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?


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.

On Marriage

Posted in Domestic Policy, Human Rights, Politics by nickchristian on May 29, 2012

I recently wrote, as the penultimate piece of work for my MA in Human Rights, an essay on same-sex marriage arguing that, far from equal, civil partnerships can only ever be separate and inferior. The full text of the essay can be found here but if I’m honest, I don’t think I have anything to say on the subject that hasn’t been said better by others. What’s more, where once there might have been something approximating a legitimate, interest-based argument against same-sex marriage, today there is only bigotry and even that is diminishing in volume and visibility. Barack Obama sealed the deal a few weeks ago.

The religious doctrinaires can resist all they like: it is going to happen and being on the side of right is all that matters; arguing against the wrong is, therefore, barely worth the effort. So what was interesting about the essay was not what it taught me about same-sex marriage but the way in which it caused me to so profoundly question my own understanding of marriage itself.

Previously I had held what I thought was a principled objection to the very idea of marriage, assessing it to be an anachronistic, patriarchal institution of which I wanted no part. This wasn’t a resistance to being owned but to owning; not an objection to the idea of commitment but a commitment to the idea that people’s feelings change, are in a constant state of flux. I simply didn’t, and don’t, believe that one can reasonably expect someone to know with any certainty what they will want from a relationship tomorrow, let alone ten years from now.

But to focus on that is to completely miss the point, and the meaning, of why (most) people get married. It’s a product, as my boss would say, of my tendency to “overthink”. Except I’ve only found my way past it by thinking some more, so I’m not sure where that leaves us.

To marry is to publicly proclaim, as my friend Dom recently articulated it, that “I want this to last forever”; not that “I believe it will” or indeed, to presume a permanent state of being. The “this” in question also need not mean the relationship, but merely, necessarily, the feeling that comes only with the presence, the existence of this person in your life. You have stumbled, however fortuitously, on something, someone, that is to you completely unique.  Marriage is how that uniqueness is expressed and how it is uniquely, universally understood.

My mum recently recounted the story of the night her friend met her husband and the immediate realization she had, in that moment, that that is what she wanted him to become.  Another close friend, a lifelong resistant to the idea, came round to it in a similar fashion. It is only by looking at those situations through the prism of marriage as a “want” that I can make any sense of them.

Perhaps for many people, marriage is something that is approached from a cynical perspective, with considerations of practicality or maybe motives unclear at its forefront, but it is not from that perspective that proponents of same-sex marriage come. To take a further step towards equality is a desirable and happy by-product but it is not, in itself, the primary objective. Same-sex couples just want to get married and now I think I know why.

Quote of the Day

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on January 23, 2009

“First African-American president — better be good.”

Malia Obama – Age 10

A Proportional Response

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on December 31, 2008

I don’t really know what to make of Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza. No one is arguing that Israel does not have a right to defend itself or to protect its people. The charge, it seems to me, is that the level of force it is employing to successfully achieve its publicly stated aims far exceeds that which would be described as proportional.

The problem with proportionality, as far as Israel is concerned, is that it lacks value as a future deterrent.

I am reminded of this scene from the West Wing episode entitled “A Proportional Response”. A US military aircraft carrying Bartlet’s personal physician has been shot down in the Middle East and the president is facing his first real foreign policy test.

So a case can be made. However, as Bartlet learns later in the episode and Israel should really have learned itself at some point in the past sixty years, once you lose all sense of perspective you also lose legitimacy among your peers and the right to consider yourself the victim, more sinned against than sinning. And that is before we even begin to consider whether Israel will actually achieve anything in the long term. It might be argued that should Israel sufficiently weaken Hamas, with which it will not negotiate, Fattah, with which it will, can increase its political influence in Gaza. However, even if this were to succeed would it not likely dangerously divide the  Palestinian people and take us further away from the possibility of a Palestinian state? Or might that possibly be Israel’s true intention?

It’s all just a little bit of history repeating.

As ridiculously simplistic as it is to say, someone needs to sit these two down and politely but firmly inform each that neither is going to be driven into the sea any time soon. A job for Hillary and Obama?

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