Death From The Skies: Drone Warfare And The Obama Administration

While accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009, the US President Barack Obama tried to set himself up as a moral man with the authority to speak about a ‘just war’. Addressing the assembled gathering at Stockholm and the world at large, he spoke of how, “Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength…”

It is, no doubt, in his role as the ‘standard bearer’ of the ‘Just War Against Terror’ that the Obama Administration has ventured upon its policy of drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, Yemen and Somalia. And in keeping with such claims, the military and administrative propaganda surrounding these strikes takes great pains to stress that they are at all times ‘surgically precise’, ‘ethical’ and ‘wise’.

These drone strikes began under George Bush’s presidency, but under Obama, they have increased exponentially. In simple terms, what this amounts to is war on auto-pilot. Remote-controlled planes, known as drones, are used to shoot down previously identified targets, but also unknown targets based on ‘suspicious patterns of behavior’ observed through surveillance of various kinds. The US has proclaimed its right to send in these drones whenever it deems such action necessary to protect ‘American interests’. And so, these drones can enter even the airspace of countries against whom there is no official declaration of war, and such military interventions are supported by puppet regimes, such as those in Pakistan.

The practice of targeted assassinations is not new to US foreign or military policy. But the scale and extent of the US war machine makes things different this time. We live in a Brave New World of ‘Play Station’ killings, where death has become mechanized and institutionalized. Drone operations of the kind that are underway are undertaken from many miles away, controlled by operators linked to computer screens and remote audio-feed, and unconnected to ground realities. As far as the US is concerned, so long as the combatants it is targeting are killed, the deaths of civilians on the ground are of no account.

Ever since the shining drones were launched on their campaigns of slaughter, there are no official estimates of how many people have died. Despite public statements from politicians, the CIA refuses to confirm or deny the use of drones for military attacks. But an estimate proposed by The New America Foundation (which is on the lower side) suggests that between 1, 819 to 2,808 people died as a result of US drone-strikes in Pakistan from 2004 to May 2012. Most of these killings took place under Obama’s reign. Many of the dead include children. The US government claims that three-fourths of those killed in such strikes were militants, a figure to which one can attach no credence.

This is because a range of specious definitions are being applied by the Obama administration to defend their policy of drone warfare. Thus, it “counts all military-age males in a [drone] strike zone as combatants unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent”. This is just a convenient way of killing first and then asking questions, if at all. Further, the policy is justified on the grounds of neutralizing ‘imminent threats’, where the US Attorney General Eric Holder at an address to the Northwestern University Law School in Chicago defined an ‘imminent threat’ as incorporating “considerations of the relevant window of opportunity to act, the possible harm that missing the window would cause to civilians, and the likelihood of heading off future disastrous attacks against the United States”. These definitions have no link with the tenets of International Law, but there appears to be little attempt to regulate the US. Although drone strikes amount to a regime of extra-judicial killings, we live in a world of victor’s justice where the US has never been prosecuted for War Crimes.

A deeply-rooted sense of American exceptionalism underlines the present policy of warfare. The decision of where to strike and when is proposed by a power-elite surrounding the US president; in a bureaucratic ritual that is said to take place almost every week, ‘kill-lists’ are prepared. The power to decide is vested in one man: Obama. These decisions are not defended or discussed in any forum, and are unaccountable in every way. What is more, it would appear that there is little basis for arguing that those killed in drone attacks are only combatants intent on making war. In fact, such actions appear to perpetuate the kind of violence that they seek to eradicate, radicalizing local populations and creating further breeding grounds of hatred. Further, they help perpetuate a state of war: about fifty countries are said to be developing such robotic aircraft, including Russia and China. Left unchecked, this sets a dangerous precedent for the conduct of international relations between states in the future.

For now, however, the soaring language of the warrior President and his team is focused on a celebration of machismo that will ensure his re-election by the ‘peace-loving’ American public. A poll conducted by the Washington Post and ABC news in February 2012, tells us that 83 per cent of the respondents were in favour of drone warfare. While the deaths of US soldiers in wars on foreign soil have often provoked outrage in the homeland, the deaths of innocent civilians as the by-products of remote-controlled wars do not appear to have provoked a sense of moral condemnation. At the same time, what is not being considered are the effects of such a policy for the US’s own democracy, for there are dangers in vesting so much power in a single man. In this new world of warfare, the decisions taken by the US president go unchecked by the US Congress or judiciary, not to speak of international bodies like the UN.

In 2005, when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, Harold Pinter gave a courageous speech indicting the United States for its untold history of violence and war-crimes. In this critical vein, he offered a short speech for George Bush to read out, paraphrasing the main arguments of Bush’s rhetoric. The terrifying (but perhaps not surprising) part is that most of these arguments also appear to hold true for Obama’s regime. The speech of the US president, then as now, reads:

‘.. My God is good. Bin Laden’s God is bad. His is a bad God. Saddam’s God was bad, except he didn’t have one. He was a barbarian. We are not barbarians. We don’t chop people’s heads off. We believe in freedom. So does God. I am not a barbarian. I am the democratically elected leader of a freedom-loving democracy. We are a compassionate society. We give compassionate electrocution and compassionate lethal injection. We are a great nation. I am not a dictator. He is. I am not a barbarian. He is. And he is. They all are. I possess moral authority. You see this fist? This is my moral authority. And don’t you forget it.’

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