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Obama, Drones, and the Matter of Definitions

May 30, 2013

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Tobias T. Gibson, an associate professor of political science and security studies at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. 

In the buildup to President Obama’s speech at National Defense University on May 23, the administration suggested that the speech would clarify US policy on the use of drones in targeted killing. Although the president took pains to describe the limitations set forth by his administration, the speech provided little genuine clarity.

The working definitions of three very important words play a key role in undermining the putative “transparency” provided by the speech.  In a key passage, the President states that

Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces. Even then, the use of drones is heavily constrained. America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists – our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute them. America cannot take strikes wherever we choose – our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty. America does not take strikes to punish individuals – we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set. [emphasis mine]

These three key constraints on the administration may amount to very little in the way of genuine barriers to the use of drone strikes.

First, what does the President means by “continuing” in this context? Must a potential target have never taken a break from a plan? Given the singularity in the passage (‘a plan’), that raises a further question: if there are multiple ongoing plans, and one ends, is the candidate for death stricken from the kill list?

Second, as has been noted by several national security experts, a explanation of imminence would help us understand who constitutes a legitimate target. At what stage in a plan does the threat become imminent? And, is there a minimum level of skill associated with the threat? Given the admission that “[c]ore al Qaeda is a shell of its former self” perhaps the answer is no.

Third, given the administration’s well known practice of redefining a “military age male” as a legitimate target, the working definition of “civilian” matters a lot for  whether or not President Obama’s speech describes a narrowed drone policy.

In sum, there’s a lot of wiggle room here.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.