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Obama's Record On Drone Strikes And The Automation Of War

Katrina Kaiser |
November 7, 2012 | 9:03 p.m. PST


Protesting for drone victims in Downtown Chicago. (Debra Sweet, Creative Commons)
Protesting for drone victims in Downtown Chicago. (Debra Sweet, Creative Commons)
The United States military policy of bombing sites in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia using unmanned aerial vehicles is an unjust way to wage war, and this policy is likely to expand to Mali in President Obama’s second term.

This is injustice on both a practical moral level and a psychological level: not only have drone strikes incurred many physical violations of international law, but they also alienate military planners and soldiers from their acts of war and dehumanize victims to simple numerical targets more than do other military policies.

Multiple reports sponsored by Stanford, NYU and Columbia have found that secondary or “double-tap” strikes to the same area often have the effect of killing people trying to rescue or care for victims. If this consequence is intentional, then secondary drone strikes are unquestionably a violation of international law. Even if rescuers aren’t specifically targeted, the practice alone is problematic and should be stopped because of the intrinsic threat to rescuers.

Furthermore, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that 474-884 civilians have been killed in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, out of 2,572-3,341 killed overall. That is, between a sixth and a third of drone strike victims have been civilian deaths. This interactive map from Slate based on slightly different data from the New American Foundation illustrates how much killing has occurred under the Obama administration. The Ambassador to Pakistan maintains that the U.S. keeps official records of civilian deaths as well, but this number is strictly confidential.

Such evasiveness on the facts is one way the government carefully controls the mainstream discourse regarding drone strikes, but it also does so by managing external commentary. On October 27, U.S. immigration officials interrogated Pakistani anti-drone advocate and former cricket star Imran Khan and removed him from a flight to New York. Khan is one of many who have called the drone strikes in rural Pakistan “a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and a strategy that stokes militant anger toward Washington.” While Khan eventually made it to the U.S., this harassment of a non-violent politician goes to show the government’s unwillingness to engage in dialogue on this military policy.

In a more domestic example, the question about drones that moderator Bob Scheiffer posed during the last presidential debate was only addressed to Governor Romney, because “we know President Obama's position on [the use of drones]” already. When Romney agreed that drones were a good policy because “we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends,” the conversation largely ended and the public lost the opportunity to force a national dialogue about the justice of drone strikes. Hopefully Obama’s re-election represents another chance to make this conversation happen and hold the government accountable for civilian deaths.

It is possible to say that drones are a way of protecting America’s own military from harm and reducing unnecessary U.S. casualties as part of the War on Terror. The response is, however, that international humanitarian law’s principle of armed conflict proportionality requires that civilian harm not be excessive in relation to anticipated military gains. Americans should first question the justice of the War on Terror with its ever-shifting targets and creation of even more resentment of our country. A big part of this injustice is the civilian deaths. Rural communities are getting destroyed even if many members never consented to be in martial operations and put themselves in the line of battle.

Furthermore, international drone strikes illustrate the rapid automation of war and a redefinition of what it means to engage in “battle” during the War on Terror. The U.S. military is not in a conflict with particular leaders of a sovereign state over something concrete such as resources or land. Rather, the enemy of this war is an idea—anti-American rage based on the words of a few angry people who filter it through the lens of religion. The Bush Administration declared this conflict a “culture war” and attempted to beat out these ideas with brute force. Obama has postponed the end game and stepped up strikes, but it is important to reference the war’s history of discursive violence as well as physical violence, because it is difficult to determine how to truly win a war when the enemy is an emotion.

This vague starting point also makes it difficult for those who wage the war to identify real "bad guys.” Sure, there are specific high-level targets, but looser rules allow “signature strikes” that declare any male of fighting age in an insurgent-held area to be a militant and thus a target.

With automated war, soldiers are not beholding the faces of their enemies. In an exchange on MSNBC's Morning Joe program after the final presidential debate, former GOP Congressman and current host Joe Scarborough held an exchange about drones. In an impassioned critique, Scarborough described:

"Because you do it with a joystick in California… it seems so antiseptic, it seems so clean—and yet you have 4-year-old girls being blown to bits because we have a policy that now says… Instead of trying to… get the terrorists out of hiding in a Karachi suburb, we're just going to blow up everyone around them.”

Drone strikes have made it too easy to be a killer.

If the practical immorality of Scarborough’s grotesque image of drone strikes is unpersuasive to some, Americans can also consider the “disinfection” of war as a form of cowardice. Are Americans respectable when their military will not face the opposition? Is their war dignified when those killed are collateral damage in a video game reality show, and those imprisoned have their dignity stripped at Guantánamo? This is all a result of the dehumanization of enemies.

Indeed, former U.S. ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker notes that our drones have killed more people than were ever incarcerated at Guantánamo. Those who remain there will ultimately face some legal proceedings, but those killed in drone strikes have been obliterated without due process.

Ultimately, Americans need to ask whether the United States has gained more safety from armed non-state groups, and push the government about the ultimate goal of the drone strikes. In the new Obama administration, the drone fleet will be expanded and the list of targets to be killed will continue to get longer.

Americans must also determine whether or not it is okay that the country behaves and is seen as, in the words of Volker, “a distant, high-tech, amoral purveyor of death.” History has shown that the U.S. is unlikely to succumb to international pressure, so the domestic community must build its own broad-based anti-drone advocacy and vote in politicians who are willing to make a similar commitment.


Reach Contributor Katrina Kaiser here; follow her here.



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