The President’s Mixed Messages

by Ameya Naik

President Obama, delivering the Commencement Address at West Point last week, outlined his vision of an era of American leadership premised on caution, collaboration, and credibility. Whatever messages one may read into his words are moot: U.S. foreign policy actions are drowning out his words. The unprecedented reliance on military, legal, policy, and rhetorical responses holding over from the Global War on Terror under the Obama Administration belies the President’s professed priorities. In effect, he is sending mixed messages—a frustrating and self-defeating approach, as any relationship coach could attest.

Take, for instance, the intensive use of drone strikes, which are tactically unsound by the President’s own proposed test, articulated in his West Point speech: “We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.” The core of asymmetrical warfare is indeed to generate disproportionate impact by provoking one’s oversized opponent into a fearful, excessive, or repressive response. When used by the U.S. in an opaque and apparently indiscriminate manner, these strikes almost certainly constitute such a response, generating more resentment, more fodder for extremist causes, than any military advantage gained.

To be sure, drone strikes may be the most precise and limited military response available, but that assures neither proportionality nor effectiveness. 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.

Strategically, the President’s policy on drone use is an historic blunder. The leitmotif of international law is that state practice will be adopted as precedent. Modern impunity comes from knowing you can justify any action, however questionable your motives, as somehow not violating international norms. The precedent being set by current U.S. drone policy can justify a dangerous degree of aggression. While the policy, as the President restated, includes guidelines on authorizing lethal force—imminent threat, feasibility of capture, minimal civilian casualties—the devil is in the definitions.

The Obama administration defines those safeguards in ways that leave them meaningless: an “imminent” threat “does not require…clear evidence that a specific attack will take place on U.S. persons in the immediate future”; “feasibility of capture” is subject to numerous caveats;  the actual methods for classifying casualties as terrorists have never been released. 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? It is not merely Obama’s unwillingness to enforce his “red line” in Syria that emboldens such future aggressors; arguably, they take a lead from his willingness to authorize use of force in violation of international law as well.

Finally, reputation matters; in the age of 24/7 media, the moral high ground has great value. In that sense, the ongoing failure to close down Guantanamo Bay is also particularly harmful. To those unfamiliar with the intricacies of American politics, it is inexplicable: Didn’t the President promise to close it down in 2008? As Commander-in-Chief, does he not have the authority to order this closure? Congress’ recalcitrance to release the current 164 detainees finds little sympathy abroad. The legality of their detention was always questionable; that a President with professional expertise in Constitutional Law cannot end it leaves him looking either insincere in his promise or woefully incompetent in his inability to deliver.

Persuasion relies as much on the credibility of the messenger as on the content of the message. “Do as I say, not as I do” is about as effective in the international arena as on the playground. Countries, like children, learn from example—but they are far less trusting. When President Obama argues that it is in American interests to strengthen and enforce the international order, he could send no stronger message than to ensure the U.S. abides by the norms of that order. While such compliance will necessarily be tempered with considerations of national interest, it is simply impossible to assert a right to take unilateral action whenever you deem your interests to be in threat, and expect that no other leader will follow your example.

President Obama’s recently articulated foreign policy that moves the U.S. away from unilateral action is undoubtedly welcome; so is his perspective that not every problem has a military solution. What all collaborative or multilateral endeavours have in common, though, is that they all rely on trust. Trust grows from credibility, credibility relies on consistency. American diplomats are working hard to counter violent extremism around the world; the least they are due is to not be called upon to defend a set of policies and actions riven with inherent contradictions.

About the Author


Ameya Naik is a dual degree MALD-LLM student at The Fletcher School, with a focus on rule of law in post-conflict states. He is a research scholar at The Takshashila Institution, an independent public policy think-tank based in Bengaluru, India.

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