Beall: Drones aren't Obama's legacy


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Under President Obama, American military drone strikes have become a normal part of life in many areas of Pakistan. These attacks cause death and strike fear in both terrorists and innocent bystanders.

The most recent victim of a drone attack is Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, who was killed by an American drone strike on Nov. 1. The world and the people of Pakistan are better off without him. But many of these same people would be better off without the constant threat of drone strikes. 

A wide spectrum of publications from The Atlantic to the New York Times to the Washington Times have criticized the president’s strikes, which often lead to civilian casualties and considerable collateral damage. Opponents of drone warfare have tried to persuade Obama that he is tarnishing his image with drone strikes and creating a future portrayal of himself as a dealer in death.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Obama’s presidency is not going to be judged by his use of drones. Obamacare, the economy, dealing with the tea-party movement, and the NSA are all much more important to his legacy. Here are two reasons drones will have no effect on his legacy.

First, Americans have positive feelings toward many presidents who have made unpopular or poor foreign policy decisions. Iran-contra didn’t ruin Reagan’s legacy, for example. Only the most left-wing among us even remember it. The use of chemical weapons (Agent Orange) didn’t ruin JFK, Johnson, or Nixon’s legacies — Johnson and Nixon destroyed their legacies through other means.
And you would find it difficult to find an American president that hadn’t at one time or another been in support of some military action that resulted in civilian casualties. 

Second, Americans either do not know about or do not care about the civilian casualties in Pakistan that have resulted from U.S. strikes. Two separate polls by Farleigh Dickinson University and ABC News/Washington Post put support for drone strikes at 75 and 83 percent. These polls show little partisan divide on the issue.

For the American people, the bottom line seems to be that drones kill the bad guys, plain and simple, as was evidenced this week by the death of Mehsud. This is enough for the president, and it is enough for most Americans to justify drone use.

The civilian consequences of these policies and this complacency are undeniable.

According to the Pakistan Defense Ministry, 67 civilians were killed in drone attacks from 2008 to the present. A report from Amnesty International released last month found that at least 19 civilians have been killed in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan since the beginning of 2012.

It is clear that drones are not some sort of miracle military solution to terrorism but have a considerable downside. But arguments against drone use have been weak and unconvincing for three-quarters of Americans.    

False threats in the press about Obama’s legacy have done little to change drone policies in Washington.  Ultimately, the president’s legacy is built on American public opinion and public opinion — on this issue, at least — is on his side. If you want to persuade the president to end or reduce the use of drone strikes, you have to change public opinion.  Only then might he change his policies.

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