Within President Obama’s psyche is a heightened sensitivity to human suffering. Given his personal history it is not hard to comprehend why this is the case and it certainly defines him as a person and explains why his is such an attractive personality to so many people. Unfortunately, being President is not the best place for someone who needs to make decisions which inevitably kill people and increase suffering. When you are a leader of a nation, especially one as powerful as the U.S., this is almost inevitable. It is in this context that one needs to understand the President’s deeply felt policy ambivalence concerning the use of drones.
His personal sensitivities were evident in his admission and public expression of condolence for the two AID workers killed while in captivity in Pakistan by a U.S. drone attack. Obama’s response to their tragic deaths—collateral damage which occurred in a successful U.S. strike in Pakistan—together with the White House admitting it had granted exemptions to the CIA for these attacks, demonstrated the extent to which the President personally feels agonized and accepts responsibility for these actions.
To have a President who is completely aware and compassionate about the human side of national security policy is extraordinarily uplifting. This mindset, however, does appear to have become too central to the President’s ability to make the tough decisions that national security and defense policy require. Except for ordering the killing of bin Laden, there are few examples of the President’s willingness to make the types of difficult decisions that strong defense and intelligence policy require.
The problem with Obama’s foreign and national security policy approach is its failure to recognize the consequences to the country of his watching the U.S. lose control and prestige in the world by virtue of his weakness as a decisive decision-maker. Obama cannot accept the fact that making decisions in these domains is not pretty.
U.S. leadership has indeed suffered in most parts of the world during Obama’s watch. He may not like it and he should be proud of his repeated exhibitions of deep compassion for losses of life. At the same time, he needs to needs to demonstrate that while “war is hell” and killing is horrible, strong leadership demands that assertive national security policy is crucial; including the use of drones.