Several times in his West Point speech on Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Obama declared that the US would not permit Al Qaeda or “violent extremists” the use of safe havens. He specifically noted Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The President unsurprisingly never overtly mentioned Predator or drone missile strikes, or the CIA as the operational agents in many instances of these far-from-covert actions. But there is little doubt that both in the speech and in actual doctrine, targeted killing through drone strikes has been endorsed and indeed extended.
It was a tactic initiated by the Bush administration, but it was embraced and championed by the Obama administration, expanded and made a centerpiece of operations by it, as news stories before and after this speech in the NYT and Washington Post have repeatedly reported. But an important question remains as to whether the administration is preserving through use and ‘opinio juris’ the legal authority and doctrines that support these sensible tactics.
Not the only tool of US will, of course – the President went to great lengths to discuss diplomacy, values, and many “soft power” options. Targeted killing is a means, and a limited one; moreover it is not a strategic end in itself. And it is also quite true that although speeches of this kind are often constructed so as to make oblique references to be understood as such, it is also a mistake to interpret a large policy pronouncement by reference to particular phrases and oblique references in isolation from the larger whole. But reading the whole speech, there is little doubt that targeted killing is included among the vital tools for the projection of US power – not just in Afghanistan, not just in Pakistan (and the speech several times referred to Afghanistan and Pakistan together, for obvious […]