For years now I have been pointing out that Obama’s lasting legacy would be his ill-advised decision back in 2009 to normalize assassination, which his administration successfully rebranded as “targeted killing”. This was supposed to be the latest and greatest form of “smart war”: the use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), or lethal drones, to go after and eliminate evil terrorists without risking US soldiers’ lives.
It all sounds so slick and, well, Obama cool. The problem is that any sober consideration of Obama’s foreign policy over the course of his eight years as president reveals that the reality is altogether different. Judging by the murder and mayhem being perpetrated all across the Middle East, “smart war” was not so smart after all.
It’s not easy to tease out how much of the mess in the Middle East is specifically due to Obama’s accelerated use of lethal drones in “signature strikes” to kill thousands of military-age men in seven different lands. For he also implemented other, equally dubious initiatives. Planks of Obama’s bloody “smart power” approach included deposing Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and massively arming (from 2012 to 2013) a group of little-understood “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” in Syria.
Adding fuel to the fire, Obama oversaw the largest exportation of homicidal weapons to the Middle East ever undertaken by a single US president. Saudi Arabia wasted no time in using its US (and also UK) military provisions to lay Yemen to waste. Conjoined with Obama’s use of drones in that land, the result has been a horrific civil war in which many civilians have been killed and many civilian structures destroyed.
As if all of this were not bad enough, Obama also managed to drop more than 26K bombs in 2016, after having dropped more than 23K in 2015. Given all of this very warlike behavior in undeclared wars, no one can truly say precisely how much drones are to blame for the ongoing carnage throughout the Middle East. What is beyond dispute is that together these measures culminated in a huge expansion and spread of ISIS and other radical jihadist groups.
At the same time, given the tonnage of bombs dropped by Obama in seven different countries, the use of drones does seem to have led directly to a willingness of the president to use also manned combat aerial vehicles, notably in countries with which the United States was not at war when Obama assumed his office. While his predecessor, George W. Bush, can be properly credited with the destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama managed to contribute heartily to the destruction of Libya, Yemen, and Syria, while attacking the people of Somalia as well.
Enter Donald J. Trump, who became the new US president on January 21, 2017. On that same day, two drone strikes in Yemen killed a slew of people, three of whom were said to be “suspected Al Qaeda leaders”. The US government has not confirmed that it launched the strikes. It is the policy of the CIA, put in charge by Obama of the drone program “outside areas of active hostilities” (in countries such as Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, et al.), not to share the details of its covert operations. This would seem to imply that the drone strikes on January 21, 2017, were not the doings of the Pentagon, now under the direction of General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who was sworn in on the same day as the new president.
Trump’s choice for CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has not yet been sworn in, as his confirmation process is still underway. In other words, the drone strikes carried out under the auspices of the CIA this past weekend were done so without a director in place. Obama therefore succeeded not only in normalizing assassination as “targeted killing” when the implements of homicide used are missiles, and they are launched under the direction of the CIA, but he also left the killing machine on autopilot. Note that the former CIA director, John Brennan, who first served as Obama’s drone killing czar, before being promoted to director, has spent his time in recent days bashing the new president, not serving as Trump’s interim adviser.
The incineration of military-age men using missiles launched from drones has become so frequent and commonplace that US citizens, including legislators, did not blink an eye at the fact that the killing machine set in motion by President Obama is now effectively on autopilot. It’s worth remembering that, once upon a time, acts of war were to be approved by the congress. Now even acephalic agencies such as the directorless CIA are permitted to use weapons of war to kill anyone whom they deem to be worthy of death. All of this came about because Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Barack “no boots on the ground” Obama wanted to be able to prosecute wars without appearing to prosecute wars. Fait accompli.
Note: above photo credit mikechurch.com
On Wednesday, November 2, 2016, I had an interesting midday conversation with Sean Sullivan of FMTalkRadio 106.5 in Mobile, Alabama. We discussed:
–parallels between the Brexit vote in the UK and the Trump movement in the US;
–Hillary Clinton’s disastrous Libya intervention and foreign policy plans for the future;
–arguments against the use of lethal drones outside war zones;
–what I mean by “We Kill Because We Can” (the title of my book on drone killing);
–a few words about the importance of free speech to a flourishing democracy.
Here’s a link to the podcast:
The US Air Force has been busy doling out US taxpayer cash, not only for the production of 30 more MQ-9 Reaper (read: death) drones by General Atomics, but also in the hopes of retaining drone operators willing to fly and fire missiles from them. The latest “incentive” being offered to RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) operators is $35,000 each year for the next five years. That’s about $100 a day, on top of their current salary. All that they have to do is not quit their job once their first contract term has expired. Sounds like a good deal, right?
Not so good to the drone and sensor operators who have abandoned the profession as a result of their profound regret (in some cases they suffer from PTSD) for having ever agreed to serve as government assassins in the first place. Brandon Bryant was offered more than $100K to continue on, and he declined. Rather than attempt to understand the moral basis for drone operator discontent, the USAF has decided that really what the operators preparing to bolt need is more money. Who could resist?
If $100 a day as a retainer fee seems like enough of a bonus to continue serving as an on-call government assassin, then perhaps some of these people will stay on. But it is extremely important for them to be fully aware of what they are agreeing to do for the next five years of their lives. President Barack Obama, the current commander in chief, will be leaving office soon. In all likelihood either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will assume the presidency and carry on the Obama tradition of dispatching terrorist suspects by drone. It’s much easier, politically, than conventional warfare (no flag-wrapped coffins, no condolence letters to write), and Obama has effectively normalized assassination by rebranding it as “targeted killing”.
In truth, “targeted killing” using Predator or Reaper drones differs from assassination in only two ways. First, missiles are being used to kill targets, rather than other implements of homicide (pistols, poisons, strangulation wires…). Second, unlike most black op assassinations carried out by hit squads in the twentieth century, drone strikes produce collateral damage alongside the obliterated target. Remarkably, many people have not recognized that those are the only two ways in which the stalking, hunting down and execution of human beings by governments has changed in the Drone Age.
“This is war,” allegedly, because “weapons of war” are used to effect the deaths, and unintended deaths of civilians are caused at the same time. Never mind that, in contrast to regular combat situations, the soldier who pushes the button to launch a missile is not in any direct danger of physical harm, least of all at the hands of his target, who is usually located thousands of miles away and has no idea that he is about to die. Drone operators and sensors might develop carpal tunnel syndrome, but their lives are never on the line when they follow orders to kill.
Given the reality of what they are doing, the drone and sensor operators who accept the latest bribe are in effect agreeing to execute anyone designated by either President Clinton or President Trump as worthy of death. The new US president won’t have to say why, because Barack Obama never did. The drone program has always been secretive and opaque, under cover of national security. The release of the “playbook” (Presidential Policy Guidance or PPG) did nothing to assuage the concerns of critics who have for years been demanding transparency.
All that we know with certainty now is that President Obama was wrong when he told a group of listeners during a GoogleTalk chat in January 2012 that “it’s not a bunch of folks in a room just making decisions.” That is, indeed, precisely what Barack Obama’s version of “due process” is. A massive, secretive, bureaucratic institution of killing, with no checks and balances and zero provision for revisiting death sentences handed down by anonymous officials (“folks in a room”) from behind closed doors, primarily on the basis of analysis (by “folks in a room”) of signals intelligence (SIGINT): metadata from cellphones and SIM cards, and drone video footage. Looks like a terrorist. Walks like a terrorist. Talks like a terrorist. Guilty as charged: send out the drones.
In some cases, bribed intelligence from informants on the ground (human intelligence or HUMINT) is used to supplement the electronic sources of “evidence” that the people being slaughtered truly deserve to die, along with anyone at their side at the time—the dreaded “associates”: taxi drivers, family members and friends, funeral or wedding attendees, first responders, the list goes on and on…
The problems with bribed intelligence from human sources are just as bad as the racial profiling inherent to SIGINT-based “signature strikes” or “crowd killing” of brown-skinned Muslims wearing turbans and carrying guns—or not. Hundreds of strikes have been carried out “outside areas of active hostilities” under Obama’s authorization. Today we know what happened when HUMINT was used to round up suspects for detention at Guantánamo Bay prison: most of the men incarcerated (86%) were innocent. “The worst of the worst” they were called at the time.
It is therefore very important for any drone operators and sensors considering the possibility of continuing on in their role as a professional assassin to recognize that they are agreeing to kill people who in many cases will be innocent of any wrongdoing—certainly any capital offense. Even worse, they are agreeing to serve as the henchman of a future president whom they may or may not believe to be either moral or good.
Many Americans have expressed concern that the Republican and Democratic parties have nominated candidates for the presidency who are wholly ill-suited for the task. In Trump’s case, we really have no idea what he will do. He’s the classic case of a “known unknown”. Some days he sounds like an isolationist ready and willing to put an end to US meddling in the Middle East; other days he sounds like Dr. Strangelove.
In Clinton’s case, we know precisely what she will do: send out the drones and expand and multiply the wars already raging in the Middle East. Amazingly, Hillary Clinton appears to believe that “third time’s a charm,” as she is calling for a repetition in Syria of the regime-change policy which failed so miserably in both Iraq and Libya.
On the drone front, Clinton surrogates have suggested that even nonviolent dissidents such as Wikileaks’ Julian Assange should be added to the US government’s hit list. Perhaps Clinton will try to outdo Obama (who executed US citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki without trial), and Edward Snowden’s name will be added to the list as well. Not so far-fetched, given her evident antipathy toward technologically savvy whistleblowers…
Trump or Clinton? Who will the next US president be? Once having signed on the dotted line, drone operators and sensors will be expected to follow the orders of the commander in chief, whoever it may be. Maybe $100 a day as a retainer fee to serve as an on-call assassin isn’t such a good deal after all.