Drones are in the news thanks to a leaked Department of Justice memo outlining the legal reasoning behind the killing of American citizen and al-Qaeda propagandist Anwar Al-Awlaki.
For those of us extremely unsettled by the Bush-Obama policy of extra-judicial assassination by unmanned aircraft, it’s nice to at least see some major news organizations dusting off their mostly useless conventional wisdom-spewing megaphones to update the country on the government’s ongoing secret assassination program via robot. The secret not being that it’s happening but that no one’s allowed to know who’s being killed or for what reasons, other than those that the Pentagon or White House allow us to know.
With no chance for judicial review before the drone is in the air and on its way to blow up a target, the Obama administration has essentially cemented a permanent policy that theoretically allows for the killing of just about anyone. In northwest Pakistan we are likely creating excellent recruiting material for the next generation of disaffected young males—or at least those who were lucky enough not to be in homes that have been incinerated from the sky. When President Obama appeared in front of a group of children to sign his 23 executive orders and call for tougher gun legislation, it was hard not to think of the missions he’s personally approved that have killed and maimed children all over the Middle East, including al-Awlaki’s teenage son, who was murdered in a drone strike separate from that of his father.
For understandable reasons, there are not a whole lot of good numbers on this, but the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (that still exists?!) estimates that since 2004 in Pakistan alone there have been 2,400 people killed by drones, including 475 civilians and 176 children. If you want to follow a grim Twitter handle, try @dronestream, which is tweeting reportage of every American drone strike since 2002.
However, that does not mean the public debate—mostly happening on the left—has necessarily done justice to the conundrum faced by the political class.
Part of the objection to our drone war seems to be that the method sounds so sci-fi, so newfangled and precise, what with the President personally approving targets. Our sensibilities recoil from the thought of Obama, with his jealousy-inducing beautiful family, keeping a kill list in his desk drawer; that the president has said goodnight to his daughters on the same night a home with a girl Sasha or Malia’s age disintegrated into fire and rubble via American-made drone.
However, this is only because drones are visible, documentable, and dramatic. The fog of war is not. We would do well to remember that there is no sanitized version of war, only history making opaque all the atrocities involved in winning (or losing) one. With the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we heard of the revolting events in Haditha or Blackwater’s Baghdad massacre, but we rarely tuned into the more mundane murders of civilians, whether it was a family that failed to slow down at a checkpoint or white phosphorous incendiary devices burning innocent bystanders or any of the thousands of other underreported tragedies. Innocent people die in war because war is about murdering more people than the opposing team, and those two military misadventures saw no shortage of those killed or scarred in similar or worse ways than the—by comparison—highly limited drone war. The only difference is in the optics and the intimate nature of targeted assassination. In one we see a clear through-line from the dead in Pakistan to Washington decision makers. In the other we see a scared 23-year-old reservist tragically opening fire on a car with a similarly scared Iraqi family, but we do not immediately connect the thread to our political leaders in the same way.
The popular misconception of war has a long and florid history. I’ll never get over picking arguments with people who see the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki as the ultimate example of an unaccounted war crime. As if our fire-bombing of Tokyo where we were just melting people in the streets would have been any better, or how the Allies basically won the war in Germany by leveling that country’s targets both military and civilian. The war we so romanticize as our “good war” was partially won by engaging in the equivalent of aerial war crimes from Dresden to Tokushima.
But this is undeniably true of every major military conflict, from the psychotic carpet-bombing of Vietnam to the muddled inconsistencies of COIN in Afghanistan. Every American president, almost by definition, has left office with an awful lot of blood on his hands.
One has to be able to hold two thoughts in his or her head at once. For instance, you could be a fierce, outspoken opponent of the Iraq war from the moment of its inception, you could think Bush and his crew of neo-conservative magical thinkers exploited a national tragedy to send not-their-sons-and-daughters into a quagmire that killed or wounded many of them and ruined countless more lives. Yet you can also acknowledge that when Uday Hussein turned up dead as a result of this unnecessary war, the world instantaneously became a better place—this being a man who tortured soccer players for poor performances and showed up to random wedding parties to kidnap and rape the bride.
All this to say that threats to peace and human dignity exist everywhere. They are not the fabrications of the military-industrial complex, and they require serious discussion and even introspection about how a free society should deal with them.
Our military will be killing a lot more people in the coming decades. Al-Qaeda is the great chimera, a useless all-purpose buzzword boogeyman to describe a much larger, more amorphous problem. Now that the French have invaded Mali to push back insurgent forces everyone is calling them al-Qaeda or “al-Qaeda-affiliated,” which is like lumping together me and George Clooney as “Hollywood-affiliated.”
Warfare at its most basic is nothing more than a fight over the allocation of resources. Throughout history we’ve attempted to dress it up in religious or nationalistic clothing (and to be sure, that is always helpful in drawing young men to lay down their lives), but it’s always essentially about land or spices or oil or water or opium or trade routes. The modern world has opened up an enormous disparity between the haves and the have-nots, a gulf that is all but unfathomable to most of us who gladly participate in perpetuating it. Western hegemony has created a world of desperate, impoverished, and exploited people, who see many good reasons for fighting back. If you’d grown up in a village with medieval notions of women and sexuality, constant subsistence struggles, and foreign armies shooting your friends and blowing up parts of your town, what would your reaction be? And if there are charismatic characters coming by to tell you that God wants you to help right this wrong?
While it would be preferable to tackle widespread poverty, misogyny, educational deficits, and all the rest rather than attempting to cut the heads off of these ever-renewing threats, we should only expect things to continue this way, if not get worse.
Afghanistan and Pakistan will not be the last cradles of malcontents looking to wage asymmetric warfare on the bright, gleaming target of the United States (or France or the U.K. or Germany, etc.). Climate disruptions alone virtually guarantee that Yemen and Pakistan will run out of water even as floods devastate entire regions. Nigeria, with its endangered agriculture, rural-to-urban migration and endless conflicts over the country’s environmentally disastrous oil extraction, will probably face destabilization in the next decade. Crop failures across the Middle East and North Africa will be endemic, desertification will continue, mass movements of refugees will sow chaos, and those are only the things that we can easily predict. There are numerous regions of the world that are environmental and economic tinderboxes just waiting for a match, and they will produce the next crop of religious fundamentalists who will see the best way of reckoning with these problems as blowing up innocent people in the developed world. Even absent American military intervention that radicalizes population, environmental factors will do the work anyway. We will be involved not in a war on terror or a police action against al-Qaeda but a more or less permanent state of unconventional conflict with disparate non-state actors for the foreseeable future.
[Deep breath] Understanding all that, there will not be an American president in the future who will unilaterally give away the ability to kill people with robots, nor will Congress ever attempt to take away that power, and it seems unlikely voters will ever demand it. The question then becomes can we develop a legal framework that regulates the executive’s use of targeted drone strikes? War will never again work the way it used to with enormous nation-states lining up carefully demarcated forces, and our laws and norms should adapt to acknowledge this new reality. After 9/11 Congress passed an insanely broad authorization for the use of force that gave the president wide-ranging authority to
use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
That’s the legal justification that Obama’s DOJ used in targeting American citizens. In other words, there are no limits to presidential power when it comes to pursuing “organizations or persons he determines” could potentially plan a future attack. Could Obama or a President Rubio order a drone strike on me? Sure. Could they order one on a political opponent? According to two successive White House readings of this law, yes.
That’s why the problem is not the drones, nor is it killing people who are plotting to blow up airliners over Detroit. The global order as we know it will continue to produce zealots, madmen, and desperate revolutionaries until we start thinking about why this order is broken and how we might fix it. For now, however, it’s a problem of a complete lack of transparency and accountability, an abrogation of the fundamental democratic right of due process. The drone program must somehow be reigned in and brought under the rule of law, and until then it will live on as a glaring mark on every president—including those I like—who keeps a kill list in his desk drawer.Copyright © 2015, RedEye