From a Distance

Drones & Anonymous Murder

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.


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Drones?  I bet General Pershing and Colonel Douglas MacArthur and the entire USA would have preferred using drones instead of horseback to go after  Pancho Villa when he invaded New Mexico and fled to Mexico.

It's good to see Commonweal step outside of its typical partisan lockstep and recognize the drone strikes for what they are:  evil, regardless of party.  Although I note that nowhere is it even mentioned that it is the Obama administration is the one behind these attacks, and the one that has been putting forth such abhorently vague defenses of it.  Baby steps I guess.

I do, though, think that it is naive to suggest that withdrawing from these countries is going to solve the problem.  The animosity - which if we are to be honest, is both earned and unearned - is very deeply rooted in a lot of these places.  The animosity is now capable of perpetuating itself to a large degree.  And simply leaving means abandoning the legitimate purposes that we might have there.  We may not be the world's police, but we are our brothers' keeper.  Withdrawing may be part of the solution, but it isn't the solution alone.

And Ed Gleason, the problem with drones is not so much the drones themselves.  (Although there are some troubling aspects to that approach to warfare.)  The problem is the way the drones are being used.

It seems appropriate to ponder the categorical assurance of this article; does it reflect the geopolitical reality of the 21st Century?

Let me start by saying I'm one who disagreed with the Bush invasion of Iraq from the outset - it was 19th Century self-serving adventurism from the get go and we must contend with the reality that by polls at least some 93% of the electorate agreed with the action. So I take as given that blood lust in aggrevied nations remains as real as ever.

What is different in 2013 is the fact that with a fully occupied planet, wars of aggression and their rebuttal will increasingly become lose-lose propositions. That does not mean they might not happen in the future, but since Viet Nam we've had the evidence that for the global power (e.g. the US) the probability of a clear cut victory is nil.

Let me suggest that absent the potential for a clear cut victory War as we've known it is a thing of the past. What happened on 9/11 was evil and as a matter of justice to the victims, the perpetrators deserved to be hunted down and dealth with most severely.

It seems to require an insensible leap of mindless generosity to imagine that those who are unhappy with US Middle East policy deserve the first strike option, or even to impose a reign of verbal terror on ordinary publics in any country. The same applies to mindless spokesmen for the gun lobby.

But the context of such outbursts do differ; the rule of law exists to degrees of varying imperfection around the planet and in any case the safeguards in these systems favor the masses - where they exist. There are no masses of civilization in Tora Bora.

Islamic militants in the wilds of desert nations who make it their profession to plot revenge against people they don't even know is at once mindless and lawless. It is the type of casual disregard that one sees evidence of on Wall Street as well - piracy is the proper category for naming it.

Pirates have always put themselves outside all law but their code of tribute by way of terror. There will always be such behavior; dealing with it swiftly and surely is difficult to argue with in the eyes of most reasonable and fair people - a constraint on the imposition of collateral damage seems just in the abstract but difficult to achieve in every circumstance.

No argument has been presented for why children or the aged or any other person should be asked to spot the announced terrorists a "lead" by way of a first strike option. The innocent in such skirmishes are typically the recipient of many injustices that fair people would like to see remediated.

Extra-diplomatic methods of exorcising the pirates is a necessity because they don't want to observe any agreed upon rules of engagement - every day 10's of persons are killed wantonly by a suicide bomber somewhere in the Middle East - there is no reasoning with such - rules of War are meaningless.

The issue here is NOT drones, but the Global War on Terror, the Long War.  What is the difference between a drone (or RPA) and a cruise missile?  What is the difference between a cruise missile and an F-16 with two 500 pound bombs?  What is the difference between the F-16 and a Special Operations team?  The outcome will probably be pretty close in each case.

The issue is, how far should the Global War on Terror extend?  That Abdulah Smyth-Wipple, of Braintree, Mass, is seriously injured or dies while putting up blog posts to recruit fellow Americans as terrorists, from the sanctuary of some al Qaeda hideout overseas, is the question, not the drone that carried the missile fired into the hideout.

They key question is when and where should we have cauterized the Global War on Terrorism?  Or, should it still be ongoing?

The drone issue of importance to us is the question of how drones will be used domestically.  Given that Customs and Border Patrol uses drones today, what are the limits on their employment?  Will someone in DOJ or DHS try to migrate over to domestic issues legal justifications and the Rules of Engagement from the Department of Defense?

Drones are not evil, but those directing the wars they are being used in might be characterised that way.  But not by me.  While I think it is time to wind up Afghanistan, I don't believe we should abandon that nation a second time.  It is time for the Department of State and USAID to step up.  As for al Qaeda and associates elsewhere, to the extent they are acting like New Pirates, as noted above, we should cooperate with others in dealing with them, but within the sovereignty of other nations.

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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).