Libya was bombed by the US government yesterday, but you wouldn’t know it because the media have been obsessed with the #TakeAKnee dispute between the president and the NFL. Trump may not even be aware that Libya was bombed under his authority, because he has put his trusty “Mad Dog” on a very long leash, in the hopes that he’ll be able to figure out how to clean up the mess in the Middle East.
I’ve picked on General James “Helluva Hoot to Shoot Some People” Mattis before, pointing out, among other things, the fact that he’s part of the revolving door of military officers and war profiteers. Was the Fallujah siege of 2004 a splendid show of US military prowess? I beg to differ. Perhaps it was for his moniker alone that General Mattis was called out of semi-retirement by Trump to serve as the Secretary of Defense. But rather than revisit my particular concerns about Mattis’ ability to solve the crises in the Middle East—or elsewhere—given the demonstrated failures of the US military since 2001, while he was running large parts of the show, I’d like to consider a more general question:
Should generals be diplomats?
Retired General Colin Powell was appointed US Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, and you may recall his colorful powerpoint presentation before the UN General Assembly in the run-up to the 2003 war on Iraq—yellow cake, aluminium tubes, mobile chemical laboratories (think: Breaking Bad). Powell did not convince very many of his colleagues at the UN that Iraq needed to be invaded in order to thwart Saddam Hussein’s allegedly imminent transfer of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) to Al Qaeda, but the US government went to war anyway. Why? Because the Bush administration wanted to, and UK Prime Minister Tony “Poodle” Blair had pledged that he was “absolutely” with Bush, “no matter what”. (See the Chilcot Report and its implications.) Even more important than having a tiny “coalition of the willing” was the congressional conferral on Bush of the 2002 AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force), giving him the liberty to wage war on Iraq as he saw fit and at a time of his choosing. The rest is history.
The Middle East is in shambles, and the same pundits and so-called foreign policy experts (including MIC revolving door retired military officers) are regularly trotted out to opine about the latest international crises: in Syria, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and of course the never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. How did Libya become a part of the War on Terror? That was Obama’s idea or, rather, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s. She and a few others managed to persuade Obama that “Gaddafi must go.” Obviously, Hillary Clinton is not a general, so I am not going to focus on her specific reasons for wanting to repeat, in Libya, the mistake she made in supporting the overthrow of the government of Iraq. As a matter of fact, Clinton has characterized the 2011 Libya intervention as an example of “smart power at its best”. Of course, she also believes that she lost the 2016 election because of misogyny and the Russians (not sure where antiwar voters fit in there), and (assuming she really wrote What Happened) that the point of Orwell’s 1984 was to bolster our trust in “leaders, the press, experts”. May HRC eventually retire from public life in peace.
People have wondered why the United States was at war for every single day of the eight years of Obama’s presidency. Some were disillusioned by Obama’s hawkish foreign policy and decision to normalize assassination, even of US citizens, using unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) or lethal drones. Others were naturally elated, and the antiwar voters whose support Obama had lost by 2012 were more than made up for by the gain in people impressed by the fact that he had hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden.
Trump, too, sounded to some voters like the least bellicose of the two viable presidential candidates, once the DNC had completed their coronation of Clinton. He railed against interventionism, nation building, and fighting wars abroad when our own infrastructure is crumbling. Sound familiar? Bush and Obama did more or less the same. No nationbuilding! the candidates cried. US Marines do not walk children to school!
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred under Bush’s watch, and his subsequent policies appear to have been largely crafted by Vice President Cheney, former CEO of military contract behemoth Halliburton, along with a contingent of chomping-at-the-bit neocons, who had been scheming about invading various countries in the Middle East for years. Obama and Trump seemed, refreshingly to antiwar voters, not to be swamp denizens but outsiders, who would not fall prey to the Deep State war-making apparatus. So what happened?
Trump, even more so than Obama before him, has depended upon the expert opinions of military personnel in deciding what to do next. Surprise: decorated generals tend to think that more military resources should be poured into the Middle East and the war machine should be expanded to new, uncharted territories as well. That’s because, in the infamous words of George W. Bush: “Our best defense is a good offense.” (National Security Strategy of the United States of America 2002).
It would be difficult for anyone seriously to deny that military experts have been trained primarily to do one thing: destroy things, including people. The most ambitious of the lot rise in the ranks through obedience to their superior officers and their readiness and willingness to carry out deadly missions. Which is not to say that military officers do not also sometimes exhibit courage, early in their careers, before having been deemed important enough to watch war on a big screen far from the bloody fray.
Now imagine that you were a general called upon to advise Obama or Trump about what to do in Afghanistan or Iraq. Because you’re an ambition-driven human being, you’re probably not going to deny that those wars can be won. You’re highly unlikely to apologize for your abject failure to craft a winning strategy over the course of the past fifteen years. Instead, you’ll ask for more and better tools so that you can, at last, get the job done, which no one else, including you, were able to before. The excuse for your prior failure, then, becomes that you did not have enough missiles, planes, drones; or else your hands were tied, making it impossible for you to achieve victory because the president was too involved in short-leash micromanagement and had no idea what the battlefield is like. Or something along those lines.
The point of the military corps is to serve the foreign policy aims of the executive, but when the military is given a say in, or even allowed to determine, what those aims should be, then we should expect to see more death and destruction, not less. So there you have it: the explanation of why the US military budget was recently increased by $80 billion, bringing the total to $700 billion. After consulting closely with military experts, Trump asked for the increase, and Congress gave it to him, despite the fact that Democrats continue to claim that they are part of some sort of anti-Trump Resistance movement.
You might nonetheless suppose that the executive will still be constrained by the legislative branch, given the US Constitution. You would be wrong, as the Congress has left the crusty and arguably misinterpreted 2001 AUMF in place, forsaking yet again its responsibility, right, and duty to decide when and where the United States should go to war. (NB: if the 2001 AUMF had been sufficient to permit the president to bomb anywhere on the planet, then there would have been no need for the 2002 AUMF. QED)
Viewed from the outside, this massive increase in the US military budget looks like the biggest con job in history. The Pentagon, which incidentally has “lost track” of trillions of dollars, is never held accountable, and has done nothing but sow chaos throughout the Middle East, disrupting the lives of millions of persons by killing, maiming, and traumatizing them, in addition to directly causing a massive refugee crisis. Induction on Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Syria might lead a rational person to be wary about following the advice of military experts in crafting appropriate responses to tensions with Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Syria (Trump, like Obama before him, cannot seem to decide whether the enemy is ISIS or Assad!), possibly Russia, and who knows where the next hot bed of conflict requiring US intervention will be found! Yet Congress has been persuaded to believe, because its members believe that voters have been persuaded to believe, that not only does the US military deserve their support, but it should be given even more money than before.
The ultimate problem here is a colossal failure of strategic intelligence. Stated starkly: homicide is not a strategy but a tactic. Foreign policy involves resolving conflicts with other members of the international community. Your nation is said to have a problem with another nation, so you can talk it out with the source of the problem, attempt to craft some sort of compromise solution, or explain to other members of the international community why you are right and they are wrong, in the hope that those nations will be able to exert some helpful influence in resolving the dispute. The military is called in when all of that sort of work, formerly known as “diplomacy”, has failed. Unfortunately, the US foreign policy of the twenty-first century has become more and more lethal because civil servants continue to depend upon military experts (again, often with ties to military industry) for advice on how to proceed. But this is not purely a matter of mercenary corruption, though that does play a role. The military mindset is itself geared toward achieving victory, not to retreat or compromise, which can be perceived of, and is often painted as weak.
The approach since September 11, 2001, has been to attempt to erase the problem of factional terrorism, to raze from the face of the earth the evil terrorists, wherever they may be. There has been no motivation for anyone in the administration to take seriously questions of etiology because they know that they can use their trusty drone killing machine in even the remotest corners of the world to incinerate the alleged enemy, wherever he may be said to hide. Advocates of drone killing retort, of course, that radical jihadists are beyond the reach of reason, but that has been intoned reflexively of every enemy against whom missiles have ever been deployed.
In truth, a number of suicide and would-be suicide bombers have quite lucidly articulated the source of their outrage: it is US foreign policy itself, what from the receiving end of missiles looks just like a vicious war on Muslim people. Ask yourself sincerely: What would a vicious war on Muslim people look like? Now take a look at the Middle East. The answer to the question “Why do they hate us?” could not be clearer to anyone who has paid any attention to US foreign policy in recent decades. But so long as the words of jihadists themselves are ignored, and slogans such as “They hate us for our freedom” are mindlessly parroted as the explanation for what they do, the killing machine will continue on in high gear. When the killing machine fails to eradicate the problem, then the constraints will be loosened, as under Trump, generating even more “collateral damage”, which will be used to recruit more and more jihadists to the cause, thereby keeping the killing machine in perpetual motion.
No one being killed by US missiles today had a hand in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Some of the younger and younger jihadist recruits being eliminated have lived in countries under continuous bombing for as long as they can remember. Lots of other people have died as well. In 2011, Obama killed Anwar al-Awlaki’s sixteen-year-old son, Abdulrahman; in 2017, Trump killed Anwar al-Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter—both were in Yemen. Surely the solution to the turmoil in the Middle East is not the annihilation of every Arabic-speaking person of color born abroad. All of them do have the potential to become terrorists one day, but none of them were born that way.
Even former directors of the CIA have acknowledged that “You cannot kill your way out of this.” (Unfortunately persons in positions of power tend not to arrive at such enlightened views until after they retire.) And yet that is the logical endpoint of an approach whose only real goal has been to eliminate potential threats to the US homeland. Kill them all before they have the chance to make it to US shores! It’s an offensive policy, in both senses of the word, for it values the lives of people in the United States above all other human lives. Now that the lethal scepter has been handed off to Trump, he has not changed anything so much as made patent what US foreign policy has been about all along. Make America Great Again! Even if it involves eliminating everyone else on the planet.
I doubt that anyone would or could have predicted it a century ago, but today the US government has a generously funded program for hunting down and killing human beings. The program’s aim is not to stop aggressors in their tracks, to trap or apprehend them and thereby prevent them from causing harm to others. No, the aim is to annihilate these people on the spot before they have the chance to act on ideas in their mind, to hatch what teams of analysts believe may be evil schemes.
The personnel who identify targets for obliteration do this by looking at signals intelligence (SIGINT), video footage taken from drones and metadata from cellphone and SIM card use. When there are assets in the vicinity of the prospective targets, SIGINT is sometimes supplemented by human intelligence, or HUMINT, information provided by bribed informants on the ground. Using a variety of algorithms and heuristics such as “disposition matrices” of typical terrorist behaviors, lists are drawn up of people to be eliminated by lethal drones.
This is a remarkable development in the history of humanity, not because the intentional, premeditated killing of human beings with the aim of annihilation is somehow new—that’s just the definition of murder, after all. Nor is political murder somehow unique or new to the Drone Age—it is not. The targeted killing of thousands of human beings who did not pose a threat to their killers nor to any other person when they were destroyed is surprising because the practice is being championed by a government which claims to defend human rights.
It is in some ways even more shocking that so few people appear to be shocked—or even mildly bothered—by the fact that their tax dollars are being used to stalk, hunt down, and kill persons for reasons as vague as that they appear to be associated with radical Islamist groups.
The US government’s “Summary of Information Regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes Outside Areas of Active Hostilities,” released on July 1, 2016, openly admits to killing thousands of these persons located “outside areas of active hostilities”, which is to say, nowhere near US troops. They are said to pose “imminent” threats, where “imminent” no longer implies “immediate” (see the Department of Justice White Paper of June 2010), but rather connotes a type of potential future threat which may materialize, if the person is permitted to continue to live.
When missiles are fired on these places, which are usually remote and difficult to access territories inhabited by tribal groups, they suddenly become “battlefields”—well, sort of. The reason why the CIA runs the drone program in countries not under occupation is because they are protected by the covert status of the operations and have no obligation to explain much of anything to anyone, as is well illustrated by the recently released report.
At the same time, the only way the killers can excuse as “collateral damage” the deaths of innocent people who perish during missions intended to kill “bad guys” is to redefine “outside areas of active hostilities” to mean “war zones”. This is flatly a contradiction. A place cannot both be and not be a war zone at the same time. As though to insulate the killers from logic mongers and critics more generally, the report claims that only a tiny proportion of the civilian casualties found by independent sources—human rights groups, activists, investigative journalists—were in fact civilians. The explanation is supposed to be that these well-meaning advocacy groups have all been taken in by terrorist group propaganda. No matter that many of the victims have been named—the US government stands firm in denying that most of those civilians were in fact civilians.
One reason for the large difference in the numbers appears to be the ongoing categorization of military-age males in targeted areas as “Enemy Killed in Action” or EKIA, which was revealed in classified government documents made public by the Intercept. There is a footnote near the opening of the July 2016 report denying this to be the case, but the assumption underlying the government’s ongoing use of “signature strikes”, that is, the targeting of persons of unknown identity, would provide the best explanation for the fact that so few civilian casualties are acknowledged by those running the US drone program.
Without being provided with a list of the names of the civilians destroyed, it is impossible to know whether, for example, Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, who was killed two weeks after his father (Anwar Al-Awlaki), was considered a “combatant” or not. The younger Al-Awlaki was killed with a group of friends, who, if admitted to be civilians would have used up a fair proportion of the estimated range of from 64 to 116 noncombatant casualties during the period from January 20, 2009, to December 31, 2015. The Al-Awlakis were killed in 2011.
In any case, the disturbing conflation of “insurgents” and “dissidents” with “terrorists” persists, as though there were not a world of difference between a rifle-bearing tribesman with the potential to rise up against his central government authority and someone like Osama bin Laden, whose aspirations were clearly international. But these subtleties are brushed aside as so much nitpicking, with all “evil-seeming people”—generally dark-skinned, able-bodied Muslim males—lumped into the same category of “enemy combatants” to be eliminated from the face of earth before they have the chance to harm somebody in the United States.
The likelihood that any of Obama’s victims would ever have made it to US shores seems miniscule. Instead, persons already located in the West who sympathize with Obama’s victims—in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, Orlando—are far more likely to perpetrate revenge attacks against what they rightly regard as the US government’s “vicious, calculated, and despicable” campaign of murder.
The more such terrorist attacks are undertaken in response to the US government’s revved-up killing machine, the more lethal drone advocates claim that we need to kill even more. No need to win over “hearts and minds” when each new No 2 ISIS or Al Qaeda or Al Shabaab leader who emerges from the ranks of younger and younger foot soldiers can be incinerated with a Hellfire missile.
One hopes that, with time, more and more people will begin to awaken to the execrable nature of what is being done in their name. If the species still exists in 100 years, perhaps the president of the United States will eventually own up to the truth: “We murdered some folks.”
“Vicious, calculated, despicable”–that’s how Obama characterized the Dallas shooting. Those terms apply even more so to Obama’s own drone program, through which thousands of brown-skinned human beings have been summarily executed on suspicion of potential possible complicity in possible future terrorist attacks.
Sad to say, but Obama’s primary legacy is to have normalized assassination and war crimes (drone targets are not warned and are unarmed when outside areas of active hostilities–that is, not in war zones).
Obama has also served as a role model for the mass killers in the United States. The latest disgruntled veteran (probably another PTSD victim on psych meds…) was even “taken out” on US soil using a lethal drone. Yet another ghastly precedent set by Obama when he chose to incinerate Anwar Al-Awlaki and his son in 2011 using Hellfire missiles launched by Predator drones.
It took a long time for human societies to come up with the idea of universal human rights and the equality of persons under the law. Before 1215, monarchs could capriciously decree “Off with their heads!” and dispatch anyone with impunity. In the short term, leaders were the equivalent of terrestrial gods, acting with the divine right of kings, according to the received wisdom of the times. If mistakes were made, they would be dealt with in the afterlife.
Only in the thirteenth century did the absolute authority of the monarch begin seriously to be questioned. Admittedly, the first attempts were not driven by pure quests for morality or justice on the part of leaders themselves. The first steps taken were rather practical in nature, and there were many false starts before the notions of liberty and human dignity began to take hold. The earliest kings to begin the process of forging what would eventually come to be embraced as human rights were amenable to negotiation on contentious matters, including the meting out of justice, for the self-interested or prudential reason that they needed the cooperation of other people in order to govern their domains smoothly.
Full rights were not extended to all people everywhere for many, many centuries, but it all started with the Magna Carta and the path-breaking idea that the arbitrary justice handed down by monarchs up until that time needed to be moderated. Small concessions led to larger ones and were incorporated in the government constitutions of many Western democratic states, including the United States of America. The ideas continued to be developed and expanded until finally, in the mid-twentieth century, universal human rights were codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In the twenty-first century, the idea of universal human rights has taken some serious hits. Ironically, it is the ultramodern technology used to annihilate persons by remote-control which has caused a regression to pre-Magna Carta times in matters of justice. George W. Bush was the first US president to dispatch persons with this technology, but he used it primarily in connection with the already waged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Much of the use of drones during Bush’s terms of office involved the protection of forces on the ground. Not all, however, for Bush also used drones, albeit selectively, in places such as Yemen and Pakistan, in a quest to hunt down and eliminate alleged Al Qaeda terrorists.
President Barack Obama deserves even more censure than Bush on the drone front, having effectively normalized the practice of assassination at a distance. Obama thought that he was being a technologically savvy “smart warrior”, but the most cursory glance at the situation in the Middle East reveals that he was sorely wrong. Much of the US populace regards Obama as a cautious warrior, because he has done most of his killing quietly and covertly, characteristically refusing to share his lethal practices and policies with the public under cover of State Secrets Privilege said to be necessitated by national security.
Obama’s decision to execute thousands of suspects without warning or trial using Predator drones is particularly disturbing in the light of the statistics on Guantánamo Bay prison, where the majority of the prisoners were discovered after years of detention to have been erroneously apprehended. The intel just wasn’t that good. Bribed informants are obviously subject to mercenary corruption, and this fact was starkly confirmed by the plight of terrorist suspects incarcerated under the authority of George W. Bush.
One might have hoped that this lesson would be taken to heart by the subsequent US administration, but it was not. Instead, Obama dealt with the problem of suspects by defining them as guilty until proven innocent. Sound familiar? That would be the pre-Magna Carta template of justice. The sovereign power decrees “Off with their heads!” and that is the end of their story.
It was shocking to many people when, in 2011, Obama opted to assassinate even US citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan and, two weeks later, Al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, in Yemen. Unfortunately, many people wanted to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, so impeachment proceedings were never carried out. In truth, what he started is bound to grow worse under the most likely successors to the US throne. But we did not even have to wait until the end of Obama’s term to see the nefarious potential for harm set by his precedent rolling back the progress made by republican governments over hundreds of years.
Ironically, it was during the year of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, penned in Runnymede, West of London, that UK Prime Minister David Cameron decided to strap on his drone warrior holster and whack a couple of his own countrymen, Ruhal Amin and Reyaad Khan. The British Parliament had already explicitly voted against war in Syria, and yet that was precisely where Cameron carried out the assassinations using unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), better known as “lethal drones”.
It is depressing that the tendency of people to accord Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt has ended by undoing so much good done by so many people who toiled over so many centuries to establish basic protections for all people under the law. When the leader of a nation chooses to execute his compatriots on the basis of secretive intelligence to which only he and his henchmen are privy, then it is difficult to see how this differs at all from what went on before 1215.
Every monarch throughout history who decreed “Off with their heads!” believed that he was doing the right thing. Often they felt entirely justified in what they were doing, primarily protecting their own domain and shoring up their power against threats. What reason can the US and UK governments possibly have for not observing the most basic protections guaranteed by the laws of the land, and codified in Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
The claim made by Obama has always been that capture is “infeasible”, but the cases of the unarmed Osama bin Laden, who was shot and killed in cold blood, and Anwar al-Awlaki, who was released from a prison in Yemen only to be hunted down and slain, reveal that “infeasibility” has now come to mean “undesirability”. In some ways the execution of British nationals authorized by David Cameron is even more shocking, because the death penalty is prohibited under both British law and the EU Charter. (Oddly enough, Cameron himself opposes Brexit!)
Political leaders can generally be depended on to try to outdo their predecessors, just as Obama did vis-à-vis Bush on the drone front. That is precisely why the legacy of Barack Obama will be none other than the increased propensity to “strike first, suppress questions later,” to prove that whoever the new president ends up being is “tougher” on terrorism than Obama was.
Let no one be fooled by the fact that for most of his eight-year term Obama resolutely recited “no boots on the ground” in the manner of a mantra. After years of covert operations, drone strikes, and weapons provisions to “appropriately vetted moderate rebel forces”, the Middle East is a morass of lawlessness and homicide. We reap what we sow. Now even Obama has sent combat troops to most of the several lands where he has ruthlessly used drones to kill persons whose names are not even known, along with “high-value” targets who became enemies of the state only because of the US invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria using implements of mass homicide, Special Forces, intelligence operatives, and regular combat soldiers.
The Magna Carta was the beginning of the full recognition of human liberty and dignity, and an acknowledgement that no mere mortal possesses the divine powers of omniscience. Mistakes are made. Politicians and bureaucrats are sometimes corrupt and sometimes amoral. That is precisely why we have laws to guard against the very tyranny which Obama and Cameron have chosen so myopically to embrace and hold up as an example for leaders all over the world, in both democratic and nondemocratic states.
The road to liberty and universal human rights was long and tortuous. The road to tyranny, thousands of victims have now learned at the hands of the US and UK governments, is short and direct, rather like driving down a street which terminates off the edge of a cliff. The fact that most US and UK citizens have not suffered summary execution has persuaded many to believe that nothing has really changed. In fact, everything has changed, but not in the way which any of the early supporters of Obama might have hoped.
To freely forsake one’s right to be indicted and tried for a capital crime before being annihilated by the state is a luxury enjoyed only by already free people. To condone the drone warriors’ willful denial of the historical and political significance of the Magna Carta is to prevent that same liberty from being shared by all people everywhere.
I was on Twitter when the news broke on March 7, 2016. Initial reports stated that a drone strike had killed 150+ Al Shabaab terrorists in Somalia who were preparing for an “imminent” attack on US forces. My immediate reaction was: How could a single drone strike kill 150+ people? A few minutes later, emended news reports began to surface. In fact, the group of men—all allegedly operational terrorists involved in the allegedly “imminent” attack—were destroyed by a combination of drone strikes and manned bomber strikes. Okay, I thought, sonow we are at war with Somalia, too, on top of Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, and Syria?
The use of manned bombers along with drones in Somalia to kill a very large number of human beings claimed to have been on the verge of perpetrating evil against US forces represents yet another step along a continuum of ever-more lethal US foreign policy.
In the beginning, shortly after September 11, 2001, drone strikes were used against named, “high-value” targets believed to have already engaged in terrorist attacks culminating in the deaths of innocent people. Next, “medium-value” targets were hunted down and killed. Eventually, foot soldiers became the primary targets, and drone strikes began to be used against unnamed suspects, whose comportment corresponded to a “disposition matrix” of behaviors thought to be typical of known terrorists.
The military-age men destroyed by drones in “signature strikes” are presumed guilty until proven innocent of future potential nefarious schemes said to justify their annihilation. The citizens paying for the strikes are never permitted to assess the warrant for the summary execution of the targets because, we are told, it would jeopardize national security.
In the air raid over the weekend on a gathering of some sort—reports indicate that the targets were participating in some form of ceremony—not only the use of manned bombers but also the magnitude of carnage is noteworthy. Where it used to be that individual people believed to be guilty of specific crimes were hunted down and slain, now amorphous groups of men gathering for unknown reasons—officials have not clarified what the “ceremony” was about—are deemed fair game for mass slaughter.
Military-age men are often fathers. When they are slain, they leave behind angry sons, some of whom vow to seek revenge against the killers. We do not know whether any wives and children were present at the “ceremony” attacked over the weekend. If so, they will be written off as “collateral damage”. In all of the ongoing uncertainty and vagueness about the conduct and aims of US drone policy, one thing of which we can be fairly certain is that nearly all of the people being killed are brown skinned.
Killing suspects along with their families would be one way of preventing the creation of terrorists out of children incensed at having been rendered orphans by war makers. Logically speaking, it’s not all that different from defining all males from the ages of 16 to 55 as “unlawful combatants” and fair game for execution. Lest anyone forget, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, was “taken out” by a missile strike shortly after having celebrated his 16th birthday.
The news of the execution of 150+ men in Somalia hardly registered on the major networks in the United States, running mainly along the tickertape updates, and only for a short time. Ongoing public complacency conjoined with lethal centrism ensures that the killers will continue to up the ante:
10 x 1 = 10
10 x 10 = 100
10 x 100 = 1000
I ask most sincerely: Where can this sort of blind policy of mass homicide ultimately lead, if not to genocide?
The Pentagon first announced back in 2011 that they would regard cyberattacks as bona fide acts of war, to which a military response would be appropriate. That sounded like a policy statement to me, which educated citizens of a constitutional republic might have thought should be issued by political leaders, not warriors. Everyone in the mainstream media pretty much yawned and went on with whatever they were doing, mostly parroting Pentagon announcements about “suspects reportedly slain” touted as “victories” in the eternal “war on terror”.
The Pentagon recently boasted that they had eliminated twenty-one-year old Junaid Hussain, a British national and “top” hacker for ISIS—a “high-value target”—so now they have put their missiles where their mouth is and demonstrated that they meant what they said: hackers, too, are “unlawful enemy combatants” and therefore legitimate targets for annihilation. Here’s hoping that Edward Snowden heeds the dictates of prudence and stays put, under the circumstances.
It all started with the attacks of September 11, 2001, which were responded to as though acts of war waged by a formal state, even though they were planned and carried out by a relatively small group of people, most of whom hailed from Saudi Arabia, not from Afghanistan or Iraq. Once Osama bin Laden and most of the perpetrators had been killed, the military set its sights on other people, who looked a lot like Bin Laden but possessed nothing like his power to orchestrate attacks on US soil.
Obama, going well above and beyond the call of MIC duty, transformed his own authority to wage war into a blanket power of summary execution, and then proceeded to confer it on the self-styled czar of targeted killing, John Brennan, before appointing him director of the CIA in 2013. Under Brennan’s drone warfare watch, Anwar al-Awlaki had been successfully branded as “the Bin Laden of the internet”, and many Americans concluded that the extrajudicial execution of a US citizen, too, was therefore just. No matter that Al-Awlaki’s complaints about the US war on Islamists were not without substance. No matter that Al-Awlaki appears to have shared the US government’s conviction that death is the solution to political conflict and revenge killing fully justified.
As the probability of big inter-state wars à la World War I and World War II has become ever more remote, given the disproportionate size and wealth of the US military, and as 9/11 fades from memory, dwarfed by the carnage committed in retaliation to those crimes, it should start to seem obvious why unbridled military responses are being made to any- and everything. Financial supporters of dissident groups have been targeted, as have “propagandists”, and now hackers. In the olden days, such persons would be considered criminals, not warriors, for they bear no arms. In the Drone Age, they are being executed without trial. Presumption of innocence is so twentieth century.
Playing the Bin Laden card may work politically as a public relations strategy for the people paying for drone strikes. It is much less effective for the people of other lands who witness the extent of damage caused and are traumatized by the killing machines hovering above in the sky. But there’s no need for policymakers to regroup and, say, read the Stimson Center report. Why not? Because killing people is much easier than doing anything else. Simple, satisfying and, above all, excellent for politicians’ ratings.
Junaid Hussain was about six years old on September 11, 2001. He was about eight years old when the United States, with Britain’s blessing, waged a preemptive war on a sovereign nation at peace. Somehow during his adolescence, Junaid Hussain became an accomplished hacker and allied himself with ISIS, a group which did not even exist until after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Clearly this young man was intelligent and talented—that’s why he was labeled a “high-value” target. But why did he direct his considerable talent to the cause of ISIS?
The same question can be asked of Anwar al-Awlaki, who publicly decried the attacks of 9/11. A decade later, he was taken out by a drone, as was his son, Abdulrahman, just after his sixteenth birthday. No one claimed that Abdulrahman was a “high-value target”, so perhaps he was killed preemptively, to avoid his transformation over the next five years (when he would have been Junaid Hussain’s age) into a sympathizer with radical Islamist groups such as ISIS. Or maybe it was just a mistake. “Mistakes are made.” “This is war.” Well, sort of.
The reasoning of the people running the US drone program appears to be that, if killing innocent people in attempts to kill evil people ends by causing the ranks of terrorists and their sympathizers to swell, then so be it. They will be killed as well. There will always be plenty of Hellfire missiles to go around, so long as someone profits from their production. Many people have issued warnings about what has grown to be the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex. I would suggest that we have now moved beyond oligarchy and plutocracy to something closer to necrocracy: rule by death.
Not satisfied with simply eliminating the architects of 9/11, the Pentagon continues to cast about for more and more people to kill. Why? Because that’s what they do: kill people. Hackers? Been there, done that. Who will be next? Antiwar protestors? Or perhaps they’ll come over to William Bradford’s way of seeing things and target legal scholars who step out of line.
For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 5: Strike First, Suppress Questions Later; Chapter 9: Death and Politics; Chapter 10: Death and Taxes; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants do
The vast majority of the bereft survivors of US drone strikes are never acknowledged. On rare occasions, the US government has attempted to offer money to compensate for the loss of innocent life. When it became undeniable that harmless civilians were annihilated en route to a wedding in Yemen on December 12, 2013, $800,000 was delivered anonymously to the bereft survivors. Faisal bin Ali Jaber, two of whose family members were destroyed in a separate strike, also in Yemen, describes the $100,000 which he was given as “blood money”. The intention is clear: to admit without admitting that these people have been wronged and hope that through this gesture they will be persuaded not to press the matter further.
I have sometimes pondered whether this may have happened in the case of Nasser al-Awlaki, who lost not only his son, Anwar, but also his grandson, Abdulrahman, both US citizens, to drone strikes. For years, the outspoken senior Al-Awlaki pursued legal channels to oppose the US government’s plan to execute his son without trial. When the nightmare finally came to pass, the grieving father mysteriously dropped the lawsuit, even though what transpired was far worse than what he had feared. Both his son and his grandson were destroyed by Predator drones, in strikes separated by only two weeks.
Why did Nasser al-Awlaki abandon his lawsuit against the US government rather than appeal its disappointing outcome? The official line is that he became “disillusioned” with or “lost faith” in the system. Would that not be a reason to press on for justice? If in fact he stopped pressing the case because he was “compensated” with a large sum of cash in exchange for agreeing to drop the lawsuit, then I’m afraid that he, too, was bribed.
It is impossible to fathom the profound sorrow which this man has endured. I am deeply sorry for his loss and do not fault him for giving up out of despair, if that is what he did. My intention is only to illuminate the phenomenon of bribery and its key role in both prosecuting and perpetuating the US drone program. Declining to challenge these actions leads to the commission of many more, most of the victims of which are never even acknowledged. By accepting “blood money”, bereft survivors tacitly accept the program through which many wives dependent upon their husbands for support have been rendered widows, and their children fatherless.
The reasoning on the part of the grieving persons who accede is easy enough to understand: nothing will or can ever bring back the loved ones killed, but at least life can be made a bit easier to bear with some extra cash on hand. Nonetheless, anyone who agrees to stop talking about the wrong done to them and their missing relatives in exchange for money has been bought, and sadly ends by condoning a fundamentally unjust program of summary execution. The presumption of innocence has been replaced by a presumption of guilt, provided only that the suspect is a brown-skinned male of military age unfortunate enough to be situated in a territory deemed ‘hostile’ by the current “kill committee”. What’s more, countless entirely innocent people not even suspected of wrongdoing are being continuously terrorized by the threat of death hovering above their heads.
Bribery is a way of getting what one wants but at the price of people’s integrity. Only a few brave souls have inveighed against the insulting suggestion that the slaughter of their loved ones can somehow be forgotten, if only they are given a large enough bag of money. When bereft survivors succumb to the lure of bribes, the moral degeneracy and banality of killing in full evidence among analysts and operators come to be shared and transmitted to people who truly oppose what is being done. Those who agree to suffer in silence in exchange for remuneration inadvertently support the very program through which they themselves have been wronged.
It is important to acknowledge here as well that some of the people on the ground have also been threatened with harm if they speak about the events which they have witnessed and through which they have been victimized. The persons thus threatened are acting prudentially in declining to speak out about the crimes.
As a result of this elaborate system of “carrots and sticks”, the aptly named “killing machine” forges on, generating more and more victims, in part because there have not been enough people to stand up and say “No!” Of course, some of the persons living under drones who refuse to prostrate themselves before the killers of their community members decide to take action by allying themselves with violent dissident groups to undertake jihad in what become campaigns of revenge.
Both the jihadis and the “compensated” but silenced victims ensure in this way that the Global War on Terror will continue on. New “No 2” factional leaders emerge as others are dispatched because some among these people will not agree to pretend that what is obviously wrong is not wrong. Therein lies the appeal of terrorist groups for young people who have yet to be corrupted. They are angry at what they have seen and feel that they must fight back. They take up the jihad cause and pledge not to relent until the slaughter stops. They are ready and willing to die in the process.
Unfortunately, the new converts to violent extremist groups—Al Qaeda, ISIS, AQAP, whatever label they adopt—too, perpetuate the cycle of moral corruption and violence by fighting fire with fire. Righteous anger has impelled these people, many of whom were children on September 11, 2001, to take up arms, and more and more of them continue to be executed under the assumption that terrorists can be killed faster than they emerge, which is obviously false, given the recent spread of ISIS throughout Syria and Iraq. The slaughter of so many courageous and talented young people, who have been lured to associate with terrorist groups out of righteous anger over what is being done to their communities, is both a human and a moral tragedy.
For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 3: The Logic of Targeted Killing; Chapter 6: The New Banality of Killing; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants do
By ordering drone strikes against British nationals, Prime Minister David Cameron has followed in the ignominious footsteps of Tony Blair by effectively becoming the “poodle” of the current US president. Blair notoriously went along with the Bush administration scheme to wage a preemptive war against a sovereign nation at peace in 2003, violating international law, directly causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, the exodus of millions of others, and wrecking Iraq, which remains in shambles still today.
Self-styled “drone warrior” Obama’s signature policy, “Kill don’t capture”, was implemented when he found it politically difficult to house detainees suspected of complicity in terrorism. Never troubled by the high proportion of innocent suspects found among the men imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay, Obama decided to deal with the problem of suspects “lawyering up”—as former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney used to say—by killing them all, and inverting the burden of proof.
Terrorist suspects, in the Obama administration world view, are guilty until proven innocent, which no one is able to do pre-posthumously because targets are not informed that their names have been placed on secret kill lists. The Obama approach is slick, simple and politically satisfying: light them up with a Hellfire missile! No more embarrassing human rights issues arise over detainees mistreated and held without charges. No more nagging lawyers, no more hunger strikes.
Not content with simply “taking out” suspected militants/insurgents/terrorists (all of which have been conflated for years, following Bush) in countries such as Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Libya, where war was never formally waged, Obama went one step further. He authorized the extrajudicial execution of Anwar al-Awlaki and other US nationals, including Al-Awlaki’s sixteen-year-old son, Abdulrahman, who was assassinated two weeks after his father. According to bureaucratically crafted rules of engagement (ROE), Abdulrahman was a “military-age male” and therefore fair game for slaughter in any territory labeled “hostile” by the “kill committee”. Painting himself as “strong on defense,” Obama proudly revealed himself to be a member of that committee during his 2012 election campaign.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has consistently stood by Obama during his various bellicose initiatives. Cameron was ready and willing to support Obama when he called for war on the Syrian government in 2013, and then again on the Syrian government’s worst enemies (ISIS) in 2014.
However, Cameron no longer simply applauds the Obama administration’s calls for war, including the drone strikes used to dispatch suspects who might possibly pose an imminent danger (though it need not be immediate). Now Cameron, too, selects British citizens for summary execution according to unknown criteria determined in secret proceedings, all said to be necessary for state security. Cameron, who authorized the drone killing by the RAF of Ruhul Amin and Reyaad Khan, is now a card-carrying member of the “kill committee”.