All My Little Words

Droning On

Posted in Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Politics by nickchristian on June 17, 2012

Much has been made recently of the existence of Barack Obama’s “kill list” and his use of unmanned “drone” aircraft to eliminate America’s hard-to-reach enemies. “George W. Bush on steroids” was the label, coined by Aaron David Miller, to which The Guardian took a particular liking.

The idea that this seemingly smart, likeable, liberal (surely?), black* president should occasion to order the extra-judicial targeted killings of suspected terrorists by pilotless bomber planes flying at 50,000 feet is, to so many, a disturbing cognitive contradiction and represents, to the Guardianistas, a deep betrayal of the messianic expectation that they felt they had invested in him four years ago. Never mind the fact that it was all projection – they saw the word “change”, combined it with “black” and “democrat” and arrived at “utopia”.

What were they expecting?

Change means “different” and can also mean “better”, but “change” is not synonymous with “transformation” or with “immediate”; for while the position of president of the USA arguably makes the holder the most powerful individual in the world, it is not a role without constraints. The individual elected to the presidency, while he has the power to shape the office over time, is not afforded carte blanche over policy and does not get to start the job from scratch. As distasteful as a new president might find them, many of the policies bequeathed to him by his predecessor must be taken on and “owned”. For Obama this meant operational responsibility for the Global War On Terror.

Yes, that old favourite. While the term might have been rendered obsolete – legally it was always on shaky ground, not that that mattered much to the Bush administration – from a military and policy perspective, it is still very much being fought.

Because 9/11 really did change everything. That was what the hawkish right, as they thumped their war drums, insisted at the time and what many “intelligent” lefty doves decried as propaganda and opportunism. I myself wrote five years ago that the Bush administration was not confronted with a “new paradigm” but constructed one – that it could not be deconstructed upon Bush’s departure is a disappointment but should not be a surprise.

What Obama’s drones proves is that the right were right, even as their prophecies were self-fulfilling. While occupations can be ended and wars scaled back there could be no question of Obama deprioritizing the threat of Islamic fundamentalist extremism – from a domestic political standpoint this would have been tantamount to treason, while the amount of money at stake means defense industry lobby groups and their chosen congressional candidates would take up arms, so to speak, to resist anything more than a modest reduction in budget. For whomever occupies the Oval Office, now and for the foreseeable future, the number one foreign policy priority is and will be the prevention of another 9/11.

The only variable is what tactics the occupant chooses to employ.

And so, to the drones.

Airborne bombings are not nice – their purpose, as almost any tool of war, is to end life – but they are not radically worse than any other traditional projectile weapon and are, in fact, better than many. It’s true that a bomb dropped from eight miles high, on a house or camp in North West Pakistan does not discriminate between civilian and terrorist or between man, woman and child, but it is somewhat more targeted that any one of the thunderstorm of cruise missiles that constituted the shock and awe phase of attacks on Iraq in 2003. As a further comparator, the NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia in 1999 caused the accidental deaths of at least five hundred civilians as (amongst other things) a bus, a Belgrade hospital and the Chinese embassy were all hit.

Those that charge that unmanned drones reduce warfare to a computer game, distancing the soldier from his target and from the consequences of the weapon he’s just fired, have obviously never seen a tank, a rifle, a bow and arrow, or a catapult. I bet they’ve never thrown a stone in anger either. Every advance in the technology of warfare has served the same purpose and drone aircraft, rather than marking a radical departure, represents just the latest.

Do I believe that Obama enjoys playing judge, jury and executioner over the fates of these men and their families? No. He does it because it’s part of the spec of the role he signed up for. That he has designated himself the principal signatory of the “kill list” is not, it seems to me, indicative of bloodlust but of a sense of sovereign responsibility – the same responsibility that Bush and his cronies refused to take as it denounced the few “bad apples” – and a will to safeguard and minimize the number of instances of such extralegal executions. Unlike Bush, I suspect causing the deaths of civilians, women and children does give Obama moral pause.

I do not want to act as an apologist for President Obama, to endorse or make excuses for him. I don’t think that drone attacks on the sovereign territory of another state are legal and they’re certainly not desirable, but they are different to and better, truly, than many of the alternatives. Obama would, I suspect, prefer to be able rely on the Pakistanis, Yemenis and Somalis (to name but three feeble or failed states) to apprehend terrorist suspects but that option is seldom available to him to any satisfactory degree. Until it is, “better” is the best we can hope for.

At full time in his presidency Bush had invaded two countries; was directly responsible for the overthrow of two sovereign governments; opened an island prison camp designed to be a “legal black hole”; instituted a program of the extraordinary abduction and systemic torture of terrorist suspects in CIA “black” sites. Under Obama’s administration one of those aforementioned invasions has ended, while the other is drawing down; extraordinary rendition has been paired back, if not abandoned entirely; CIA black sites have been closed and the torture policy ended. Although domestic politics ultimately stymied Obama’s efforts to close Guantanamo Bay, signing the executive order to do so was indeed amongst his first acts upon entering the Oval Office.

How is this not different? How is it not better?

Update:

Andrew Sullivan, not someone I normally find myself agreeing with, has similarly come to the defence of drones:

 if you’d asked me – or anyone – in 2001 whether it would be better to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq to defeat al Qaeda, or to use the most advanced technology to take out the worst Jihadists with zero US casualties, would anyone have dissented? And remember the scale of civilian casualties caused by the Iraq war and catastrophic occupation: tens of thousands of innocents killed under American responsibility for security. The awful truth of war is that innocents will die. Our goal must be to minimize that. Compared with the alternatives, drones kill fewer innocents.

Of course, we need to be incredibly careful to limit civilian casualties even further. Counting every military-age man in the vicinity of a Jihadist as a terrorist is a total cop-out. We should see the real casualty numbers and adjust accordingly. But we also have to stop the Jihadist threat. It is real. And a president does not have the luxury of pretending it isn’t.

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