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Obama, Drones and the Price of Collateral Damage

Obama, Drones and the Price of Collateral Damage

By Carl M. Cannon - August 12, 2013

"War is hell," Napoleon Bonaparte noted a half-century before William Tecumseh Sherman -- the fighting man usually credited with this phrase -- presented Abraham Lincoln with an unusual birthday gift: the city of Savannah.

Lincoln knew better than most the truth of Napoleon's observation. But presidents are also commanders in chief, and the worst kind of hell for them is losing thousands of Americans in a sneak attack from a foreign power. The men in the Oval Office at such times -- I'm thinking of Franklin Roosevelt and George W. Bush -- are understandably tenacious in response.

When the ensuing war continues into a subsequent presidency, their successors can be just as single-minded, even ruthless. Harry Truman didn't really know about the Manhattan Project when he succeeded FDR. But, four months later, Truman issued the orders to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities.

Barack Obama was serving as an Illinois state legislator in Abe Lincoln's adopted hometown of Springfield when 9/11 occurred. As the president who inherited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the ubiquitous "war on terror" -- Obama increased the Bush administration's drone program five-fold.

Obama has been getting it from both sides in this global fight. Conservative critics wonder why the federal government has spent $5 million and four years preparing for the trial of Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, whose guilt is not in doubt. They also can't fathom why Obama administration officials can't bring themselves to label the shooting by the radicalized jihadist a terrorist attack. Instead, the government is using the anodyne phrase "workplace violence."

Those are good questions, and it would seem that Obama has little in common in this regard with Franklin Roosevelt.

In 1942, German submarines carried two sets of would-be terrorists and saboteurs to our shores. The first four-man team landed on the beach near Amagansett, N.Y., in mid-June 1942. Nearly a week later, a second team landed off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla. All eight men had once lived in the United States.

Their orders, approved by Hitler, were to infiltrate American society for the purpose of blowing up power plants, munitions factories, canals and even Jewish-owned department stores -- the idea being to sabotage the U.S. war effort, but also to sow terror among Americans. Two of the men quickly turned themselves in and reported all they knew of the plot. At least two of the others had second thoughts as well, and were in the process of re-acclimating themselves to American society when they were apprehended. It probably wouldn't have mattered.

Justice, if that's what it can be called, was swift. Roosevelt, wanting neither publicity nor the risk of mercy in civilian courts, ordered that a closed military tribunal be convened. It took less than a month. The last of the Nazi saboteurs was arrested June 27; the defense rested July 27. Ten days later, the verdicts were pronounced: The two men who turned themselves in got long prison sentences; the other six got death.

There was no appeal. A day later, on Aug. 8, 1942, the six condemned spies were electrocuted in a Washington, D.C., jail.

When it comes to waging war from the skies, however, Obama is neither squeamish nor circumspect. He seems to be channeling Harry Truman. With all due respect to Truman, I'm not sure this is a good thing. In announcing that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Truman noted that the Japanese began the war against the U.S. with an air attack on Pearl Harbor. "They have been repaid many fold," he said. "And the end is not yet."

That was true enough -- Nagasaki was days away. But the fallout still lingers, and I don't mean radioactive dust. Osama bin Laden was obsessed with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He mentioned them often, sometimes to make the claim for American hypocrisy, other times as an example of the kind of attack he'd like to emulate against us.

Drone attacks are meant to be the antithesis of vaporizing entire cities, along with their civilian populations. But even the most "surgical" of airstrikes can lead to what the Air Force calls collateral damage -- and that always carries a price.

Last year, a Muslim cleric in Yemen preached a sermon at his mosque denouncing al-Qaeda. The imam, whose name was Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, commanded such respect in his town that four militants affiliated with al-Qaeda asked for an audience with him. They were joined by Jaber's cousin, a police officer. No one knows what was said during their meeting because all six men present were vaporized by a missile fired by a U.S. drone.

Two weeks ago, a relative of the slain cleric and the police officer wrote to the presidents of Yemen and the United States, calling for an end to such airstrikes. He noted that the family had not received so much as an apology from either government.

"The strike left a stark lesson in its wake -- not just in my village, but across ... Yemen," wrote the man, Faisal bin Ali Jaber. "The lesson, I am afraid, is that neither the current U.S. or Yemeni administrations bother to distinguish friend from foe. In speech after speech after the attack, community leaders stood and said: if Salem was not safe, none of us are."

"To this day I wish no vengeance against the United States or Yemeni governments," he added. "But not everyone in Yemen feels the same. Every dead innocent swells the ranks of those you are fighting." 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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