May 26, 2013 | The Wall Street Journal
By Keith Johnson
Secretary of State John Kerry defended U.S. antiterrorism policies in a sometimes-contentious town hall meeting in Addis Ababa, just before departing Ethiopia Sunday.
Mr. Kerry, in response to audience questions about the U.S. drone program, vigorously defended the justice of kill strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles just days after President Barack Obama’s big speech last week narrowing the scope of the fight against terrorism.
“The only people we fire at are confirmed terror targets, at the highest level. We don’t just fire a drone at somebody we think is a terrorist,” Mr. Kerry said, adding that strikes are ruled out if there could be collateral damage. He went on to describe the drone program as one of the “most accountable,” unlike terrorist attacks, which are indiscriminate. Mr. Kerry appeared to be describing the administration’s new drone strategy, unveiled in Mr. Obama’s speech, which aims to increase the oversight process determining drone targets.
But questioners in Ethiopia and around the world who joined in via social media were upset with earlier strikes. So-called signature strikes were a staple of the Obama administration’s earlier policy, often targeting individuals who met the profile of terrorists but whose identity was unknown. And collateral damage from drone strikes has been a powerful source of anti-American sentiment in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen.
Last week, the administration acknowledged killing a 16-year old boy in a controversial strike on a U.S. citizen, al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen.
Still, Mr. Kerry said that the “preference is to capture terrorists” rather than kill them, calling the hit on Osama bin Laden an exception.
Mr. Kerry called the war in Afghanistan a success, saying that the U.S. has “destroyed the fundamental capacity of al Qaeda,” even though some offshoot groups still pose “some threat.”
He was pressed about what the U.S. would do about some of those other groups, such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has expanded out of Mali to neighboring countries. He urged African countries to tackle the problem by improving their governance and increasing their government capacity to resist terror groups.
“It shouldn’t be the responsibility of the United States, way across the ocean,” he said.
Other questions in the town hall, to be broadcast this week by BBC, included queries as to why the U.S. “did nothing” to help Syrians, in contrast to prompt intervention in Libya. Syria, Mr. Kerry said, is “complicated.”
Asked about U.S. human rights abuses in the war on terror, Mr. Kerry referred to the scandal of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, saying that all responsible parties had been “held accountable.”
Questioned about why China, Brazil and other countries are investing more in Africa than the U. S., he acknowledged that’s the case, but in an apparent reference to China, he added that some countries’ investments in Africa “undermine democracy” and transparency.
Finally, speaking of how to tackle climate change, he said developing countries such as Ethiopia should “demand” that the U.S. and other big emitters of greenhouse gases clean up their act. He did stress the progress the U.S. has made in curbing greenhouse gas emissions, a byproduct of the natural-gas bonanza in the U.S.