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What Does Obama's Foreign Policy Stand For?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. President Obama has withdrawn U.S. ground forces from Iraq, and hopes to be able to do the same in Afghanistan within time. He's a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the man who got Osama bin Laden.

After three and a half years in office, what does President Obama's foreign policy stand for as he seeks re-election? David Rohde is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and former New York Times reporter who's now a foreign affairs columnist for Reuters and The Atlantic. He tries to define what he calls the Obama Doctrine, in a piece that appears in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

David Rohde joins us from New York. Thanks for being with us.

DAVID ROHDE: Thank you.

SIMON: What's the doctrine you see?

ROHDE: It's stated as a doctrine that - it's one of multilateralism, working with our allies, transparency - being very public about what we're doing - and a very narrow focus on using lethal force against people that are direct threats to the United States itself. But the story I wrote talks about one practice, drone strikes - which sort of undermines that whole approach.

SIMON: How, in your judgment?

ROHDE: The basic premise is that drone strikes are this narrow and precise use of force - it's a term called a light footprint - whereas the doctrine of the George W. Bush was a very heavy footprint; big, ground invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Drone strikes are not a light footprint in any way, shape or form. In every country that they're carried out, they are seen as this sort of oppressive American weapon. They attract tremendous public attention, and they also fuel tremendous resentment.

SIMON: You point out people may not appreciate the number of covert drone strikes that have been undertaken.

ROHDE: It's extraordinary. It's - no one knows the exact numbers 'cause they're, you know, supposed to be covert. But everyone talks about them. But it's 239 strikes in Obama's first term so far, as compared to 44 under George W. Bush. So that's, you know, nearly a five times increase in the number of drone strikes under Obama.

To be fair, administration officials said to me that the increase has occurred in part because the technical systems they're using, you know, have improved - the technology - and then they're getting better information, better intelligence on the ground to carry out the attacks.

SIMON: And you write from personal experience. I mean, you are one of the few Americans who have seen a drone strike.

ROHDE: Yeah, I was kidnapped by the Taliban - actually, in Afghanistan. And they quickly took me over the border into Pakistan, the remote tribal areas, which is basically this Taliban safe haven, where they retreat from Afghanistan, and rest and train and recoup. So the only way the United States can sort of pressure the Taliban once they cross the border into Pakistan are these drone strikes.

So yes, they were constantly circling overhead during the seven months we were in captivity - myself and two Afghan colleagues. You can spot them as they're specks in the sky, but they're sort of haunting. The missiles they fire travel faster than the speed of sound. So as you hear this propeller buzzing overhead, you also realize - you know - the missile will travel so quickly, you will not hear the missile that kills you.

SIMON: And what was the effect of this daily presence?

ROHDE: It definitely hindered Taliban operations and al-Qaida operations. And I sort of argue in the story that we should use drone strikes. The problem is that they become more excessive. The Taliban did not gather in large groups for trainings. You know, there was, again, in the safe haven in Pakistan, they trained suicide bombers; they teach young men how to make roadside bombs. And so they're very nervous. And they knew the drones were there. They don't move in large convoys. So it definitely slows them down.

The problem is outside of the tribal areas in Pakistan. Because the U.S. keeps this as a covert program, there is no American narrative in terms of what's happening. So across Pakistan, there's a belief that the overwhelming majority of people killed in these strikes are simply civilians.

And in my research - there was just a story this week from the Associated Press - has found that, you know, roughly 70 to 90 percent of those killed are actually militants. But because there's no American public discussion of the program, the widespread perception in Pakistan is just, it's a brutal bombing campaign that's killing primarily innocent people.

SIMON: What would you recommend, Mr. Rohde? Here, you have a weapon that's demonstrably effective, noting some of its drawbacks, and can be prepared quickly.

ROHDE: I would first shift the use of drones over to the American military, which has a much public and rigid policy in terms of carrying out these strikes. I would involve local governments, and force Pakistan and Yemen - they're now being carried out in Somalia as well - to support them and describe these attacks publicly.

And there's a broader discussion. I think international community has to start updating the laws of war - drones, secret detentions. We need new, international norms for when drone strikes are appropriate; who is a legitimate target; when you detain someone, how and - you know, you can hold them.

And it's the technology, in a sense, and the tactics have grown faster than these laws that really, haven't been updated since World War II. So I think all three of those things should help because drones are a reality. They're here to stay and many, many countries are going to have them.

SIMON: David Rohde, the Pulitzer Prize winner. His article, "The Obama Doctrine," appears in the current issue of Foreign Policy. Mr. Rohde, thanks so much.

ROHDE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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