Saturday, 31 December 2011


In June 2012, former President Jimmy Carter wrote that the US has not observed human rights around the world not only under George W. Bush, but under the Obama administration as well. While human rights violations have taken place in the name of 'fighting the war on terror', American democracy has been losing its role as defender of freedom and social justice at home and abroad, partly because it is unwilling to rely on laws and chooses instead to rely on raw military and police force, often leaving civilians victims of the 'war on terror' that has been responsible for diluting American democracy. It is now estimated that drones have kiled 4,700 people, a number of them completely innocent civilians; something that the Obama administration and Republican lawmakers consider acceptable.

 In April 2011, I wrote a brief piece on "Drone Warfare" and its use in an era when there is unprecedented convergence between defense and intelligence services, given that the CIA uses drones in its operations, and between government and 'outsourced' defense and intelligence services. This convergence took off under the Bush administration, but it has been the Obama 'peace-talking' administration that has been making immense use of drone warfare and of private security and intelligence contractors that evade the kind of congressional scrutiny of government agencies. This has been taking place despite the massive scandals - in terms of costs to taxpayers and indiscriminate killings of non-combatants in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Iran - involving both drones and outsourced security and intelligence.

That the US has been using Drones as a techno-fix to political problems and doing so because no American lives (although US national have been accidentally killed by drones) are at stake is universally known. From the time that Obama took office, he decided to rely more heavily on drones whose mission is targeted killings, at least in theory. From many secret facilities throughout the US and in at least six other nations, the multi-billion dollar drone industry is carrying out US secret operations whose legality is at the very least questionable, given that they violate the air space of sovereign nations as well as commit war crimes that the International Court does not dare to consider because the US is 'fighting terrorism'.

The violation of international law and treaties aside, have drone wars accomplished the publicly-stated goal of strengthening US security, and if so, has this come at the expense of achieving convergence between intelligence and defense sectors, between government and 'soldiers for hire', and has this convergence been intentional in order to circumvent congressional oversight? If the above-mentioned convergence is at the core of US defense and intelligence policy, does this mean that the US is continuing to sink deeper into a quasi-authoritarian state by deliberately creating blind spots in the manner that the various agencies provide briefings to congressional oversight committees that never have the full picture owing to the blurred lines between defense and intelligence, between government operations and outsourced ones.

As I stated in the April 2011 posting, legal scholars have debated whether drone warfare violates international and US laws, given that it strikes preemptively and it kills non-combatants along with assassination targets. This is not to argue the morality of war, for there is none, but rather to point out how a specific techno-fix such as drone warfare is contributing to the erosion of US democracy and creeping military-police state that continues to operate under the Patriot Act (Obama signed a 4-year extension in April 2011).

There is the debate of what does the US do once drones become readily available across the world? When Iran brought down a US drone, the main concern was that Iranians, Russians and Chinese would have learned US secrets studying drone technology. In November 2011, the UK's The Guardian ran an article about drone war as unaccountable CIA operations killing innocent civilians along with their intended targets. The article implies that such warfare essentially circumvents the law, a point I would argue is obvious. The real issue is to what degree is drone warfare, intended to combat terrorism, the ultimate terrorist campaign, given that it is indiscriminate, lacks congressional oversight, and is at best on shaky legal grounds.

Drone war has eliminated a number of al-Qaeda operatives and others that the US considers terrorists in Afghanistan and other Muslim nations. But has drone war achieved the aim of lessening or preventing unconventional war, what the US calls terrorism? Can there possibly be a techno-fix to the root causes of 'unconventional war', or is this the latest ploy that will backfire once the 'terrorists' take possession of drones and once countries hostile to the US and NATO also begin to use drone warfare? And is it not the case that Obama the candidate promised to seek alternatives to military solutions that his Republican predecessor had been following?

It can be argued that after all, it was Democrat presidents Harry Truman who started the Cold War, and L. B. Johnson who expanded Vietnam into America's unwinnable war, thus Democrats are more hawkish than Republicans who merely talk tough. It could also be argued that US foreign policy has always been bipartisan. Nuances between 'Rockefeller managerialists' and 'Committee on the Present Danger' (Keynesian militarists) are confined to tactics and not goals, and both of these groups have always included members of both parties. Naturally, the war on terrorism, euphemism for continuing the Cold War regime by simply re-focusing on another enemy, has blurred the old lines that existed from Truman to Reagan between 'managerialists and 'Kenynesian militarists'. The question is whether the line is even more blurred by the convergence of intelligence and defense, as well as government and private contractors carrying out tasks for defense and intelligence.

Techno-fixes help keep defense contractors making tremendous profits, they keep right wing ideologues under the illusion that "America is strong", and they keep the masses under the illusion that they are safe. But do techno-fixes solve political conflicts? The Obama administration came to office pledging to change the anachronistic Bush administration policies that had sunk the US to its lowest point in the rest of the world's estimation.

Contrary to the rhetoric intended to de-radicalize Americans angry at the Republicans, and to appease the rest of the world, especially Muslims, Obama has proved not much different than his predecessor in pursuing simple-minded military solutions to complex political problems. Such a mindset reflected in domestic policies like the Patriot Act and foreign-defense-intelligence policies like Drone warfare reflect that the road to authoritarianism has opened wider under Obama who had pledged to return the nation to its democratic roots.

The question that Bienvenido Macario asked me to answer ("what would I propose as an alternative to US drone warfare to fight terrorism") requires investigation and reflection on a number of issues that are complex, including:

a) definition of terrorism - ideology and partisan political dimensions;
b) synoptic historical perspective;
c) race, ethnicity, and culture as variants in "Clash of Islam and the West";
d) domestic politics of terrorism - goals and tactics;
e) diplomacy, terrorism and international law - goals and tactics;
f) terrorism and the uses of security, intelligence and defense;
g) economics of terrorism and defense;
h) evaluating 'the war on terror' based on domestic and international costs to the economy, political arena, and of course actual results and not just symbolic ones such as killing a few targeted terrorists - Osama bin-Laden included.

The interested person can investigate and analyze these issues and arrive at her/his own conclusions about:
a) what 'the war on terror' has meant in the last ten years;
b) whether the US is on solid legal grounds,
c) whether it is achieving anything at all that is of broader benefit to society, and not limited to special interests;
d) what are the immediate and long-term costs to society?

1 comment:

Vasco said...

The War on Terror didn't start ten years ago. Bin Laden had already attacked a few places in Africa, like a restaurant and an embassy.

It really started when Bill Clinton attacked Waco. That led to a retaliation, which showed that the US was vulnerable and inspired copycats.

Drones make people angry, and are a very bad idea. The only way we'll have peace is when it stops being about "us" verses "them" and we all see each other as equals.