proclaimed it time to "define the nature and scope" of that threat. Though his speech was put forth as a policy shift in the making, it was simply the articulation of a deeper, fundamental shift in how the United States views the world and its role in it.
The 9/11 attacks compelled the United States to take a highly proactive stance toward virtually any perceived security threat involving terrorism. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are the obvious examples of this more aggressive strategy, but it was also seen in frequent targeted strikes and limited ground operations in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. The military was at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy and was used aggressively by administrations across party lines. Targeted drone strikes in many ways embodied the U.S. psyche in this period.
What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.
In hindsight, the military-heavy response and the proclamation of a "global war on terrorism" was an overreaction to the threats at hand. The United States was attempting to fight an unconventional enemy — tied to no particular state and geographically dispersed — on a global scale. Enemy cells generally nestled into weak security environments where governments were either unable or unwilling to control them. They wore no uniforms and were likely to decline direct combat and move across international borders, further complicating efforts to find, fix and destroy them. Washington quickly realized it could not invade every country where there might be terrorists or their supporters; it lacked the resources and political will to attempt such a feat.
Instead, the United States turned to drone strikes to project a specific, limited type of force. Drones could target particular high-value targets, keep U.S. personnel out of politically sensitive areas and maintain an extended presence in the airspace of countries that lacked the ability to pursue high-value targets from the air. The unmanned aerial vehicles put pressure on the enemy in its sanctuary, forcing it to spend much more energy on operational security and staying alive than on planning attacks or fighting the United States and its allies. Drones became a specific tool that seemed to fit the needs of the fight as the United States lashed out across the world.
But a liberal drone policy was bound to reach limits. At a certain point, the definition of high-value targets started to blur and encompass groups of military-aged males (so-called signature strikes). Inevitably, these policies had repercussions, and there was blowback from local populations to the point that it threatened the legitimacy of tenuously allied governments such as Pakistan. By now, the United States has largely degraded the threat to regional jihadist nodes incapable of launching transnational attacks on par with al Qaeda of the early 2000s.
In other words, U.S. foreign policy is undergoing a correction cycle after more than a decade of war in the Islamic world. This can be seen in U.S. military restraint in Libya, Mali and now Syria. The United States has gained perspective on the woefully ambiguous global war on terrorism, but if Washington truly wants to regain its balance in the world, it will also need to revise how it employs its toolset.