For some time now, military advisors to President Trump have been floating the idea that the exportation of military drones should be stepped up in order to keep the United States “in the game”, so to speak. Obviously, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are part of a growth industry, with drones of all shapes and sizes being produced and sold to people all over the world.
Under Obama, lethal drone exports were strictly limited in accordance with what is perhaps best characterized as a policy of American Exceptionalism: Do as we say, not as we do. The technology has been spreading nonetheless all over the globe, with both China and Israel as major players ready and willing to furnish drones to countries not on Obama’s very short list of trustworthy customers. The Obama administration approach was to operate with a presumption against the exportation of lethal drones, but governments seeking this technology no longer need the United States to acquire it. To suppose that lethal drones would not eventually be hovering all over the globe, with or without the blessing of the executive branch of the US government, was shortsighted, to put it mildly. The dangerous precedent was set by the US government itself for the use of drones in wars on “battlefields” paradoxically “outside areas of active hostilities”, and now we can expect to see the true globalization of remote-control killing, across all borders, as lethal creep seeps into the protocol of governments large and small, democratic and monarchic alike.
One of the figures promoting the expansion of drone exports has been, predictably, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who, like so many other influential advisors to the president, has financial incentives for seeing to it that this facet of US military industry flourish. Initial indications suggest that the exports will be primarily of surveillance, not weaponized drones, but it is the very nature of a drone to be modular, so lethal delivery systems can be snapped on facilely by the customer. Needless to say, there will be no way to control how these machines are deployed by the end user, and at some point, the thin edge of the wedge will become the thickest, with untrammeled exports of fully weaponized drones as the norm–the argument being, again, that “if we don’t provide the lethal add-on, some other country will.” No one sells guns without ammunition and it seems predictable that drones will be regularly produced and shipped prêt-à-tuer in the not-too-distant future, given that the weaponized drone has already been successfully marketed as a tool of “smart war” in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
Former US president Barack Obama and former UK prime minister David Cameron intentionally and premeditatedly hunted down and killed their own compatriots in acts of summary execution without indictment, much less trial. What reason can there be for believing that other political leaders will not also follow suit? If two of the most stable democratic governments on the planet have opted to substitute assassination for judicial process, why would the leaders of nondemocratic nations not take this as a license to kill anyone whom they perceive to be threats?
People who see lethal drones as a growth industry are right: the market potential has only just begun. Who knew that Western democracies would revert to pre-Magna Carta times in their desperation to stem the tide of terrorism? That the use of this tactic, the summary execution without trial of suspects, along with whoever happens to be at their side, has failed spectacularly is evidenced by the very fact that the Global War on Terror (GWOT) continues to expand as terrorists proliferate and move to new places, sometimes seeking refuge in the West–which is of course the safest place for them to hide out at this point in history. Certainly jihadists concerned to retaliate to lethal drones hovering above their own neighborhoods in homelands in the Middle East have prudential reasons to pitch a tent somewhere else.
The move to increase drone exports undoubtedly appeals to Trump, not because he himself is in cahoots with the lethal drone industry (at least not to my knowledge), but because he proudly proclaims that his primary mission is to Make America Great Again. Being first and foremost a businessman, Trump naturally measures “greatness” in economic terms. This explains why he has been exporting military weapons and technologies in a dizzying flurry all over the world, especially to the Middle East, but also to Southeast Asia. President Obama had set new records for military exports to Saudi Arabia but Trump, never to be outshined by Obama, has taken weapons exports to a whole new level.
It is possible that Trump’s unabashed quest to out-do Obama on all fronts is a motivating factor in his increased use of lethal drones, the proliferation of hunt and kill missions, and also the decision to ramp up all military exports, including drones. I am inclined, however, to interpret all of this as following from Trump’s monolithic desire to make America economically great again. The more of these “tools” which are expended, whether in military missions abroad or in exports to other governments, the more there will be a perceived need to produce even more of them, using American capital and American labor. Greater production of weapons by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and the many other American firms whose wealth derives from the sale of implements of mass homicide will mean more profits. It seems safe to say that Trump does care more about the nation’s economic well-being than the fact that the number one US export has become, sad to say: death. But Trump’s heartfelt desire to revive the US steel industry and, ultimately the US economy, is merely aided by his massive increases in weapons exports. The end justifies the means. Let the missiles fall where they may.
The way was paved for Trump’s increase in military drone exports by the resplendent success on the part of the previous administration in normalizing assassination and, remarkably, convincing people to believe that drone operators may in fact commit what would obviously be war crimes, if perpetrated by uniformed soldiers on the ground. For drones are used to kill suspects without providing them with the opportunity to surrender, even when they are unarmed and not threatening anyone with death, least of all the drone operator incinerating the target. As much as Trump detractors would like to blame the current president for the marked increase in drone-perpetrated carnage to come, the formidable feat of normalizing assassination was accomplished not by Donald Trump, but by Barack Obama. This was a landmark, paradigm-shifting, even revolutionary, rebranding of assassination as targeted killing, said to constitute perfectly legitimate warfare.
No one should be surprised that, like US politicians, foreign leaders find lethal drone technology to be highly seductive. Targeted killing has proven easy to sell. More and more leaders will likely follow the US example, by insisting that lethal drones save the lives of compatriots, and obviate the need to sacrifice soldiers. But unscrupulous politicians and the leaders of nations where democracy has yet to take hold can use the very same rationalizations for killing suspects as did their mentors: political dissidents will be denounced as intrinsically evil terrorists and therefore fair game for summary execution.
The myopia of the Obama administration in normalizing assassination without thinking through what were sure to be the ultimate consequences of insisting that the executive branch of a government has the right, in national self-defense, to execute suspects where and when it pleases, will emerge clearly in the years to come. For now, it seems safe to say that “strike first, suppress questions later” will characterize the approach to dissidents by more and more political leaders, all over the globe, thanks to the nearly boundless potential for profits in the death industry. The use of lethal drones to assassinate suspects will be limited only by the imaginations of politicians as they decide, behind closed doors, who does and who does not deserve to be extinguished by remote control.