01 June 2013

The US Empire Drones On

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“Demonstrators stand near a mock drone at the gates of Fort McNair where President Barack Obama spoke at the National Defense University in Washington on Thursday.” “Demonstrators stand near a mock drone at the gates of Fort McNair where President Barack Obama spoke at the National Defense University in Washington on Thursday.” http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/DC-Decoder/2013/0524/Would-a-US-drone-court-to-authorize-drone-strikes-be-a-good-idea-video?nav=87-frontpage-entryLeadStory

For over a year now I’ve added to this file labeled “drones.” Yes, I’m distraught at the thought that the White House with the advice of intelligence agencies systematically kills people deemed “terrorists” with missiles fired by drones. Our president just made a policy speech on the issue this week and despite the good news that there will be better oversight by other branches of government (and his clarifying that this is no “war”), drones will continue to be the weapon of choice for fighting al-Qaeda and their ilk.

First, I’ll make some comments about drones and then widen the debate about “empire” itself.


Why Drones are a very bad idea

Here are four of some of the most salient reasons I’ve gleaned from my readings:

1. Targeted killings outside of war: this is the legality issue. With 52 strikes in Pakistan under the Bush Administration and over 280 during Obama’s tenure, scant attention was ever given to established rules of international law. War has to be declared, and then very specific standards apply for lethal engagement. Afghanistan is the only country out of four where drones are being used that is officially at war. That said, most of the strikes have been in Pakistan, with others in Somalia and Yemen. Worse yet, there have been many “double tap” strikes – strike once and when people come to rescue the wounded, another missile goes off. This only multiplies the number of civilian casualties, a point to be made later.

In September 2012 Ben Emmerson, the UN’s special rapporteur on counter-terrorism, announced in a speech at Harvard University that the UN would set up an investigations unit in Geneva to gather more facts about these secretive operations and determine their legality. Emmerson said,

The global war paradigm has done immense damage to a previously shared international consensus on the legal framework underlying both international human rights law and international humanitarian law. It has also given a spurious justification to a range of serious human rights and humanitarian law violations.”

The most extensive study of this issue was jointly made by Stanford University and the State University of New York. It demolished the prevailing narrative of surgically precise strikes with minimal collateral damage. You can read all the details on their dedicated site (sorry, no longer available; great stats here). Here’s an excerpt from the Executive Summary:

“Following nine months of intensive research—including two investigations in Pakistan, more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting—this report presents evidence of the damaging and counterproductive effects of current US drone strike policies. Based on extensive interviews with Pakistanis living in the regions directly affected, as well as humanitarian and medical workers, this report provides new and firsthand testimony about the negative impacts US policies are having on the civilians living under drones.”

2. Civilian deaths and terrorized populations: the Stanford/NYU study claims that “there is significant evidence that drone strikes have injured and killed civilians”:

“The best currently available public aggregate data on drone strikes are provided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization. TBIJ reports  that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.”

That of course has been a reoccurring complaint and source of great anger in Afghanistan as well. But think of the populations, like in northwest Pakistan, where most of these attacks have taken place. Recall in your mind the panic and terror of New York residents in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and multiply that several times. This is a bit long, but it’s essential for us to try and put ourselves in these people’s situation:

“Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behavior. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators. Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school. Waziris told our researchers that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals. In addition, families who lost loved ones or their homes in drone strikes now struggle to support themselves.”

See also the chilling interviews in an article published by The Atlantic.

3. Their effectiveness in keeping the US safe is seriously in doubt: for one, the percentage of terrorist operatives killed in these strikes in relation to total casualties is around 2%. But too, drones have proven to be a recruiting boon for al-Qaeda and associates. Undoubtedly this was one of the reasons that led President Obama to announce a new drone program with more oversight and transparency .

4. Such flouting of international law could set a dangerous precedent: this is how the Stanford/NYU study put it:

“US practices may also facilitate recourse to lethal force around the globe by establishing dangerous precedents for other governments. As drone manufacturers and officials successfully reduce export control barriers, and as more countries develop lethal drone technologies, these risks increase.”

China and Japan are already jostling for position in an ominous “drone race” in their conflict over the Diaoyu (Chinese) or Senkaku (Japanese) islands. The new conservative (and bellicose) administration of Shinzo Abe in Japan is ratcheting up military spending and is acquiring US drones. Meanwhile, China’s defense budget has skyrocketed – over 600% from 2002 to 2011 and it is now developing its own drones. According to The Guardian, “A 2012 report by the Pentagon acknowledged long-standing rumours that China was developing a new generation of stealth drones, called Anjian, or Dark Sword, whose capabilities could surpass those of the US's fleet.”

If that isn’t alarming enough, you can peer into the future of warfare, when robots will definitely rule. A BBC article  quotes Brookings Institute warfare specialist Peter W. Singer. For him, the arrival of drones, or “robot warriors,” “raises profound questions”:

“Every so often in history, you get a technology that comes along that's a game changer. They're things like gunpowder, they're things like the machine gun, the atomic bomb, the computer – and robotics is one of those. When we say it can be a game changer, it means that it affects everything from the tactics that people use on the ground, to the doctrine, how we organise our forces, to bigger questions of politics, law, ethics, when and where we go to war."

These “profound questions” are also about the wider context of the US deployment of drones in the “war against terror.” President Jimmy Carter wrote a candid and courageous OpEd in the New York Times a year ago, “A Cruel and Unusual Record.” The opening salvo is his thesis: “The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights.” Targeted killings – and especially of US citizens, indefinite detaining of suspects in places like Guantánamo Bay, torture, warrantless wiretapping and government surveillance of its citizens – these are some of the human rights abuses Carter notes that have come on the heels of 9/11. He adds,

“At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.”


Musings about a waning empire

A columnist for the British daily The Independent, Owen Jones, waxed eloquent about the world’s “last remaining superpower now at its weakest since World War II” (the war, I might add, that sealed the fate of the moribund British empire):

“Coupled with the US's ongoing failure to pressure Israel into accepting a just peace with the Palestinians, no wonder there is rising global anger at Obama. But of course, the issue isn't Obama, any more than it was Bush before him. The issue is US power. But despite its best efforts – and as menacing as it can be for Pakistani villagers and Bahraini democrats – its power is in decline. The US share of global economic output was nearly a quarter in 1991; today, it represents less than a fifth. The financial crash has accelerated the ongoing drain in US economic power to the East. Latin America, regarded as the US's backyard since the 1823 Monroe Doctrine claimed it for the US sphere of influence, is now dominated by governments demanding a break from the free-market Washington Consensus. And the Iraq war not only undermined US military prestige and invincibility, it perversely boosted Iran's power in the Middle East.”

I’ll close with a startling book review by a young and fiery Christian scholar, Eugene McCarraher, whose book, The Enchantments of Mammon: Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination, will soon come out. Amazingly, several phrases of his review appear on the cover of the journal in which it is published, Books & Culture (May/June 2013 issue), an evangelical publication. McCarraher is here commenting on a widely acclaimed book, David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011).

Just a quick parenthesis on Graeber … He was an assistant professor in the Anthropology Department at Yale, widely popular with students and with a string of publications in his field. In 2005 he was told his contract would not be renewed – most likely for political reasons. For one thing, he wrote about anthropology as an anarchist. Also, he’s a veteran of the antiglobalization movement and more recently the scholarly voice of the Occupy Wall Street Movement internationally (see this article for more details).

Back to our associate professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University, Eugene McCarraher, whose work closely parallels that of Graeber’s. They both see capitalism as an insidious tool in the hands of the bourgeoisie (the “Plutocracy”), a tool that in the case of America has also enabled it to extend and bolster its far-reaching empire. That is the point of my own “Resources” entry on this site, "The Dark Side of Empire."

In this blog dealing with the drone war, I have emphasized the violent nature of the American empire. Here I end with a sobering reminder, not just that empires wax and wane – that’s been a staple of human history – but that our religious leaders are either eerily silent about its moral abuses or enthusiastically cheering them on. I think President Carter (still teaching Sunday School, I believe) would agree with much of this stinging indictment of the church’s endorsement of “the Chrapitalist gospel”:

“Don’t expect any breadth or grandeur from the Empire’s Christian divines. Across the board, the imperial chaplains exhibit the most obsequious deference to the Plutocracy, providing imprimaturs and singing hallelujahs for the civil religion of Chrapitalism: the lucrative merger of Christianity and capitalism, America’s most enduring covenant theology. It’s the core of ‘American exceptionalism.’the sanctimonious and blood-splattered myth of providential anointment for global dominion. In the Chrapitalist gospel, the rich young man goes away richer, for God and Mammon have pooled their capital, formed a bi-theistic investment group, and laundered the money in baptismal founts before parking it in offshore accounts. Chrapitalism has been America’s distinctive and gilded contribution to religion and theology, a delusion that beloved community can be built on the foundations of capitalist property. As the American Empire wanes, so will its established religion; the erosion of Chrapitalism will generate a moral and spiritual maelstrom.”

Certainly, this is not the Jesus I know. Human Trustees as a project is a vision of Jesus calling all peoples to love God and love their neighbors – and in so doing, care for the earth and all its creatures entrusted to them. That also means promoting peace and conflict resolution wherever possible. There’s got to be a better way than killer drones.