I came across a news item this week that really caught my eye and gives me reason to hope that Americans might at last start a serious public discussion about one of the worst “war on terror” policies ever invented. Prior to 9/11 11 years ago(!) the US took a public stand against the use of armed drones to carry out military strikes. Like so many other bits of reason this one got lost in the rubble of the World Trade Center and the justified yet uncontrolled outrage that followed and to date the US has carried out over 300 drone attacks inside the border of Pakistan, killing a pretty large number of people (the lowest estimate I can find is 1,000). According to the story, the possibility that Obama might lose the election prompted the administration to review the drone policy, not to end it but to ensure that it had sufficient legal support that it would continue even if Romney was elected.
Let’s take a step back from the “war on terror” rhetoric and take a look at this policy from some different perspectives and see how this looks when we do that. There are a lot of different sides to this policy and I’m going to hit some of them pretty fast, so fasten your seat belt. Here we go.
First, there is the perspective of American values. Things like law-and-order and innocent-until-proven guilty. If these were lost in the 9/11 attacks then Osama bin Laden won, folks. Yet it is the current policy of the US government that it’s okay to assassinate suspected terrorists without benefit of trial and without any opportunity for them to present their defense. We don’t even have the decency to be embarrassed about this; the few news stories that make it to press about this specifically refer to the victims as “suspected terrorists” or “suspected militants”. I really don’t think that executing someone in the States for being a “suspected” … hell, a suspected ANYthing would go over particularly well. And don’t bother saying that it’s different because they’re not US citizens because a) the US has done that, too, just not in Pakistan and b) if you’re going to export American values like democracy then it seems a bit hypocritical to deny foreigners the other rights that the US is so justly proud of. Nobody likes a double-standard. I suppose you could argue that the chances that the suspects will be arrested and extradited to the US to stand trial are very slim, and you’d be right. But I still can’t make the long leap from “we can’t bring them to trial” to “so it’s okay to execute them without one”.
Next comes the perspective of… Pakistan? Really? I know we had a war on terrorism in Iraq because… well, let’s not go there… and I know we had a war on terrorism in Afghanistan because we were pretty sure that Osama was hiding there, but Pakistan? Yeah, okay, that’s where the US finally got bin Laden, but ummm, they got him, right? So what are we waging war in Pakistan for? Yes, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are bad people but they’re in a lot of other countries, too, and we’re not sending drones to all of them. This is a new era of warfare where the target isn’t a nation with established borders it’s a non-government organization spread across many nations. The world simply doesn’t have the proper policies in place to deal with this sort of thing so we’ve resorted to the easiest option.
This brings us to the perspective of sovereignty. There are really two possible ways to look at this, depending whether or not you believe the Wikileaks cables that imply some sort of secret agreement between the governments of Pakistan and the US authorizing the drone strikes. If the cables are bogus or wrong and there’s no agreement then the situation is simple. The US executed military strikes against citizens of another country inside their own borders. In the past this has been an example of a “casus belli” which is fancy Latin for a valid reason for the victim’s country to declare war on the aggressor. In other words, it’s been a geopolitical no-no, and doing it makes the US look very bad to other countries. “Hey, ” they say, “If they’re going to kill Pakistanis in Pakistan, what’s to keep them from offing my beloved subjects here in _____?” Nations that are not remotely involved in the issue still read the papers and it makes the US look sketchy.
If the cables are real and there is a secret agreement, well, then things get a tiny bit stickier but really not so much as you might think. It makes the actions themselves less naughty but that really doesn’t matter all that much if the agreement is secret because no one KNOWS they’re not naughty. It also increases problems within Pakistan itself because the people who don’t know about the agreement become outraged (see next paragraph) and the people who do know can only say, “No, it’s alright, trust us.”
Now let’s look at it from the Pakistani equivalent of Joe Lunchpail, just trying to keep body and soul together and take care of his family. What he sees is US drones dropping bombs on his village because the Taliban is there. It’s hard to see how this has a positive effect on his life, because even if the bomb takes out the local Taliban or al-Qaeda leader it doesn’t stick around to make sure that another one isn’t appointed by the regional chieftain tomorrow morning. What he sees is his own government’s inability to protect him from… anything, really, which effectively weakens whatever authority the local government has left. And if the bomb takes Joe out, too, what becomes of the family? I may sound like a sterotypical bleeding-heart liberal here, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture a scenario where distraught relatives of drone victims look for a way to avenge themselves on the evil empire that bombed them.
I know a lot of military families out there and I can hear at least one of them saying that using the drones keeps the troops safer. I totally get that a soldier controlling a drone in Pakistan from a bunker in California is about as safe as it gets. I also strongly agree that drones provide a form of air support in a combat zone that is impossible to get any other way. I’m not anti-drone. But the troop-protection argument only holds water if the drone is replacing or supporting ground troops and the US doesn’t have ground troops in Pakistan. In this particular case the drones are being used precisely because they can go where US troops cannot. (Well, unless the target is Osama himself, but all the arguments in this post about drones could also be applied to that mission as well, really.)
All this sounds like a standard anti-American rant taken from the pages of Al Jazeera, but it’s not. This story is starting to hit the media a bit harder lately, and there are signs that the policy-making process is becoming more transparent. There have also been open demonstrations in Pakistan protesting the strikes, though ironically they had to be relocated to areas less prone to drone attacks. The sole purpose of all of this is to get you thinking about these drone strikes and about how they make the US look to the rather large number of non-Americans in the world. And if all those words up there haven’t done that, then please consider this one last point.
How would you feel if India started sending drones to fire missiles at McDonalds restaurants, raining robotic death on the meat-eaters inside because they were defiling the holy nature of the cow? It really isn’t all that much different, and I bet you’d call them acts of terrorism.