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.

Libya, Qaddafi and the End of Humanitarian Intervention

Posted in Foreign Policy, Politics by nickchristian on October 23, 2011

In the wake of Qaddafi’s violent demise there has been much handwringing over the decision of the major media outlets to publish on their front pages, either online or in print, the images graphically confirming it. The first of these subjects is simply not our concern while the second is a relatively insignificant point of media responsibility, societal values and what constitutes “news”. Neither is, in my opinion, worthy of the attention it’s been given.

We cannot account, or take responsibility, for the actions of a ragtag militia who, in their jubilant discovery, brought a violent end to an era of despotism. That Qaddafi should not have been executed is my view on the subject but irrelevant, for I never suffered under his tyrannical rule and nor was I present at his death, and therefore able to meaningfully appreciate the circumstances surrounding it. It cannot be undone.

My concern, and where I feel more attention should be focussed, is with the role of NATO forces in the death of the dictatorship. While Western leaders have been keen to credit the Libyan rebels with the overthrow of the regime there can be no doubt that that NATO planes, having carried out more than 30,000 sorties since UN Resolution 1973 was passed, played a significant role, beyond its original mandate.

Article 4 of UN Resolution 1973

Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi,”

The explicit purpose of UN Resolution 1973 was therefore to prevent a massacre of the people of Benghazi, as Qaddafi appeared to be threatening; while several international figures had decried the Libyan government as illegitimate nowhere in the resolution is there mention of a secondary aim of regime change, or even of assisting the rebels in their ultimate goal of its overthrow. Whether or not the key instigators and authors of the resolution meant for the mission to mutate in such a way we do not know, but what we do know is that had they included such language in the document, the Resolution could not have passed the Security Council vote.

Even as it was, the resolution which authorized NATO action in Libya only passed the Security Council with the slimmest of margins: while neither Russia nor China blocked its passage as they could have, neither explicitly supported it either. We must assume that concerns over mission creep had already been raised and allayed in order to achieve abstentions of Russia and China as well as Arab League support. These concerns would appear to have been justified as, only a few weeks into the mission, China criticised the NATO operation for overreach while Russia called for NATO to bring an “end to the indiscriminate use of force”. These calls went unheeded.

It has been suggested that, with the Libyan operation ostensibly a success, such interventions may be more likely to take place in the future. My view is that the manner in which the mission was extended, far beyond the parameters of the mandate outlined above, makes any future crises far less likely to be dealt with militarily, regardless of the extent to which the situation calls for force. As we’ve recently seen in Syria it doesn’t take much to turn an abstention into a veto.

Of course mission creep in Libya does not explain why we have seen no action against Assad in Syria. It has, however, made it easier to understand. If Western countries, in assisting a people under threat, cannot be trusted to wield their military power responsibly, then next time they will not be trusted to wield it at all. As significantly, if not moreso, support for engagement will be weaker.

Accusations that, by actively picking a winner in a civil dispute, Britain and chums engaged in behaviour that was paternalistic to the point of pseudo-colonial are, in my view, completely fair. Seven months ago I supported an intervention that was limited in scope but I did support it. Take me back seven months, today, and I wouldn’t.

UN ceasefire call goes unheeded

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on January 9, 2009

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Shocking. Especially consider the weight of words wielded by the UN.

I’m not normally one to agree with W but he’s right about the United Nations (the Security Council arm at least) being increasingly irrelevant.

Awards! Huh! What are they good for? Absolutely nothing. Part IV

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on January 1, 2009

The “I Was There” Award (AKA The “Forgive Me While I Go A Bit Overboard” Award)

Except of course, I wasn’t. Not Grant Park, Chicago nor Harlem, New York nor Washington, D.C. but Brighton, East Sussex, on TV at 4am. Nonetheless the emotional impact of this moment was not hindered by geography. I consider myself, and I think others would concur, to be a dyed-in-the-wool cynic, yet I still find myself referring to Barack Obama as ‘ma boy’. Here is a politician gifted with the ability to connect with the individual unlike any since Kennedy, if even Kennedy is comparable.

The manner in which he stepped toward the dais will live with me forever. His face read not power and glory but humility, exhaustion, relief and no small measure of fear. It was as clear then as it was throughout his campaign that he is not a man driven and consumed by ego as Bush, Reagan, LBJ and even Clinton, were.

His victory speech, equally, was far from victorious in its tone; ”change”, the campaign slogan, has not arrived but the opportunity for it has.

Speaking of War Criminals

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on December 22, 2008

torture…not to mention journalistic negligence, here’s another story that should have covered far more widely than it was.

Of course Bush has been labeled a war criminal before, but up to now it was largely by sign-wielding protesters on Pennsylvania Ave, East Coast academics and, oh I don’t know, bloggers. I.e. people who didn’t matter.

But this is different. It’s a governmental disavowal of the actions of the Bush administration and demonstrates a willingness to make amends and restore America’s standing. It would be foolishly optimistic to expect a full criminal investigation and charges to follow (although had the report emerged a year or two earlier it might be reasonable to expect axes to fall and/or impeachments to proceed) but that alone should not render it valueless. While Bush does the rounds in the media artificially embellishing his legacy with spurious claims that his presidency has made Americans safer, this investigation provides a powerful repudiation.

And Clinton got a blow-job.

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