Finally, Obama Breaks His Silence on Drones

Over the last four years, there has been a strange irony. One of the greatest speakers of our era has largely kept silent about one of the signature aspects of his presidency.

Under President Obama’s leadership, U.S. civilian intelligence agencies have carried out a series of not-so-covert operations in so-called secret wars that have reached a huge scale. There have been nearly 400 drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen since 2008, in periods of activity that have ebbed and flowed dependent on everything from the availability of intelligence to local political tides.

But the long-term nature and growth in scale of the “drone wars” campaign made targeted killings a key feature of the administration’s foreign policy, both in its internal approach to counter-terrorism and external perceptions of America. The advantages were clear to an administration that throughout this period faced a daily drumbeat of terrorism threats. Targeted killings by drones offered new means for action in ways that were more accurate, more proportionate and less risky to American lives than previous alternatives. They have repeatedly been used in successful operations that eliminated key terrorist leaders.

However, the short-term benefits came with long-term questions. As these operations increasingly were leaked to the media, they grew more and more controversial, whether from concern over civilian casualties, disputes over the appropriate role of the CIA versus the military in what had evolved into a massive air war campaign, Congress’ sense that it was the victim of an executive branch end run or broader worry about the danger to constitutional powers.

As this played out, the president’s absence from the debate became more and more telling. Yes, there were a couple of speeches by presidential aides finally acknowledging the use of such technology, quick mentions on late-night talk shows and even presidential jokes about drone strikes. But the administration’s case in the public debate remained disjointed, tentative and, as the controversy surrounding John Brennan’s confirmation hearings as CIA director illustrated, far from strategic or satisfactory. The time was long overdue for the true stamp of presidential voice and authority on the topic to be heard.

That is what makes the president’s speech Thursday at National Defense University so important, and simultaneously so challenging for him. He has to try to strike a balance between arguing that terrorism threats will remain with us for the long term, as recent events in Boston and London would illustrate, but that the structures we gradually built up in response, from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the drone campaign, cannot remain with us in their ad hoc manner for the long term.

Beyond all the internal policy questions — such as what the CIA should control versus what the Pentagon controls — he has a broader task. He must lay out the overdue case for regularizing, so to speak, our counter-terrorism strategy itself, from the means to the ends. This will require touching on thorny issues such as how to bring more transparency to the ugly task of a targeted killings campaign, how to create more interaction with Congress — which both wants and avoids oversight — and, finally, how to find a path out of the Gitmo conundrum.

Beginning this kind of discussion has been described by some as just a way to change the topic in the midst of other would-be scandals dominating the news cycle. But let’s be crystal clear: The president is making a big bet by speaking out on issues on which he still enjoys fairly broad public support.

The reason to take this bet is that the speech offers enormous advantages over the alternative of remaining silent. Though it may or may not assuage the genuine concerns at home about the drone campaign, the very act is hugely important inside government. Only the president can operate above the interagency disputes, and his vision will set the terms of internal policy development across multiple agencies (why those staff speeches and confirmation hearings never could substitute for his voice).

In turn, the public side of the speech matters in a manner beyond any blip in domestic poll numbers. Here again, only the president can truly stake out America’s vision in a way the world notices. If well played, the speech might even be the foundation for future international norms that need to be set in the post-9/11, post-Osama bin Laden world. This is all the more important as our technologies proliferate and other nations, such as Russia, China and Iran, may seek to follow (or misuse) our precedents in drone strikes and targeted killings.

The issues at play are not just about which agency gets to do what and when to tell whom on Capitol Hill, but also how the United States might build a global coalition of the like-minded on the future of counter-terrorism.

In short, sometimes a speech is more than just a speech. By finally speaking out on some of the key issues that have grown to define his place in foreign policy history, Obama has his chance, finally, to set the terms of the debate and steer it toward more positive ends.