It has been interesting to see the schism that has emerged in the left post the 2012 elections campaign. Freed from the distraction of fending off Mitt Romney and band of legitimate rapists, the likes of Cornel West, Jeremy Scahill and others are increasingly happy to publicly savage Barack Obama and his administration, creating a division between themselves and those on the left who still have faith in the President. The topic that most marks the demarcation line between these two groups is Obama’s foreign policy and in particular, his use for unmanned predator drones for targeted assassinations. For some, it is a necessary evil that the President must use to face off the persistent threat of terrorism; for others it is a a fundamental betrayal of Obama’s hope and change promise, a betrayal that could define his legacy in the eyes of future generations. Others still prefer just to ignore this new reality of computerized warfare and return to reading about the new royal financial parasite baby. However, with last week’s leak of an internal document from the Pakistani government that details scores of civilians who have been killed by drone strikes, the time has come for all engaged observers to take a conscious position in relation to drone strikes and to decide weather they are for or against the counter-terrorism policy of the man Cornel West has described as ‘the drone president.’
There are two questions to consider when making up your mind on drones: firstly, are they effective in achieving their aims, and secondly, even if effective, is the use of drones legal and moral? The question of effectiveness is difficult for a layman to answer as this is a policy that is cloaked in secrecy. That in itself should be a black mark against the scheme for all those who consider transparency and accountability to be valuable features of governance. Drone-warfare requires the maintenance of a secret death-lists of troublesome individuals, who are be taken out once the President signs off on their deaths, putting the execute in the executive. Yet under the Obama administration, this has been the primary method of combatting terrorism, with strikes occurring in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. Proponents of drone warfare see this as a method of counter-terrorism that allows for the surgical removal of potential threats without the externalities of civilian deaths or loss of U.S military personnel. Think about it like it was the rapture in reverse; all the bad guys are sucked up whilst the good people are spared. However, the leak from Pakistan suggests otherwise, stating that of the 746 people listed as killed in the drone strikes in that country, at least 147 are civilian victims, with 94 of those children. Furthermore, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates over 1,000 civilian deaths in total across all the countries aforementioned, with hundreds more injured. And these are only the figures that have escaped from under the cloak of secrecy. While such strange bedfellows as Eric Holder and Donald Rumsfeld may point to lack of recent terrorist attacks on U.S soil as evidence of drone-warfare effectiveness, it must be remembered that the primary victims of terrorism are the citizens of countries like Pakistan and Yemen who continue to suffer daily violence. In a classic example of ‘blowback’, drones tend to create terrorists as much as kill them. According to Scahill’s reporting in Yemen, drone warfare has resulted in only igniting Islamist uprisings in regions that were not previously radical. Even Robert Grenier, the former head of the CIA’s counter-terrorism centre said in relation to drones “the unintended consequences of our actions are going to outweigh the intended consequences.”
Secondly, when thinking of the ethics of drone-warfare, we must contend with the consequences of this shift from capturing and (supposedly) trying terrorists to extra-judicially executing them via remote control. Embracing unmanned, armed drones instantly lowers the threshold for going to war. It becomes much easier to hold multiple wars simultaneously, for an indefinite period of time as there is no human cost if the drone goes down. In past wars such as Vietnam, it was those images of the endless procession of coffins draped in the American flag that encouraged the end of that war. While no one wishes for dead soldiers, without that restraint, there will be less pressure on governments to conclude conflicts.
In addition it must be remembered that drone technology is conducted not just by the military but also by the CIA, a highly secretive organization with little transparency. The people who are targeted now extend beyond just ‘enemy combatants’ who directly engage in armed conflict to include people who are propagandists and radical preachers like Anwar al-Awlaki. Now, his speeches did incite terrorism but for it to be the reflex position of states to execute rather than arrest those it sees as a threat is to set a dangerous precedent. Remember Nelson Mandela and the ANC were considered terrorists once. Would history have been different if the Apartheid government had been in possession of drones?
Of course al-Awlaki is not Nelson Mandela but that example does allow us to look at the issue from a different perspective, one in which governments other than our own use the technology as we do. As we learnt with the nuclear bomb, no one has a monopoly on new weaponry. The proliferation of the drone has already begun and the UK quickly joined its ally in using drones in Afghanistan. Drone champions would be comfortable with that but were probably less happy when in April, Israel shot down a drone that they believed was sent by Hezbollah. If you agree with the current U.S policy though, then why shouldn’t Hezbollah also have this technology? Why shouldn’t China use signature strikes on those people she considers radical preachers, like the Dalai Lama? If drones are so successful in counter-terrorism operations, why not use them in counter-narcotics too, they would be less bloody than another Plan Colombia?
Unmanned, armed drones start to look scarier when viewed from the position of them belonging to others. So far, it has been easy to ignore the questions that arise from Obama’s drone use as the consequences have been limited to lands far away full of invisible brown people but it really is an issue too important to remain indifferent about. Those on the left must appreciate that this is ‘our’ guy who is mainstreaming drone-warfare and if we don’t agree with it then we need to be vocal in holding him to account. As for those who do agree with his policy, they must remember that they won’t be able to blame the conservatives if they should wake up one day to find that America’s symbol has transformed herself from Lady Liberty to the Queen of the drone age.