They say it is far easier to criticize something than to propose a solution. When it comes to the methods by which the United States prosecutes the war on terror, idealistic “human rights” activists tend to take the path of least resistance, protesting loudly about drone strikes and indefinite detention without ever suggesting a workable alternative.
In doing so, they overlook what ought to be the most obvious point – that terrorism exists, and must be fought.
Since 9/11, two US administrations have fought terrorism in two very different ways. Bush preferred to incarcerate terrorists. Obama prefers to incinerate them.
Call me a bleeding heart, but I favor the former approach.
Under Bush, terrorists were captured on the battlefield and detained at Guantanamo Bay. Once there, they would be brought before a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT), which would determine whether they had been correctly identified as enemy combatants.
The CSRTs were as fair as they could have been under the circumstances. The US Supreme Court’s Chief Justice John Roberts, for example, described them as “the most generous set of procedural protections ever afforded aliens detained by this country as enemy combatants.”
They did a thorough job, too. By the time the Guantanamo Review Task Force issued its final report in January 2010, less than 5 percent of the 240 detainees were found not to have been directly engaged in terrorism.
By contrast, of those who were released from Guantanamo Bay whilst Bush was in the White House – for lack of evidence, or because they were deemed no longer to pose a threat – 31 percent are confirmed or suspected to have resumed their terrorist activities.
What this serves to demonstrate is that, if you found yourself wearing an orange jumpsuit in Guantanamo Bay between 2002 and 2009, you almost certainly belonged there.
Then along came Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who vowed to put an end to indefinite detention and turn the page on what he called a “sad chapter in American history.”
Every bit as explosive as Obama’s arrival on the political scene was his new, presumably happier chapter, which began with a massive increase in the number of aerial drone strikes on Pakistani territory. Whilst Bush presided over fewer than 50 such attacks, Obama has authorized more than 300 to date.
There is nothing wrong with that, of course. Drone strikes are extremely effective at combating terrorism. According to a study conducted by the RAND Corporation’s Patrick Johnston, “drone strikes are associated with decreases in the number and lethality of militant attacks in the areas where strikes are conducted.”
Indeed, emails recovered from computers seized during the 2011 raid on Osama Bin Laden’s hideout revealed how Al-Qaeda’s top brass had complained of drones killing their fighters faster than they could be replaced.
Crucially, these operational successes in the war on terror have come at a remarkably low cost to civilian life; of the roughly 3,000 killed by US drones patrolling the skies over Pakistan, the New America Foundation calculates that at least 80 percent were terrorists.
The Long War Journal puts the figure even higher, reporting civilian casualties at no more than 6 percent.
Even the most damning (and least reliable) statistics on drone strikes have the civilian-combatant death ratio at around 1:2, which still compares favorably to the UN’s estimate of a 3:1 average for all modern, asymmetric conflicts.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it is a fact that Obama’s policy of incinerating terrorists from a height of 10,000 feet will always result in the accidental killing of more innocents than Bush’s policy of incarceration ever did.
Ironically, the shift from the latter to the former is a consequence of the public outrage whipped up by the “human rights” activists who campaigned so vociferously against indefinite detention and interrogation.
But they got what they wanted – an alternative to Guantanamo Bay. If there is an alternative to the alternative, I would love to hear it.
A version of this article first appeared in the Yorker, a student publication at the University of York.