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Act Two of US Drone Policy Reform

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The Obama administration recently lifted its veil of secrecy about its drone usage by providing a substantial amount of information for the first time to a public audience about the program. In a major national security speech on May 23, President Obama outlined new counterterrorism policies with the hope of "redefining what has been a global war into a more targeted assault on terrorist groups threatening the United States." Obama presented a number of steps that his administration has already taken to realize this vision, including setting up guidelines for drone strike usage, briefing appropriate Congressional committees about every drone strike, lifting the moratorium on the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to Yemen, and appointing a new envoy to help facilitate the transfer of detainees to third countries.

While Obama was able to take those actions using his executive powers, the reality is that he needs Congressional support in order to achieve his broader national security goals. Many of the more substantial initiatives that Obama presented in his speech, including additional funding for embassy security and international development, a repeal of the Authorization for Use of Military Force and the "establishment of a special court to evaluate and authorize lethal action," require Congressional legislation to be implemented.

Congressional support for Obama's new national security policies will be difficult to achieve given the current dysfunctional partisanship in Washington. Many Republicans with hawkish national security beliefs expressed their discontent with Obama's desire to scale back the war on terror. Senator Saxby Chambliss, the senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, claimed that Obama's speech will be "viewed by terrorists as a victory." In a similar light, Senator John McCain noted that "To somehow argue that al Qaeda is quote 'on the run,' comes from a degree of unreality that to me is really incredible. Al Qaeda is expanding all over the Middle East from Mali to Yemen and all the places in between."

The Obama administration recognizes that its current counterterrorism policies, particularly regarding drone strikes, are not sustainable in the long run. Extensive use of drone strikes, which have already killed between 3,000 and 4,000 people according to NGO reporting, have damaged U.S. relations with other countries and caused growing domestic concern about human rights violations and abuse of presidential war power. For the administration to realize its goal of making U.S. drone usage more effective and sustainable, it needs to garner Republican support for reforms to national security policies. Potential Republican support could come from Tea Party activists who seek to limit Presidential power. Only a couple of weeks ago, Tea Party favorite Senator Rand Paul launched a 13-hour filibuster denouncing the administration's drone usage and promoting restrictions on presidential war power. In an Alice in Wonderland-like situation, a human rights-Tea Party coalition could emerge to support Obama's push for reforms to U.S. counterterrorism policies. Now that would be fun to watch.