Drones and Death in the First 2016 Democratic Presidential Debate

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Five contenders vying to be the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee met yesterday in Las Vegas to spar over the issues. They talked a bit about guns, income disparity, racial discrimination, women’s rights, Wall Street, the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, unemployment, social security, and a smidgeon of foreign policy. The word drone did not come up at all. In some ways, that was surprising, given that drones are politically palatable, providing leaders with the ability to intervene abroad to kill without risking the lives of any US soldiers.

In other ways, the omission of any mention of drones was unsurprising, because the US government did not acknowledge its practice of remote-control killing of suspects during the period from November 2002 to January 2012. It was all hush-hush, under cover of State Secrets Privilege. President Obama finally made public in advance of his reelection that he had been killing people with drones in lands far away. He reassured those listening to his Google Talk chat—clearly designed to woo voters—that “drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties,” and that the process of target selection was “not a bunch of folks in a room just making decisions.” So what is it, then? one has to ask. Does Obama, like George W. Bush before him, perhaps hear voices?

In 2012, Obama prevailed in the contest with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in part because on the campaign trail he succeeded in painting himself as strong for having killed, rather than captured, Osama bin Laden. Maybe that’s why 2016 contender Hillary Clinton went out of her way during the debate yesterday to say that she was “in the room” helping Obama when he “made the call” on May 2, 2011.

JimWebbOne of the more obscure candidates on the debate floor, Jim Webb, also boasted of having a killed a man—in his case in Vietnam. Given the evident interest among the presidential contenders in broadcasting their lethal creds, one can only wonder why such candidates should be at all surprised that so many people in the homeland are killed with guns every year. According to those who pen US foreign policy, homicide is now the “strategy” of choice—in fact, it’s a tactic—and the first, not last, resort, even in the case of unarmed suspects located thousands of miles away and who pose no danger to any other human being, much less a US national, when they are killed. In the drone age, US leaders kill not because they must, but because they can.

BernieHillShow2That using lethal drones to dispatch suspects abroad creates bereft survivors and seething anger among communities some of the members of which vow to seek revenge is never acknowledged by US leaders, who are subject to electoral redress only in the short term. Blowback, in contrast, erupts later on down the line, after the responsible policymakers have retreated from public life.

During last night’s debate, Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state infamously pronounced that “Gaddafi must go,” remarkably characterized the US debacle in Libya as “smart power at its best”, clearly indicating that she would continue the Obama “smart wars”, projecting US power abroad through the use of lethal drones. Bernie Sanders, considered by many to be the progressive candidate of the group—although Clinton labeled herself a progressive, too, last night—said that he also agreed with the Obama approach.

BernieHillShowIn a dramatic flourish, Clinton shirked all responsibility for the deaths at Benghazi, making a remark to the effect that US government jobs in other countries can be dangerous. Indeed, and much more so when, as in Libya, the country in question has become chaotic and devoid of security as a direct result of the US government’s decision to remove its leader, which Clinton and others talked Obama into doing.

Is the Democratic slate better than the Republican slate of candidates for the presidency? Yes, but that’s pretty faint praise, at least judging by the Republican debates to date.

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For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 3: The Logic of Targeted Killing; and Chapter 10: Death and Politics

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