In the immediate aftermath of the recent Boston bombings, many commentators compared the crime scene to an IED explosion on the Iraq and Afghanistan frontiers. Those comparisons ceased as soon as the perpetrators were confirmed to be Islamic terrorists, a conscious effort by the establishment to retain the notion that America’s war on terror is winding down. Or it may have been part of a pernicious cognitive dissonance in American culture, one that refuses to acknowledge any link between the threat of Islamic terrorism domestically and U.S. foreign policy. The mainstream press may have revealed that the surviving bomber, Jawed Tsarnaev [sic], identified Iraq and Afghanistan as motivating factors but its commentary hardly made any connection to what has increasingly become an elephant in the room- a growing link between the reliance of U.S. drone strikes and the rise of Isalmic radicalization, both homegrown and abroad. It is time to acknowledge this connection and conversate about its long-term ramifications before it is too late.
Immortal Bostonian Robert Kennedy once remarked, amidst the debacle of Vietnam, that “tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.” The shadow overhanging America’s sustained war of terror, its blunders in Afghanistan and Iraq, represent similar tragedy. Like Vietnam, they damaged not only America’s military but the make-up of its domestic society and its international reputation. Unlike Vietnam, it seems these alterations may prove permanent. The Obama administration, in its efforts to reestablish global prominence, has used drone attacks as a primary means of fighting a more strategic, perpetual war. One aimed to move on from tragedy by altering the perception that the U.S. is an occupying force in the Muslim world. A special, covert war designed to accompany other indirect efforts that so too betray the very principles that facilitated the U.S.’s own rise to international prominence not so long ago.
Drone attacks kill large numbers of civilians. They stretch the confines of international law. They endanger a sense of security, first for those abroad where citizens reports, “drone attacks are always on my mind” and then in domestic society where retaliation is feared. They aid radicals in recruitment and are damaging America’s diplomatic leverage. These issues may have serious long-term consequences and hinder relations with a rapidly altering Muslim world. The short-term benefits are also not to be minimized. There is a very real threat to the U.S. homeland but pondering the potential costs of what has become Obama’s favorite weapon poses the prospect that future observers will hardly hold Obama’s legacy as a return to wisdom, but rather as an unwitting facilitation of the tragedy of perpetual war.
Honest reflections on U.S. foreign policy oftentimes induce an uncomfortable awareness of a coarse American hubris, something Peter Beinert classifies in his book on the subject as, “our false innocence and unearned pride.” The use of drones should hearken to a deeper hypocrisy associated with the unequal application of the principle of law, an exceptionalism that has plagued the American experience through its national conquest, slavery, and major international wars. Drone attacks are, in many ways, the epitome of this contradiction. A few weeks before the tragic attacks in Boston, a NATO airstrike mistakenly dropped a bomb in Afghanistan that killed 10 children and nearly 50 civilians. However, because the American public is particularly disinterested in coverage of that floundering war, the act went by barely mentioned. We know none of the victims names and few are even aware of its occurrence. While NATO troops were not deliberately targeting the civilians and while that does nothing to justify horrendous crimes of barbarity like the one committed in Boston, the distinction in coverage should be sufficient to initiate contemplation about the world we’re forging going forward.
Alongside that disregarded event in Afghanistan, a debate about the increasingly clandestine approach to war has escalated at home. Unfortunately, that debate has more to do with efforts to normalize the use of drones through a more transparent, legal framework and less to do with the consequences for foreign civilians or an acknowledgement of the unequal application of the rule of law. In a March 12, 2013 meeting between President Obama and Democratic Senators, Jay Rockefeller confronted the administration for refusing to share legal memos that outlined the legal justification for its drone campaign, including the assassination of American citizens. Only a week before that, three democratic senators protested the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director. Brennan, one of the drone program’s most ardent defenders, possesses the “playbook,” a classified initiative that seeks to permenately codify the present operating procedures of the “targeted killing” program. One of those democratic senators, Ron Wyden, would join Rand Paul’s 13-hour tirade demanding a promise that Obama would never use drones against Americans on U.S. soil.
The Boston attacks temporarily diverted public attention from Rand Paul’s filibuster, but senate hearings on April 22 revived the debate. In those hearings, Senator Dick Durbin, chairman of the Constitution subcommittee emphasized that, “there are long-term consequences, especially when the airstrikes kill innocent civilians; that’s why many in the national security community are concerned that we may be undermining our counterterrorism efforts if we do not carefully measure the benefits and costs of targeted killing.” Still, the preponderant view is that mere transparency is sufficient. As Senator Lindsey Graham described it, “if you want to talk about transparency, count me in.” Conversation about the drone program has also increased in the news and has become a hot topic on the internet.
The heightened public controversy started last spring, when Obama administration officials deliberately leaked information to the NY Times about Obama as “executioner in chief,” perusing “kill lists” on “Terror Tuesday’s” and in an effort to portray him as tough during the run-up to reelection. That was followed by Obama’s first explicit acknowledgement of the drone program’s existence. At the time the announcement went well. No conservatives criticisized the use of drones during the presidential campaign. The U.S. expanded its arenas of drone operation. The ACLU demanded evidence for the targeting of Anwar Awlaki, the American citizen killed in Yemen. Then a report from Stanford and NYU law schools found that 881 civilians – 175 of them children – had been killed. The public started to contemplate the consequences. Politicians followed. Massive protests over an anti-Muslim film, terrorism in Benghazi, Algeria and elsewhere, resentment of U.S. failure to intervene in Syria, malaise in the lands of the Arab Spring, frustration over Afghanistan and other events kept relations with the Muslim world in clear view. Now, 13 years after its inception, a debate about the drone program’s secrecy is advancing. Read the rest of this entry »