Obama's quiet war machines

By Tim Marshall, January 6, 2011
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A “Reaper” drone on a mission over Afghanistan. Obama signed off more drone attacks in nine months than Bush did in his final three years

A “Reaper” drone on a mission over Afghanistan. Obama signed off more drone attacks in nine months than Bush did in his final three years

An American President authorises the bombing of a country with which it is not at war. The operation is undertaken not by the military but the CIA, and is concealed from Congress and the parliament of the country being bombed.

Pilotless drone air strikes are conducted on average once every three days, overseen from a base in California 8,000 miles from the target. Hundreds of innocent men women and children are killed in the assault.

The President is Barack Obama, the country is Pakistan, and the media scrutiny is almost invisible.

Now imagine this scale of operation had been undertaken by President Bush. There would be a fierce media debate about the legality and effectiveness of the policy. This column is not to argue the rights and wrongs, a case can be made each way, it is to question why so little attention has been paid to the issue.

President Obama gets away with it because his name is Barack, not George. He authorised more strikes inside Pakistan in his first nine months in the White House than George Bush did in his final three years. In 2010 the number doubled from 2009. Low estimates suggest civilians account for 30 per cent of fatalities. If Bush, who first authorised "targeting killing", was still in power, the statistics would be better known.

Obama has not only doubled troop numbers in Afghanistan, agreed Special Forces operations inside Pakistan, stepped up drone raids and given the go ahead for their use in Yemen, he has joked about the weapons.

Last May at a dinner he realised the pop band the Jonas Brothers were present. Smiling, he said his daughters were fans but warned: "Boys, don't get any ideas. Two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming." The crowd laughed.

You can see this on YouTube. Had Bush made such a remark it would have made the news as further proof of how callous he was.

The 'Not Called George' argument also applies to why President Obama has avoided the heat for going after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

He has left it to his Attorney General and Vice President to make the running. Eric Holder is actively searching for laws under which to prosecute Assange; Joe Biden has described him as a "cyber terrorist".

There seems to be reluctance, even among Assange's supporters, to acknowledge that the White House is driving this policy. Obama means to get Assange into an American court and then into a high security jail for a very long time.

This may or may not be a good thing and the drone policy may make solid military sense. What is missing from sections of the mainstream media which so used to ridicule the Bush administration is the debate.

Tim Marshall is Sky News Foreign Editor

    Last updated: 1:36pm, January 6 2011