From a Distance
War is war and murder is murder. The law draws the distinction. The American armed drone is a weapons system of war, not of policemen. And even if it were a police weapon (as it may, one fears, become in the future), the United States Department of Defense and the CIA are not police forces, nor has the United States a commission to police the world of its radicals, jihadists, and religious fanatics, although for too many years it has acted as if it did.
Nor is the United States constitutionally at war. President George W. Bush declared war on "terror" after the 9/11 attacks, which is legally meaningless, and the U.S. Congress responded with a joint resolution authorizing the president to use all necessary and appropriate force against those responsible for the attacks. That still was not a declaration of war, but it was interpreted by the U.S. government, the U.N. Security Council, NATO, and most major nations to represent a legally legitimate position of self-defense -- which it obviously was not, although it was a matter of legitimate retaliation.
However, the people currently being killed by the United States' armed drones had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, even if they undoubtedly approved, or now approve, of those attacks, considering them legitimate acts of Arab retaliation against American complicity in Israel's military annexation and occupation of territories legally belonging to Palestinians, Washington's enforcement of devastating civilian sanctions on Iraq, and the continuing presence of U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia, in proximity to Muslim sacred sites.
Therefore, it is reasonable and necessary to say that the drone attacks are the continuation of an undefined state of conflict between the U.S. government and Muslim individuals and groups hostile to the United States and to some of its Arab allies, and who aim mainly to establish radical Muslim religious governments in various Islamic states. However, since 2001, none of these groups has managed to succeed in committing acts of war against the United States, although groups have plotted attacks that failed or were thwarted. What the Islamists do with and to their own countries is their affair.
But it is nonsense to treat these and the other bands of self-appointed jihadists, Muslim Brotherhood activists, national insurgents, veteran Fedayeen, and sometime-professional kidnappers and pirates as if they were waging Professor Huntington's famous war of civilization against the United States and its allies, with a view to ruling the world.
The vast majority of America's Muslim enemies throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Southern Asia are fighting because the United States is there. It is not the other way around. Osama bin Laden conceived the 9/11 attacks because U.S. military forces were occupying his country, and this in his mind was an affront to his religion. The best way, and indeed the only way, to call off this so-called titanic collision of civilizations would be for the United States to call off the war with the Muslims. Only America can do this.
Anatol Lieven has a splendid and thoroughly knowledgeable article in the April 4 issue of the New York Review of Books, on the politics of disengaging from the war in Afghanistan. He concludes that it would be dishonorable and unreasonable for the United States "to walk away from all this with the declaration that it is 'a matter for the Afghans themselves.'"
It would be, but after all that has passed, I cannot believe that the present government and Congress of the United States is capable of rescuing an honorable settlement to this war, especially as both Congress and the president seem to remain persuaded that the war's formal end should nonetheless see a contingent of U.S. troops left behind after their scheduled departure at the end of 2014. The advocates of staying on say, "Look at Iraq today." Indeed, but if the United States had left a force behind to "stabilize" Iraq, would this have succeeded? I feel certain that this would have merely prolonged the war's horror.
The drones are evidence that the United States is incapable of disengaging from wars that have left ruin in their wake, poisoned Islamic relations with much of the Western world, and, with the torture, humiliation, and perpetual and illegal imprisonment of its enemies—in defiance of the norms of civilized behavior—destroyed America's "honor" and the decent respect of mankind it once enjoyed.
Is Washington ready now to end its war in the Middle East—its war with the Islamic Middle East and South Asia? Of course not. Now we have the drones executing mass destruction on the family and tribal scale, in the worst American military tradition, established in Vietnam and Iraq, of anonymous murder from a safe distance, in this case from the White House itself. Who talks about legality, morality—or dishonor?
(c) 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
About the Author
William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).