These days, few liberals are willing to directly defend drones. This is a victory of sorts for opponents of drone warfare, whose work exposing its horror has made it difficult for any kind of liberal (Joe Klein, the neoliberal sociopath, doesn't count) to be triumphalist about American killing by remote control. It's tough to shake poms poms in the face of dead and maimed children. The truth is beginning to prevail over government propaganda.
That's not say, however, that there's been a surge in opposition from progressives and Democrats, only that expressions of support have become muted. The argument most commonly used to defend drones is some version of: Drones are no worse than other weapons, maybe even better, so what's the fuss about? Often this argument is preceded by a tentative objection, as in Hey, I don't like drones either.
When people depict drone warfare as a "humanitarian advance" or argue that it's no worse than other kinds, often their purpose is to try to normalize it and depict critics as eccentric and irrational, fetishists. Why're you so obsessed with the method of killing? I can't tell you how many times I've seen some variation of Scott Lemieux's comment:
[K]illing people with drones is a million times worse than killing them with conventional bombing operations, because…why was that again?
Oh, those silly critics of drone warfare. Never mind that not one of them has ever said killing someone with a drone is worse than killing her the old-fashioned way, it's a savvyish line of argument, because it allows Lemieux and his ilk to assume an antiwar pose while playing down a form of war. Call it the sophisticated dodge.
Sophistry like this calls for an extended response:
It's the government that has made drones a big issue.
Obama, even more than Bush, has made drones integral to U.S. "defense" policy. Drones are the primary killing tool in the U.S.'s dirty wars in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. The U.S. used them extensively during NATO's regime change operation in Libya and drones are flying over Libya right now as part of the effort of the United States to bring the Benghazi attackers "to justice." They're set to be an integral part of the next phase of the U.S. War on Terror, which those in charge are creepily calling the "disposition matrix."
In response to expressions of outrage over drone attacks that kill children and other civilians, defenders say things like, would it matter if they'd been killed by sniper fire? Short answer: of course not. (Note, too, that with arguments like this, it's defenders, not opponents, who are changing the subject from killing to the method of killing.) If the United States were using nail-guns to kill people without due process, terrorize and kill civilians, violate international law, and wage dirty wars, then opponents of war would focus on nail-guns.
In fact, one of the most widely discussed and lamented acts of violence during the Obama presidency is the attack that killed 40 plus civilians, including 21 children, in Yemen in December 2009. The weapon was not a hellfire missile shot from a drone but a cruise missile carrying cluster munitions shot from a aircraft carrier. Well-known drone fetishist Jeremy Scahill did nothing less than co-produce a film about this incident.
The very people speaking out against drones also speak out against other forms of American violence overseas. On the other hand -- and let me try to put this gently -- the people playing down drone attacks aren't generally well-known for their opposition to, say, the war in Afghanistan or militarism generally. Drone critic critic Bob Cesca says that the priorities in this debate should be "civil liberties and war powers," as if someone had argued otherwise. But Cesca hardly writes about civil liberties or war powers except in the context of complaining about what he calls "drone hysteria." There might be a well-known antiwar activist or writer chiding drone critics, but I'm not aware of one -- are you?
Opponents of war must talk about drones, because they're what's for breakfast:
Dennis C. Blair, director of national intelligence until he was fired in May 2010, said that discussions inside the White House of long-term strategy against Al Qaeda were sidelined by the intense focus on strikes. “The steady refrain in the White House was, ‘This is the only game in town’—reminded me of body counts in Vietnam,” said Mr. Blair, a retired admiral who began his Navy service during that war.
Tell me again: who
are the fetishists?
'More accurate' does not mean 'acceptable'
The notion that drone strikes are "surgical" is spin. Hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians have died in drone strikes. Reporting on drone strikes is notoriously difficult, but last year one credible source reported that as many as 881 civilians had died in Pakistan alone. A study by Stanford Law School and New York University's School of Law found that only 2% of casualties in Pakistan have been high-level targets.
But even if drones are more precise than other weapons, its relative accuracy wouldn't legitimize even a single strike, much less thousands. A knife is an accurate weapon, but a knife-stabbing could still be wrong and illegal.
Or consider this: A man who's had eleven bourbons "has to" drive home in the snow, so his friend offers him her brand new Suburu Outback, which is better in the snow than his '77 Gremlin with the bald tires. In the Outback, he would pose less of a threat to other drivers and to himself, but that fact doesn't make driving home wise or ethical. The man, his friend, and everyone else at the party need to challenge the assumption that he has to drive home.
To say that a drone strike is more accurate killing tool only works as a defense if it's a fact that the United States must go to great lengths to kill people all over the world in the name of fighting terrorism. As Greenwald says, drone defenders:
...tacitly embrace the unexamined assumption that the US is inevitably going to engage in aggression and kill Muslims, and then pat themselves on the back for cheering for the way that kills the fewest (I support drones because they're better than full-scale invasions; I support sanctions because they're better than air strikes). They are seemingly incapable of conceiving of a third alternative: that the US could or should refrain from killing innocent people in predominantly Muslim countries.
This narrow choice between big violence and smaller violence shows, I think, just how fully we have all implicitly adopted the conceptual framework of the War on Terror, how much George W. Bush’s advisers continue to set the terms of our thinking years after they’d been dispatched from office. Because that argument presupposes that we are at war and must continue to be at war until an ill-defined enemy is vanquished. What, people ask, is the alternative to small war, if not big war? And the answer no one ever seems to even consider is: no war.
If the existence of people out in the world who are actively working to kill Americans means we are still at war, then it seems to me we will be at war forever, and will surrender control over whether that is the state we do in fact want to be in. There’s another alternative: we can be a nation that declares its war over, that declares itself at peace and goes about rigorously and energetically using intelligence and diplomacy and well-resourced police work to protect us from future attacks.
It's not necessary to oppose the so-called war on terror to oppose the way the U.S. is using drones -- more on that below -- but the plausible, or plausible-seeming, defenses of US "targeted killings" hinge on the premise that the U.S. global war against AQ and "associated forces" is legitimate. Which is why liberal defenders often liken the battle against AQ to World War II -- just the sort of Bushian rhetorical ploy liberals used to mock.
Under Bush, most liberals and many Democrats rejected the notion that the United States ought to fight an open-ended global war against AQ, and this view was hardly relegated to the hippie fringe. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic candidate for president, likened AQ to a criminal enterprise. He reversed himself in the face of criticism, but the criticism came from the right, not from liberals like Harold Koh, now a willing warrior in Bush's global war on terror.
The Method of Killing Does, In Fact, Matter
In response to critics of the U.S. drone wars in places like Pakistan and Yemen, liberals defenders are apt to say something like: It's better than a ground invasion. Or: would you prefer carpet bombing? If I haven't already made myself clear, listen up: I'D PREFER NO WAR!
Sure, if you accept that there must be war, then drones look OK by those sorry standards. But drones are really the only choice. The fact is, the United States isn't going to invade Yemen or unleash massive conventional air power on Somalia. Because drone warfare poses no immediate danger to Americans and no risk of a hostage crisis (there are no pilots to be shot down), because it is -- or perceived to be -- more accurate than other forms of killing, it's really the only option. (That, and, to a lesser degree, special ops.)
Which is to say that drones are enabling war.
There exists a danger that the political ease with which these systems can be deployed, and their future potential to deliver even more precise effect, might encourage the normalisation of the use of violence in response to crisis and conflict.
That grim future, I'd argue, has already arrived. And so would Rosa Brooks
, who worked in the Defense Department from 2009 to 2011.
The trouble with drones is that they make it a little too tempting to use force. When you have a nifty tool that allows you to deniably knock off potential bad guys with no risk, why wouldn't you use it more and more? Thus, we've seen drone strikes evolve in the last decade, from a tool used in limited circumstances to go after specifically identified high-ranking al Qaeda officials to a tool relied on in an increasing number of countries to go after an eternally lengthening list of putative bad guys, some identified by name, others targeted on the basis of suspicious behavior patterns, with an increasingly tenuous link to grave or imminent threats to the United States.
So when defenders -- or, for that matter, opponents -- argue, as I have, that the kind of weapon used in an attack is irrelevant, that's true only in terms of the morality and legality of the attack. In terms of the overall level of violence and future of warfare, the rise of the drones is relevant indeed. It makes bloodshed more likely.
It's Not Drones; It's the Way The Government is Using Them
Whether a weapon can be intrinsically immoral (a nuclear bomb?) is an interesting philosophical question. Whatever the answer, there wouldn't be much opposition to drones if the U.S. government were storing them in hangar somewhere, or using them in extremely rare cases.
At issue, of course, is how the U.S is using them. Try to reconcile the following with the claim that the US drone program is humane.
Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behavior. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators. Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school.
If a organization or some other non-state actor were doing this, its name would be obvious: terrorism. That's what Digby calls it
[T]o the extent we talk about it in anything but hushed tones and without any detail, we are talking about how "careful" we are to only kill the "bad guys" with our precise hi-tech weapons. But how different is it, really, from an Islamic extremist setting off a bomb in a shopping center where a politician might be present? Would the effect on the civilian population be any different here than the drone attacks in Pakistan?
And to the extent that we talk about drone warfare, we focus on "targeted killings" in which the government attempts to whack a suspected terrorist on its kill list. But many, perhaps most, drone attacks have been "signature strikes
." That's when the government tries to kill someone who seems like
a terrorist because his behavior. That is, the government doesn't know who the target is. The best evidence
suggests (government secrecy precludes definitive determinations) that many US signature strikes have violated international law. In any case, the high probability of killing civilians make them egregiously immoral.
President Obama reportedly had an initial aversion to signature strikes, but he nonetheless ordered them in Pakistan and then authorized them in Yemen.
One of the more disturbing recent revelations into White House foreign policy decision-making is that President Obama authorized targeted drone strikes while unaware that he had actually authorized signature strikes. According to Daniel Klaidman, when Obama was first made aware of signature strikes, the CIA’s deputy director clarified: “Mr. President, we can see that there are a lot of military-age males down there, men associated with terrorist activity, but we don’t necessarily know who they are.” Obama reacted sharply, “That’s not good enough for me.” According to one adviser describing the president’s unease: “‘He would squirm…he didn’t like the idea of kill ‘em and sort it out later.’” Like other controversial counterterrorism policies inherited by Obama, it did end up “good enough,” since he allowed the practice to stand in Pakistan, and in April authorized the CIA and JSOC to conduct signature strikes in Yemen as well.
"Kill ‘em and sort it out later." It's no wonder that, as McClatchy reported
, U.S. drones have killed hundreds of Pakistani who posed no threat to the United States, revealing as a lie the Obama administration's claim that it's targeted only AQ leaders. But then the claim is, has always been, incompatible with signature strikes.
We can argue about the killing of high-level AQ via strikes that pose little threat to civilians, but the reality is that between signature strikes and the killing of funeralgoers and rescuers and attacks on groups that didn't even exist on 9-11, the War of Terror is a different kind of beast altogether. Rosa Brooks sums it up well when she writes of "unknown numbers of unnamed people executed by the United States for unspecified reasons in unacknowledged drone strikes, with no safeguard against abuse (or simple mistake) beyond the good faith and good sense of executive branch officials."
Brooks touches on the secrecy of the drone war. The call for transparency may seem like a sideshow, a demand of establishment "opponents" and good government types who don't want to directly oppose the war, and it can be that. But the secrecy cloaking the drone-based dirty wars helps to sustain them and, as Charles Pierce points out, poses a particularly insidious threat to the country.
...[S]ecret wars, waged by the Executive branch beyond the reach of congressional oversight, inevitably lead to a deep and abiding corruption in the government of this country. It is unavoidable now. It was unavoidable in the 1980's, when Reagan and his band of geopolitical fantasts were running amok in Central America...
Secret war is anathema to free government. Period. Now, you can argue that it's necessary, that the world has changed, that dangers come upon us too quickly, that the length and breadth of the evil in the world has made the perils Madison described quaint and irrelevant. You can do all that and people will applaud you and elect you president. But you cannot make the argument that secret wars conducted by the Executive are consonant with constitutional government, because they are not, and they never will be, and because, sooner or later, you wind up lying about the rape and murder of nuns.
The drone wars have gotten so out of hand that even many tuffonterra types who basically support the war on terror, including members of the military, believe that the U.S. relies on them too heavily
During his confirmation hearing to become the director of central intelligence, John Brennan repeated his prior pledge regarding al Qaeda -- "We will destroy that organization" -- which, according to the latest State Department estimates, is growing to thousands of individuals among its various "affiliates." This current U.S. counterterrorism strategy of "mowing the grass" (as it's indelicately called) through indefinite drone strikes, without thinking through the likely second- and third-order effects, will never achieve its strategic objectives. This highlights the question military planning staffs will pose to civilian policymakers who ask about bombing a target or individual: "And then what?" In the case of a campaign of drone strikes, the answer these military planners see is more drone strikes.
Mowing the grass
: how disturbingly apt. And now a number of former military leaders are making like
Susan Sontag or Chalmers Johnson and pointing out that drone attacks are breeding terrorism. They've come to realize the obvious: that there's no such thing as risk-free war, and that there's no form of American violence that won't produce anti-American violence.
Opposition to the drone war from Serious Members of the Establishment offers a less-bad-than-usual chance to roll back the U.S. killing machine. "Antiwar" liberals who depict opposition to it as irrational aren't helping.