Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Drone Debate

Drones are in the air.

This is literally the case in South Asia, where they have become the defining feature not only of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, but also in the lives of many Pakistanis, as is documented by a recent Stanford-NYU report. 

And the report has pushed drone warfare, tentatively, back into the midst of public debate, on the eve of a Presidential debate in which neither candidate is likely to find fault with either their application to our international relations or the death they wreak.  The report is unequivocal in its central claim.  “In the United States”, the authors write, “the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling ‘targeted killing’ of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts.  This narrative is false”.  The report cites the Administration’s claim that civilian casualties have numbered, at most, in the single digits, and rebuts this with data suggesting that civilian deaths number in the high hundreds based purely on available data, with injuries stretching into the thousands (vi).  It makes for chilling reading.

The report also documents the Administration’s “[refusal to provide necessary details on how the program works, how targets are chosen, or how legality and accountability are ensured ... Instead, the government insists that the killings are lawful, and that virtually all of those targeted are linked to Al Qaeda and associated forces and pose a threat to US national security.  Recently, anonymous government officials have revealed that, for the purpose of tracking civilian casualties, the government presumes that all military-age males killed in drone strikes are combatants” (7-8). 

Perhaps the most telling contribution of the report is its recounting of the psychological terror which the drones inflict upon communities in Pakistan.  The authors make any number of arguments about the deleterious effects on economic life and on social cohesion, but Clive Stafford Smith, a columnist for the Guardian, made the point most movingly and suggestively.  He recounts his mother’s stories about the terror of living under Hitler’s V1 bombs and the ultimately indiscriminate violence and destruction which they spread throughout London.  What is too often lost in our debate in the U.S. is the fact that there are other people, who would likely desire nothing greater than to go about their lives in peace, on the receiving end of our bombardment.

It is not just in President Obama’s persecution of George W Bush’s wars in South Asia, but in North Africa and around the Horn of Africa, places that are being thrust unwillingly forward to global security prominence, and told that they are the next frontier for the War on Terror, or U.S. national security.  Kenyans, Ethiopians, Somalis and Yemenis are all being told that, like Pakistanis and Afghans and Iraqis, they will be pummelled from land, sea and air, and that their lives will be casually re-adjusted around the security needs of the United States.  Even now, ECOWAS, the AU, the UN, or some variation of these bodies, is contemplating military action in Mali against Islamic revolutionaries who will undoubtedly be linked to the “terrorists”, and this military action will not go ahead without U.S. blessing.  And if the U.S. is involved, it is certainly possible that drones will play some role.

I don’t think that people have the faintest idea what the long-term repercussions of drone warfare as applied by the United States in its wars of security or terror will be.  I think that some people are afraid to ask the question, and that others have no interest in it.  We’ve been reassured by the likes of California Senator Dianne Feinstein that it’s all monitored and aboveboard.  But this reassurance comes without any disclosure of relevant information to the public.  We’re asked to take people—people who specialise in twisting narratives and pedalling misinformation—at their word.  And given the tenacity with which our government pursues its unconstructive goals using tried-and-failed methods, I’m not convinced that Senators are asking the right questions.  Nor, to be quite frank, to I trust the judgment of the likes of Dianne Feinstein.  This is, after all, the woman who allowed herself to be persuaded that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, that it was in the public interest to invade Iraq, that President Obama had a serious plan for his war in Afghanistan (the latest blow to what I remain convinced was an opportunistic expansion of that war, based on electoral calculus rather than on the public interest, the United States is now beginning to abandon the training of Afghan security personnel, something supposedly essential to our goals in South Asia), and that the egos and strategic imperatives of Pentagon generals who regularly step outside of their constitutional places should be driving our international relations. 

Besides, drones are not used in isolation.  They are part of a package of aggressive military measures which range from the ability to detain people (including U.S. citizens) for indefinite periods, the desire to shut down those who seek to bring information into the public sphere, the willingness to forego legal niceties by assassinating American citizens, and the attempt to redefine war to remove it from what passes for Congressional scrutiny.  And, as Living Under Drones makes clear, there is nothing neat and clean about this method of warfare, terrorism, or whatever you’d like to call it.  Not in human terms and not in policy terms.  David Sanger echoes conventional wisdom in his book, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power (I’ve only just started reading, and perhaps I’ll post in greater detail about Sanger’s account once I’ve finished), wherein he argues that Obama’s preferred style of dealing with threats to our security involves acting in a “targeted, get-in-and-get-out fashion, that avoids, at all costs, the kind of messy ground wars and lengthy occupations that have drained America’s treasury and spirit for the past decades” (xiv). 

The Drone Wars might not create an immediate physical mire, but moral entanglement, the alienation of fellow global citizens, the empowerment of undemocratic interests, and the sapping of our own spirits will be just as inevitable and just as devastating as if we were waging war the old-fashioned way.  The United States makes enemies like those who attacked the country on 9/11 because we behave as though we are somehow empowered to wage war where we like without reference to international or any other sort of law, and because we have a tendency to ally ourselves with sadists, dictators and warlords who either a) turn against us or b) alienate their people, who themselves rightfully turn against us.  Drone Warfare, more nefarious for its underhanded execution, changes none of this, and does not reflect a healthier, more honest way of engaging with the world.

One argument marshalled in favour of granting these frankly quite horrifying powers to our national security apparatus is that our military and political leadership knows things that we don’t, and that they know what is best for this.  Their track record, and their general approach to issues around democracy, security, and alliances, says otherwise. 

Proponents of drones—with varying degrees of enthusiasm—suggest that their problematic nature is offset by the fact that they are allegedly more precise and less destructive, that they don’t put U.S. soldiers in harm’s way.  They say that the problems are not with the technology, but with its use, and that if used in a conflict which is righteous, or just, drones are the best option.

This is a nonsensical view, as illustrated above, and also a dispiriting line of logic.  It is a line of logic which ignores that technological production is never neutral, being infused with values and purpose according to its producers, the context of its production, and its sale and reproduction.  It is a line of logic which makes going to war an easy, casual decision, because our soldiers will not be subject to violence and we are therefore less likely to think about how people on the receiving end of our violence will be affected.  It represents an amoral way of thinking about conflict, anchored in a cheap cost-benefit analysis which leaves out every moral, human consideration.  If the strategic error of alienating Pakistanis is the worst aspect of the drone war that we can come up with, we’re sitting in a serious moral vacuum. 

Proponents of the Drone Wars are effectively saying, “Let’s come up with the best, most efficient, most judicious way of using violence and killing people”.  That’s outrageous.  In different times, in the context of different balances of power, nations have sought to regulate war.  In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, various Hague conventions were drawn up for this purpose.  And in 1914, the supposedly “civilised” nations of the world violated these conventions in ways which defied the imagination, turning swathes of Europe into mud-filled, rat-infested trenches, where men poured machine gun fire into each other, gassed fellow workers with the most lethal chemicals they could amass, grew ever more inventive in finding ways to kill one another. 

The Drone Wars, like the First World War, are being waged in the name of security.  Whose security?  Not mine.  I’ve never done anything to make people living in the Middle East, North Africa, or South Asia hate me.  Nor have most other Americans.  We are only in any danger because a small subset of elite commercial interests—men and women who sell guns and bombs and tanks and other weapons of mass destruction, plunder for oil, seek to buy the dictators and thugs who they need to make money—and ideological interests—religious fundamentalists, neoconservatives who dream of provoking a bloodbath from some sick and twisted clash of civilisations—have provoked other people.  These interests and individuals do these things without asking any of us whether we’d like to be involved in this arms deal or that assassination attempt.  In 1914, the guns of August annihilated European complacency about the security of the Great Powers and their empires in the world.  Our own hubris is more likely to be picked apart than shattered wholesale, but the results, though prolonged, will be as violent, as traumatic, and as tragic.

I realise that it’s “off message” for a progressive to call the President to account for the killing being done in his name—in our name—in South Asia.  It doesn’t match the narrative that he and his advisers have worked to craft of the President as a responsible custodian of our security and of our relations with other peoples in other parts of the world.  But it is important to point out that as we drift to the polls in November, a vote for President Obama, like a vote for Mitt Romney, is a vote for the kind of realpolitik which makes a mockery of the idealism they both preach, of the peace to which most of us aspire, of the justice which they have pledged to uphold, and of any pretence to morality.  Both of these men pose a greater threat to our security than do any of the people on the receiving end of the vicious bombardment that our military and political establishment is unleashing on our “enemies” around the world. 

1 comment:

  1. I agree with this substantially, and in the past few weeks I've become far more uncomfortable about the proposition that a tactical vote for Obama is ethically defensible. I think you are probably right and Chomsky is probably wrong about voting for Obama in the swing states.

    In India I usually vote for the Party that is least divisive, most progressive/socialist and most likely to win. But I am not, admittedly faced with the choice of a government that engages in drone warfare in foreign places.