The Lethal Foreign Policy of Military Experts

Speaking of James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who has now resigned…

We Kill Because We Can

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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…

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US Drone Policy Goes from Bad to Worse: The Stimson Center Report 2018

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Every two years, the Stimson Center Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy, directed by Rachel Stohl, issues a pamphlet of recommendations to the U.S. government on the use of weaponized UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) or RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft). Over the course of the past six years, it has become all too clear that no one in the government actually reads these reports, and the tone of the latest installment in the series, “An Action Plan on U.S. Drone Policy: Recommendations for the Trump Administration,” understandably conveys frustration.

The first report, issued in 2014, seemed to be filled with optimism and congeniality, and the second report (actually called by the Task Force a “Report Card“), issued in 2016, offered a gentle admonition of the Obama administration for its failure to make its policies and practices transparent or to produce anything even approaching international norms for the use of the new technology.

Now the task force seems to have thrown caution to the wind, recognizing that the Trump administration could not care less what the Stimson Center has to say. Despite the failures of the Obama administration to heed most of the recommendations of the first report, as reflected in that administration’s poor “grades” in the second report, it has become increasingly clear that the Trump administration has no intention even of showing up for school: “U.S. drone policy under the Trump administration has thus far been defined by uncertainty coupled with less oversight and less transparency.”

Critics of the U.S. government’s drone program (myself included), have explained in meticulous detail how the entire institution of premeditated, intentional, extrajudicial assassination of persons (usually able-bodied Muslim males) suspected of possibly plotting possible future terrorist attacks–or simply being potentially capable of doing so–rests upon a lamentable framework of linguistic legerdemain. People may despise President Trump, but no one with any familiarity with the history of the use of lethal drones can deny that the “killing machine” is President Obama’s lasting legacy.

What is good about the 2018 Stimson Center report is that the authors explicitly articulate criticisms diplomatically skirted in the earlier reports, particularly the first one, which was produced under the guidance of a variety of industry and military experts and expressed general agreement with them that the use of lethal drones was morally and legally permissible.

Four years later, perhaps out of exasperation, the Stimson Center has finally decided to voice some serious objections to what has been going on for the past sixteen years. Consider these examples:

Currently, the U.S. drone program rests on indistinct frameworks and an approach to drone strikes based on U.S. exceptionalism. Ambiguity surrounding U.S. drone policy has contributed to enduring questions about the legality, efficacy, and legitimacy of the U.S. drone program.

This one is buried in a footnote (#1), but is noteworthy:

Although not included in this report, the lethal targeting of U.S. citizens is a critical aspect of this conversation. In 2014, the Obama administration released a Justice Department memo articulating its legal justification for targeting an American citizen abroad, Anwar al-Awlaki. The memo, released to the public following lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times, argues that U.S. citizenship did not make Anwar al-Awlaki immune from the use of force abroad and that the killing of a U.S. citizen by the U.S. government is authorized by the law of war under a public authority exception to a U.S. statute prohibiting the foreign murder of U.S. nationals.

Or consider this zinger:

By requiring some connection to an imminent threat, a “near certainty” of the presence of the targeted subject, and no perceived risk of civilian casualties, the PPG [Presidential Policy Guidance] was at least intended to minimize civilian harm. Nevertheless, some elements of the PPG — such as the requirement that a threat be both continuing and imminent — seem inherently contradictory, and many critics of U.S. drone strikes have questioned whether strikes outside areas of active hostilities are lawful.

Another one:

The U.S. government’s refusal to release information about the targets of its drone attacks and the difficulty in accessing the locations where U.S. drone strikes have occurred have made it difficult for third parties to assess the legality of specific attacks.

While there is consensus that the United States is engaged in an armed conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, critics of U.S. policy and practice argue that U.S. drone strikes to conduct targeted killings outside these areas should be governed not by the law of armed conflict but by the stricter requirements of international human rights law, which permits killings of individuals only to prevent an imminent threat to life.

I am not sure why Syria is included in the list as a U.S. war zone, alongside Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is good to know that the Stimson Center is at least considering criticisms brushed aside by everyone in the government and given short shrift in the 2014 report. Better late than never. Perhaps they have been reading some of the critical books which have been rolling out in a steady stream since 2015?

Another possibility is that they no longer feel the need to hold back as they did during the Obama administration because, well, Trump is president. They may as well express all of their concerns so that at least they will seem to have been on the right side of history, even if no one in either administration took seriously anything they ever said. That may sound harsh, but I cannot help thinking that if the 2014 report had been less conciliatory, then perhaps it would have garnered more attention from the press, and there might have been some sort of public debate over the abysmal practice of assassination by remote control.

By now, euphemistically termed “targeted killing” is considered perfectly normal by nearly everyone (save radical book authors, antiwar activists, and libertarians), and rolling back Obama’s radical expansion of executive power will be all but impossible to effect, except, perhaps, if “The Resistance” somehow succeeds in removing Trump from office. But wait: then Mike Pence will be president! Does anyone truly believe that Pence would be more willing than Trump to cede power? No, it is the nature of power-seeking individuals (above all, politicians) to amass power until it is taken from them.

Given that “The Resistance” recently acquiesced in the bestowal upon Commander-in-Chief Trump of a $700+ billion defense budget, I don’t see the practice of drone assassination being curtailed anytime soon.  Particularly since the Pentagon produces projections for funding which extend ahead for the next twenty-five years, effectively locking in place what they have done and are doing, thereby ensuring that there will be even more of the same. As missile-equipped UAVs continue to be produced and distributed in a dizzying flurry, and more and more operators are trained to kill, enticed by lucrative salaries and benefits packages, the hit lists will grow longer as well. Given the nature of lethal creep, I predict that some of the unarmed military UAVs already hovering in US skies will be weaponized for use in the homeland. Recall the case of Micah Johnson, who was blown up by the Dallas police using an explosive-equipped robot.

So, yes, things have predictably gone from bad to worse, for lethal creep leads to further lethal creep, with no real end in sight. The 2018 Stimson Center report observes that the Trump administration is currently rolling back “restraints” and “guidelines” said to have been implemented during the Obama administration. Among the changes being considered are:

  1. Expanding the targets of armed strikes by eliminating the requirement that the person pose an “imminent threat,”

  2. Loosening the requirement of “near certainty” that the target is present at the time of the strike to a “reasonable certainty,” and

  3. Revising the process through which strike determinations are made by reducing senior policymaker involvement and oversight in such decisions and delegating more authority to operational commanders.

Hooah! MAGA! USA! USA!

In all seriousness, the Obama administration’s “restraints” were never anything more than an effort to quell criticism. Smile politely and gush about “just war theory,” and people will leave you alone, Obama learned from his targeted killing mentor, John Brennan. “Infeasibility of capture” was always a farce (see the cases of Anwar al-Awlaki and Osama bin Laden). And “near certainty”? Why don’t we ask Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto about that one? Or, for that matter: Abdulrahman al-Awlaki?

The fundamental point cannot be overstated: by redefining “imminent threat” as no longer requiring “immediacy” and asserting the right to kill anyone anywhere deemed dangerous by a secretive committee of bureaucrats using deliberations conducted behind closed doors and never shared with the public (invoking State Secrets Privilege), the Obama administration paved the way to the latest slide down a slippery slope to even more wanton state homicide.

During the first two years of Trump’s presidency, Obama has been reveling in portrayals of himself as some sort of saint by “The Resistance” and the adoration of throngs of people who find him dignified and “presidential” next to his successor. But Obama’s own erection of a U.S. killing machine, and normalization of the insidious policy of summary execution by lethal drone outside areas of active hostilities, even of U.S. citizens, will haunt humanity for decades to come.

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Drone (2017): Are private contractors killing people using drones at the request of the CIA?

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It’s probably about time for film makers to stop naming their critiques of drone warfare Drone. But that’s just a quibble—more a piece of practical advice than a substantive criticism. This latest installment in the “movies called Drone” series is directed by Jason Bourque and manages to offer some new twists on the many trenchant works created by thinking people appalled by the “lethal turn” in US foreign policy since September 11, 2001.

Assassination has been normalized as a standard operating procedure, a feat accomplished not by President Trump but by his predecessor, Barack Obama, whose administration mounted and implemented a complex bureaucratic institution of intentional, premeditated homicide of persons (usually of color) who are either suspected of complicity in terrorism, or suspected of association with persons suspected of complicity in terrorism. That’s right: the people being intentionally killed under the auspices of the US drone program outside areas of active hostilities fall into one of two categories: guilty until proven innocent, or guilty by association of being guilty until proven innocent.

Nearly all of the victims of drone strikes have been brown-skinned and of Muslim origin. It’s really quite astonishing that the first black US president could preside over such a flagrant program of racial profiling, which denies persons of color not only their right to life but also their rights to defend themselves against the charge that they deserve to die, without indictment much less trial, for hypothetical crimes to which only the killers are privy. One can only hope that future historians will be suitably shocked by the total discombobulation of Western administrators in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

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In Drone (2017), a recent film version of the We Kill Because We Can story, many aspects of the US killing machine and how it has been used throughout much of the twenty-first century are highlighted, in the hope of provoking the viewer to reflect upon the significance of a paradigm of war which, despite being not only morally and legally, but also strategically dubious, has come to be accepted by Western politicians and their voting constituents alike.

Sure, the drone warriors have managed to incinerate thousands of persons, mostly of unknown identity, but what have they really accomplished, beyond mass homicide and the enrichment of war profiteers? The Middle East is in shambles, Al Qaeda franchises have spored and spread, and the United States is fighting wars in at least seven different lands, while threatening others in various ways. Any sober assessment of US foreign policy over the past seventeen years can only conclude that the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has been an unmitigated failure. The primary tool of GWOT has been none other than the weaponized drone, which helped to usher in an era of executive war (formerly known as monarchic depredation, or tyranny) by allowing leaders both to wage war and deny that they are engaged in war at the same time and in the same place (for more on this, see the Libya intervention of 2011—or the bombing of Syria in 2018).

NotFlourishingThe drone operators whom we have learned about in a variety of films, not only in documentaries such as National Bird (2015) and Drone (2014), but also in works of fiction based on reality, such as Good Kill (2015) and Drone Strike (2013), have for the most part been young people recruited right out of high school or in their early twenties. In Drone (2017), however, the central protagonist, Neil Wistin, is a middle-aged man with a teenage son who spends a good deal of time playing hunt-and-kill video games and would in fact be a prime candidate for recruitment into the military as a drone operator. Instead, it’s his dad who spends his days stalking and snuffing out “bad guys” located on the other side of the planet. Wistin, a civilian, works as a contract killer for the CIA. He is not a soldier; he is an assassin. He is paid to eliminate persons nominated to kill lists by other private contractors based on circumstantial evidence (aka SIGINT) and bribed hearsay (aka HUMINT). His family has believed for years that he works in IT for a nonexistent company, but they eventually come to learn that Wistin spends his days not programming but hunting down and killing human beings in Pakistan at the behest of the CIA.

Along with the intended targets, Wistin has killed some unintended targets, which he and his co-workers perfunctorily label “collateral damage”. But the notion of collateral damage, dubious enough as it is, cannot truly be said to apply to cases of assassination. And no, it does not matter in the least that the implement of homicide is a military weapon. For in genuine combat contexts, where the lives of soldiers on the ground are at stake, collateral damage is said to be permissible because it is unavoidable, given military exigencies. The use of the category of “collateral damage” to excuse the people being mistakenly killed by weaponized drones outside areas of active hostilities is tantamount to asserting the right to kill anyone, anywhere, at any time, for whatever reasons the killers themselves deem sufficient. It is also a categorical denial of human rights.

The utter lawlessness of this paradigm will become more and more apparent as lethal drones spread around the globe and are used by leaders according to their discretion and caprice after kill committee meetings conducted behind closed doors and with neither transparency nor due process, following the example of mentor governments Israel and the United States. The drone killers act with complete impunity, for they are physically protected by their geographic distance from the places they fire on, and the secrecy of the program ensures that they remain anonymous, not only to their victims, but also to their family members and friends, as in the case of private contractor Wistin, who essentially leads a double life like any regular spy.

But is it really true that there are private contractors serving as drone operators and firing missiles upon people? If there were, we would not be told, for the citizens paying for this institution of death know as little as possible about the facts on the ground and the inner workings of the killing machine. This carefully maintained state of ignorance among the very people paying for the drone program is rationalized under State Secrets Privilege.

In a series of carefully plotted scenes, Drone (2017), like other films produced on this controversial topic in recent years, illuminates some of the lesser known and morally unsavory aspects of what has been going on:

  • Wounded survivors of initial strikes are taken out in double tap strikes, what can only be a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Of course the “quaint” idea that unarmed persons may not be summarily executed is ignored in the first strikes as well.

  • Persons are being spied on as though they had no rights or dignity whatsoever—whether or not they are suspected of terrorism.

  • The persons left bereft after strikes mourn the loss of their loved ones, who were, in reality, fathers, brothers, sons and, in the case of collateral damage victims not even suspected of complicity in terrorism: altogether innocuous women and children.

  • The killers are themselves never at risk of death when they fire on targets thousands of miles away, rendering dubious the rationalization used by combat soldiers throughout the history of warfare: that they must kill or else be killed.

  • The rebranding of assassination as targeted killing in warfare (dismissing innocent victims as collateral damage) but not really warfare (when it comes to oversight and congressional mandate) makes it nearly impossible for the citizens paying for this institution of premeditated homicide to understand what is going on. They are told that this is all a matter of national defense, and naturally throw their support behind anything carrying that label.

  • The military-age men killed—whether intentionally or unintentionally—are assumed to be terrorists, while the cases of collateral damage killing of women and children are systematically denied as “unconfirmed”, when not outright dismissed as terrorist propaganda.

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These features of the drone program are variously highlighted in the film when a Pakistani businessman, Imir Shaw, whose wife and daughter were destroyed by a drone strike, travels to the United States to confront their killer. The unsavory truths being conveyed in Drone (2017) are easily verified, but the specific scenario devised to press these points is highly implausible for a variety of reasons. First, the Trump administration immigration gatekeepers would be unlikely to admit through the golden arches a military-aged male from Pakistan. Second, the man manages to locate his wife and daughter’s killer through hacking into the drone intelligence network, which, while possible, would be very difficult. Third, the layers of secrecy used to protect the perpetrators, including the very use of private contractors, makes it not at all obvious how such a victim could identify the precise person who pushed the button in any given case. The use of private military companies in the real-life drone program—if not in the acts of killing, at least in the generation of kill lists—makes it improbable that the name of the killers of any given victim will ever be revealed, even if the system is hacked (which is far more likely to be done by a whistleblower within the system than an outsider), and information is shared via an outlet such as Wikileaks.

DeathDinnerBut Drone (2017) is a work of fiction, which admirably attempts to reveal what is invisible to people in the West: the reality of the drone program for the victims and their bereft survivors. The story explores what could happen if one of the grieving victims ever encountered the person physically responsible for his grief. Imir Shaw shows up at Neil Wistin’s home, feigning interest in the boat with a “for sale” sign in the driveway. He then proceeds to befriend the Wistin family, having been invited to stay for dinner, before explaining that his own family, a wife and daughter, were destroyed by a US drone. As the evening progresses, the conversation becomes strained when Shaw and Wistin begin to wrangle over the US drone program and the war on terror. Ultimately, the Pakistani dinner guest spills his guts, explaining that it was Wistin himself who killed Shaw’s wife and daughter.

Shaw also informs Wistin that his wife has been having an affair, which he has learned by spying on her prior to the visit, and that the wife and son have no idea what it is that Wistin does for a living. By pretending that his briefcase contains a bomb which he plans to detonate right there and then, Shaw ultimately drives Wistin to attempt to save his wife and son, which culminates in Shaw’s death.

DinnerDroneViewIn some ways, this is a disappointing turn in the story, for it follows the standard Hollywood template according to which the Americans always prevail. But the twist here is that Wistin finally undergoes a conversion to become a whistleblower and make public the true workings of the drone program, including the use of private contractors as assassins. Drone (2017) ably predicts what would in all likelihood be the administration’s response to such a “defection”, which is to denounce Wistin as a traitor, along the lines of the whistleblowers tried and convicted of crimes under the Espionage Act in recent years.

The first half of Drone (2017) runs very slowly and seems a bit meandering, but serves to set the stage for the second half, which becomes more and more suspenseful as the viewer is drawn into the tense conflict between the American drone operator and the grief-stricken Pakistani man. The admittedly heavy-handed points made as the rather contrived plot unfolds are nonetheless important and need to be stressed, which is why I would like to see more people watch this film, despite its cinematic flaws. For the creators of this film are absolutely right about this: Until US taxpayers come to understand the reality of what they are funding under the label of “national defense”, these sorts of abominable crimes will continue to be committed.

The fact that the drone program has been so thoroughly shrouded in secrecy is not, as its administrators claim, itself a matter of national defense, but a means by which to secure compliance when, if presented with the facts, many proponents of drone warfare would withdraw their support. In the case of the US government’s killing machine, the American people have been hoodwinked to the point of coercion, which has undermined the democratic basis for the government’s alleged authority to act on their behalf. The apparent support of a policy or practice which is garnered through the use of deception willfully intended to sow ignorance is devoid of any legitimacy whatsoever. Nearly everyone opposes murder and supports justice, so when people are told by government officials that acts of murder are not acts of murder but instead “just war”, they have been horribly duped, no less than the drone operators seduced to enlist in the military using mythic images of the “noble warrior”, when in fact they will be transformed into contract killers.

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Insyriated (2017): What Not To Conclude

 

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Available among recent releases to watch for free on Sky Movies right now is Insyriated (2017), a Belgian film directed by Philippe van Leeuw, which is set in the midst of the current civil war raging in Syria. The film could just as well have been called “Iniraqated” or “Inlibyated” or “Inyemenated”, or just substitute the name of any other country where war is currently raging.

This is a story about each and every war zone, for it depicts the lawless world into which all citizens are plunged once the powers that be, whether at home or abroad, decide to opt for war as a way to resolve conflict. Some will doubtless see in Insyriated a pretext for continued international intervention in Syria. The clearly identified bad guys are two government security agents who search terrified families’ homes and commit crimes along the way. The good guys here are the rebels, who we are made to believe fall into the category of “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” embroiled in a protracted and bloody conflict with the government of Bashar al-Assad.

In reality, we know nothing about the rebels depicted in this film, beyond the fact that they have families. Are they affiliated with Al Qaeda, ISIS, Al Shabaab, Al Nusra, or other official enemies of the West? It may not matter in the least. Certainly the “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” in Syria have more in common with “unvetted radical rebels” than some in the US government supposed when they unwisely opted covertly to bestow upon the former some 600 tons of weapons from 2012 to 2013. The result was plain for everyone to see: a massive expansion of ISIS across both Syria and Iraq. Groups such as ISIS are non-state entities, devoid of any form of military industry. They are able to take up arms only when formal military institutions provide them with the means to do so. Seems so obvious, and yet the flow of weapons to the Middle East from the West continues unabated.

It also may not matter all that much from the perspective of the civilians “Insyriated”, trapped in a terrifying war zone where bombs are falling all around and snipers are shooting all day long, that the government of Syria is not staffed primarily by saints (in contrast to Western governments!). The family and those whom they shelter depicted in this film are confined to a small apartment, unable to go outside, whether to work or to school. All that these people seem to want is for the war to end, so that they might finally resume their normal lives. Recall that in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq, many Iraqis voiced their considered opinion that, for ordinary people, the quality of life under dictator Saddam Hussein was far better than any time since he was deposed.

It would be a non sequitur of gargantuan proportion to conclude from the fact that some government security agents are thugs, rapists and thieves (in this film, two of them are identified as such) that we must jump into the ring and help to eject the Syrian government. For the truth is that the dynamics displayed in this film are more about the reality of wartime than about any particular context. Throughout history, men on both sides of every conflict have seized the opportunity to conduct themselves as though “Everything is permitted,” as though they had been flung back into the state of nature, where the law of the jungle is the only one which matters: Might makes right. Only the strong survive.

The tendency of wars to spiral into vicious, horrifying scenes of murder and mayhem has been witnessed over and over again, throughout history, and should, therefore, be regarded as a foreseeable consequence of any decision to go to war. In the twentieth century, World War II and the US intervention in Vietnam were particularly grisly examples of what can happen when young men are told that the proscription to homicide no longer applies, but every other war has also involved similar atrocities, if on a somewhat smaller scale.

Most recently, we know that during the US occupations of both Afghanistan and Iraq, many crimes were committed by US troops and privately contracted security forces, all paid for by well-intentioned US citizens. There is nothing unique about the horrific situation in Syria, where women and children are terrorized, raped, maimed and killed because the rules are no longer thought by some to apply. Nor does it matter in the least that some of the people fighting may have good intentions.

In fact, all of the parties to this conflict believe in what they are doing. The government forces believe that they are defending Syria from terrorists. The moderate rebels believe themselves to be rising up against the oppressive government. The radical rebels wish to establish a permanent Caliphate. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” makes every military conflict difficult to grasp, but in Syria the situation is about as complicated as they ever get. There are no clear heroes and villains, for murder and rape and destruction have been committed on all sides. This is a multifaceted conflict with a long history, and it is sophomoric to suppose that “We are good and they are evil” tropes might somehow apply. (See Reese Erlich, Inside Syria (2014) for a detailed account of just how multifaceted this conflict is.)

The question, then, remains: what to do? And the answer should be obvious: not more of the same. Sending more troops to Syria, continuing the flow of arms to the region, and lobbing missiles and bombs on territories thought to harbor either terrorists or the central government is the worst policy of all, as should be evident from the outcomes of the stupid wars in both Iraq and Libya. Unfortunately, the latest chemical attack in Syria is being used to drum up support, once again, for more Western engagement in Syria. But what we know about this most recent attack is only that it occurred. We know that both the rebels and the government of Syria have had access to chemical weapons and may well have used them in the past. It is naive beyond belief to assume that every time chemical weapons are used, this constitutes the crossing of a proverbial red line which necessitates intervention.

It is, needless to say, highly suspicious that the latest attack occurred only shortly after President Trump’s announcement of an intention to remove troops from Syria. But would Western powers be so pernicious as to perpetrate a false flag chemical attack, effectively torturing and sacrificing innocent people for the purpose of perpetuating US involvement in the civil war? They’ve done it before, and it seems safe to say that they’ll do it again. After the abject failure of US intelligence agencies in the build-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I find it remarkable that anyone continues to pay any heed to what they say. Yellow cake, aluminum tubes and chemical attacks all sound like reasonable pretexts to Joe Q. Public for Western governments to get involved. But only assuming that the stories being told to promote war are not based on falsehoods or, even worse, lies.

Injecting more weapons and troops into Syria will result only in more families being raided, more children being terrorized and more women being raped. If the central government is overthrown, then there will be more, not less, drowning of people in cages. The chaos to ensue, as rival factions rush in to fill the government void, might even, as in postwar Libya, fling open the door to slavery.

In the light of the recent history of the Middle East, Insyriated is most plausibly interpreted as a call to end the slaughter in Syria. It’s time to bring all of the troops home. From everywhere. Now.

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Interview: What will be the likely effects of loosening restrictions on US military drone exports?

In this short interview, Jason White of Sputnik International asks Laurie Calhoun to comment on recent reports that the Trump administration plans to loosen restrictions on military drone exports.

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Here is a more detailed treatment of the topic.

 

 

 

Trump administration to ease restrictions on military drone exports–what does it mean?

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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.

MadDogMattisOne 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.

DavidCameronDroneFormer 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.

ObamaAssassin in Chief

Peoples Internet Radio: US Kills Because it Can

In this 50-minute interview, April Watters asks Laurie Calhoun to explain what she means by “The Drone Assassination Assault on Democracy”:

 

 

The discussion focuses on issues raised in We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, but also an essay published in ROAR magazine, which can be read here.