The Drone Presidency
David Cole has quite an interesting review in the NY Review of Books, from which the illustration above was taken:
Drone: Remote Control Warfare
by Hugh Gusterson
MIT Press, 199 pp., $24.95
The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program
by Jeremy Scahill and the staff of The Intercept
Simon and Schuster, 234 pp., $30.00
Drones and the Future of Armed Conflict: Ethical, Legal, and Strategic Implications
edited by David Cortright, Rachel Fairhurst, and Kristen Wall
University of Chicago Press, 295 pp., $45.00
Drone Wars: Transforming Conflict, Law, and Policy
edited by Peter L. Bergen and Daniel Rothenberg
Cambridge University Press, 478 pp., $34.99 (paper)
On March 5, the United States used unmanned drones and manned aircraft to drop bombs on a group of what it described as al-Shabab militants at a camp about 120 miles north of Mogadishu, Somalia, killing approximately 150 of them. The administration claimed that the militants presented an imminent threat to African Union troops in the region with whom US advisers have been working, although it produced no evidence to support the claim. The news that the United States had killed 150 unnamed individuals in a country halfway around the world with which it is not at war generated barely a ripple of attention, much less any protest, here at home. Remote killing outside of war zones, it seems, has become business as usual.
This is a remarkable development, all the more noteworthy in that it has emerged under Barack Obama, who came to office as an antiwar president, so much so that he may be the only person to win the Nobel Peace Prize based on wishful thinking. Our Peace Prize president has now been at war longer than any other American president, and has overseen the use of military force in seven countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. In the latter four countries, virtually all the force has come in the form of unmanned drones executing suspected terrorists said to be linked to al-Qaeda or its “associated forces.”
That an antiwar president has found the drone so tempting ought to be a warning sign. As Hugh Gusterson writes in Drone: Remote Control Warfare:
If targeted killing outside the law has been so attractive to a president who was a constitutional law professor, who opposed the war in Iraq from the very beginning, who ended the Central Intelligence Agency’s torture program, and who announced his intention to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp on assuming office, it is unlikely that any successor to his office will easily renounce the seductions of the drone.
And it is not only President Trump or Clinton we need to worry about. Other countries are unlikely to be reticent about resort to unmanned aerial warfare to “solve” problems beyond their borders. Already, Israel, the United Kingdom, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, and Pakistan have joined the US in deploying armed drones. China is selling them at a list price of only $1 million. In short order, most of the developed world will have them. And when other nations look for precedents, Obama’s record will be Exhibit A.
So what is Obama’s record? If it is to be a guide for future conduct, it is important to understand precisely what he has and has not asserted and done. And as Obama looks to the end of his tenure, the critical question is, what can and should he do now to mitigate the risks that a world armed with drones will become a place in which lethal force is a first rather than a last resort?
Some critics equate Obama’s drone record with the war crimes of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Glenn Greenwald, for example, charges in his afterword to The Assassination Complex that Obama’s drone policy “embodies the worst of what made the Bush-Cheney ‘war on terror’ approach so destructive.” Fordham Law School professor Karen Greenberg maintains, in the collection Drones and the Future of Armed Conflict, that Obama’s drone war “is but a refocused and incrementally more legally rationalized version of standards and assumptions that have persisted since the beginning of the War on Terror.”1
Greenwald summarizes Obama’s approach to drones as follows:
The centerpiece of his drone assassination program is that he, and he alone, has the power to target people, including American citizens, anywhere they are found in the world and order them executed on his unilateral command, based on his determination that the person to be killed is a terrorist.
If this were indeed Obama’s policy, the charges leveled by Greenwald and Greenberg and echoed by many other critics would be justified. But it is not accurate. First, Obama has not claimed the power to kill “terrorists,” but only those fighting on the other side in an armed conflict authorized by Congress against al-Qaeda and organizations allied with it. The power to kill the enemy in an armed conflict is as old as war itself.
Second, Obama has not asserted the power to use lethal force “anywhere…in the world,” but only in war zones—where drones are just another weapon—and, outside war zones, only where an enemy fighter poses an imminent threat that cannot otherwise be addressed, usually because the host country is incapable of capturing the fighter. When the host country is capable of arrest and prosecution, according to the administration, killing is not an option. Thus, under Obama, hundreds of persons suspected of engaging in or supporting terrorism have been arrested—in the US, the UK, and many other nations—and brought to trial for their alleged crimes. Obama has never claimed the authority to kill individuals who are outside a war zone and subject to capture.
Third, multiple sources, including Greenwald’s own website The Intercept, have reported that Obama hardly chooses targets on his own, but has set up an elaborate process that involves the review and input of many high-level military and government officials before any targeted killing is approved. Obama has insisted on taking ultimate responsibility, as he should, but it is hardly “he, and he alone,” who makes the decision.
It is also important to note that Obama’s policy and practice of using drones have evolved significantly over the course of his presidency. His initial years in office were marked by an aggressive expansion of the drone program. In Pakistan, for example, according to the New America Foundation, President Bush oversaw forty-eight drone strikes, killing between 377 and 558 people, whereas President Obama has overseen 355 strikes, killing between 1,907 and 3,067 people. But the number of drone strikes in Pakistan under Obama peaked at 122 in 2010, and has dropped every year since then. There were only ten strikes in Pakistan in 2015, and thus far only three in 2016. The number of strikes has also dropped in Yemen, from a high of forty-seven in 2012 to twenty-four in 2015 and nine thus far this year. In short, President Obama has shown significantly less proclivity to rely on drones in his second term than in his first.
Critics charge that drones have killed large numbers of innocent civilians. Here, too, the record is complicated. Drones have often killed innocents, including one strike that hit a wedding party in Yemen in 2013, killing twelve; and another, under President Bush, that hit a religious school in Pakistan in 2006, killing more than sixty children. For years, the US refused to acknowledge any of its drone strikes, and therefore offered no accounting of who was killed, combatant or civilian. Several independent organizations have sought to fill the void, although obtaining accurate information is extraordinarily challenging because of the secrecy surrounding strikes, the obstacles to reaching many of the targeted regions, the difficulty of piecing together evidence after explosions rip bodies apart, the fear of local residents about speaking to outsiders, and the propaganda interests of terrorist groups in exaggerating the number of civilians killed.
Nonetheless, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that as of May 24, 2016, between 493 and 1,168 civilians have been killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia combined. . .
Continue reading. There’s a lot more.