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Comedian in chief

May 7, 2010 - Jim Anderson
This past weekend, President Obama could have shelved his joke about predator drones. For whatever reason, he let it fly.

After noting the presence of the Jonas Brothers at the White House Correspondent’s Association Dinner, Obama furrowed his brow towards the band members and quipped:

“Sasha and Malia are huge fans, but boys, don’t get any ideas. Two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming.”

While the joke drew laughter (and later the approval of Fox’s Brit Hume, among others), it was borderline tasteless.

President Bush had joked at a similar dinner in March 2004 about his inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The backdrop was a series of slides showing the president looking under White House furniture, etc.

I didn’t like that one, either.

ABC News asked this week on its Web site whether Obama’s joke was offensive.

Some of the ABC respondents said, listen, it’s a joke, cut the president some slack. Others said, hey, how about some coverage of our flood deaths in Tennessee ...

Maybe the best answer is another question: Would Obama make a crack about predator drones at a dinner for Pakistani journalists?

I’d guess not.

Reports and estimates vary widely on how many civilians the drones have killed. A subject of bitter controversy in Pakistan, I’d doubt the drones are associated with amusement. (A Gallup poll in August 2009 found that only 9 percent of Pakistanis favored the strikes, and two-thirds opposed them.)

Daniel Byman, a Middle East scholar, has estimated at that for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also die.

Using a broader definition of militant, Peter Bergen, a national security analyst for CNN, concluded that of those killed by drone strikes from 2006 through mid-October 2009 about one-third (or about 300 victims) were civilians.

President Obama has increased the number of drone strikes since taking office. Pakistani authorities, meanwhile, have reported more than 700 “civilians” killed by drones in 2009 alone.

Byman summarizes the moral and political dilemma of drone strikes as follows:

“ ... each strike needs to be carefully weighed, with the value of the target and potential for innocent deaths factored into the equation. In addition, the broader political consequences must be evaluated ... But equally important is the risk of not striking — and inadvertently allowing al Qaeda leaders free reign to plot terrorist mayhem.”

Whether the drones are a necessary but regrettable weapon in the fight against terrorism is a subject for profound debate.

But there should be no question whether they’re suitable comedic fare for the commander in chief.

The president should have asked for a new line.

Or called upon the Secret Service to show the Jonas Brothers their tasers.


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