President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism director went out on the campaign trail Monday, and forcefully defended the anti-jihadi drone strikes begun by George W. Bush, amid widespread opposition from Obama’s progressive allies.
“The president has a constitutional and solemn obligation to do everything in his power to protect the safety and security of the American people,” said John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.
The strikes are popular among voters, and help support Obama’s relatively high public support for his anti-terror policies.
“I’m here today because President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people about these efforts,” Brennan said April 30 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The strikes are needed to kill al-Qaida leaders because “if given the chance, they will gladly strike again and kill more of our citizens,” Brennan said as he outlined the administrations’s legal claims, bureaucratic procedures and military priorities when planning drone strikes.
The strikes were loudly criticized by progressive lawyers and advocates — such as Code Pink — when they were directed by Bush.
But those complaints have been muted while Obama is in power. (SEE ALSO: Liberal anti-war groups condemn Obama, praise Ron Paul)
Libertarians have also opposed many of the strikes, seeing them as an unwarranted expansion of government power.
Those worries have been boosted by the administration’s deliberate killing of at least one American citizen — a radical Saudi-American imam — and its killing of the imam’s teenage son.
Those anti-drone arguments will likely be revived by the left-wing advocates if Obama is voted out of office. But Obama’s support for Bush’s policies will greatly strengthen their long-term political and legal power.
“The debate will continue, no question,” said Jane Harmon, a former Democratic representative who is now director of the Wilson center.
For example, Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director denounced Brennan’s claims. “The administration should release the evidence it relied on to conclude that an American citizen [the Saudi-American imam] could be killed without charge, trial, or judicial process of any kind.”
However, Brennan offered some reassurances to the left-of center advocates, which include both progressive lawyers and Islamist political groups.
The strikes are carefully directed to minimize civilian casualties, and are only aimed at al-Qaida and its armed allies, Brennan said. That description excludes Islamist groups that are trying to use democracy to impose strict Islamic laws on countries.
Brennan tacitly accepted the growing role of Islamist groups in Arab states, following Obama’s tacit support in 2011 for the removal of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Instead of launching attacks, Islamist groups “can in fact participate meaningfully in the political system” in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and other countries, he said.
But, he said, “this is going to take some time for these systems to be able to mature sufficiently so there can be a very robust and democratic system there.”
In contrast, al-Qaida “is the antithesis of the peace, tolerance and humanity that is at the heart of Islam,” Brennan declared. Al-Qaida is a “malignant tumor,” he added.
Nonetheless, Brennan’s depiction of Islam as a peaceful religion was hedged by his recognition of Muslim terror groups in multiple countries, including Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Mali and Nigeria.
In northern Nigeria, an Islamist group cites Islamic scriptures to justify attacks on Christian churches and villages, on bars and on police stations. The group is called Boko Haram, which means “Western Education is sinful.”
“There is a domestic challenge that Boko Haram poses to Nigeria,” Brennan admitted. “As we well know, there is the North/South struggle within Nigeria and tension between Muslim and Christian communities,” he admitted.