Drones and Death in the 8th Republican Presidential Debate, February 6, 2016

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Lethal drones have come to symbolize “smart power” to Democrats. In the first Democratic presidential debate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went so far as to characterize the “no boots on the ground” 2011 intervention in Libya as “smart power at its best”. Judging by their campaign trail rhetoric, Republican candidates tend to believe the opposite: drones are not a symbol of smartness and savvy, but of weakness. Usually drones are not mentioned at all, but at last night’s Republican debate in New Hampshire, they were positively “dissed”.

TedCruzSenator Ted Cruz has enthusiastically proclaimed that he will “carpet bomb” ISIS strongholds and make the sand “glow”, suggesting his readiness even to use nuclear weapons against the latest bearers of the Al Qaeda torch. When asked whether he knows that ISIS is embedded among civilian populations, Cruz did not back down from his hawkish plans, essentially replying to the question that it doesn’t matter where the members of ISIS live. He will crush them, wherever they may be, and whomever they may be with. Cruz’s answer had a familiar ring because whenever Republican candidates are asked about rules of engagement (ROE), they afford themselves of the opportunity to complain that President Barack Obama has diminished the military, not only through budget cuts, but also by “tying their hands”. The explanation for the chaos in the Middle East, according to Republicans, is that Obama has not permitted the US military to do what needs to be done.

The general Republican disdain for military “half-measures” came out explicitly in last night’s exchange among the seven remaining contenders of what once was a slate of seventeen. The word ‘drone’ was uttered during a discussion about the prospect of bringing back waterboarding, which moderator Martha Raddatz creepily enough seemed to be promoting, goading the candidates on to proclaim that they, like George W. Bush, would “do what needs to be done”. None of the waterboarding advocates appears to have any recollection of the case of Ibn al Shiekh al-Libbi, who confessed under torture that there was a connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, thus providing a pretext for the war on Iraq.

JebBushFormer Florida Governor Jeb Bush (and brother of W, “The Decider” who embroiled the United States in what has become never-ending war in the Middle East) criticized drones as not being sufficient to win the war against ISIS, and in fact not a “smart” strategy at all. Jeb suggested that suspects should be captured and made to give up information. Other candidates then chimed in, including Senator Marco Rubio, who recited his familiar refrain that he would not only keep Guantánamo Bay open, but send more terrorists there! Granted, the fact that 86% of the men detained at the prison were cleared of any terrorist connections whatsoever is not the greatest talking point for wooing voters. Marco Rubio, however, appears to believe, like W, that all terrorist suspects are by definition terrorists.

MarcoRubioIt is abundantly clear that if one of the more bellicose candidates is elected, he or she will not hesitate to unleash massive air power on the Middle East, the effect of which will be to make Barack Obama look like the Peace President many voters in 2008 were hoping for. This would be highly ironic, for Obama’s secret drone campaigns and JSOC assassination missions, his removal of Muammar Gaddafi from power, and his provision of hundreds of tons of weapons to the rebels in Syria, all undeniably contributed to the massive increase in the strength and reach of ISIS. Obama’s “smart warrior” façade, his refusal to put “boots on the ground” while running non-stop covert ops, has served only to provoke more murder and mayhem in the Middle East and to galvanize support for violent radical Islamist groups.

Democratic contender Bernie Sanders, who campaigns on a socialist platform of domestic political and economic revolution, has repeatedly indicated that, as president, he would follow Obama’s foreign policy example by continuing drone assassination as the primary means of military intervention abroad. Unbeknownst to Sanders, the revolution that is really needed is a commitment to halt US military intervention and greatly reduce military spending, beginning with a full line-item audit of the profligate Pentagon. If only Bernie understood that all of his big-ticket items—universal health care, free college, rebuilt infrastructure, and energy independence leading to massive job production—could be paid for with a tiny fraction of the military budget. What needs to be done to save what remains of the US republic is drastically to slash the bloated military budget, rein in executive power, and resolve never again to serve as the world’s biggest bully. Sanders opposes capital punishment, but his focus on an ambitious domestic program has clouded his judgment about Obama’s use of deadly force abroad.

What is most striking about the way in which the 2016 candidates for the presidency all talk about foreign policy is that they ignore the true causes of the mess in the Middle East: US intervention. It’s as though the candidates have all conspired in a secret pact to pretend that the facts are not the facts. The 9/11 attacks were retaliation for the 1991 Gulf War and its aftermath. To his credit, Bernie Sanders opposed the First Gulf War, but even he does not see fit to connect the dots for prospective voters. Instead, he politely acquiesces to the mainstream media’s preposterous insistence on painting Hillary Clinton as an accomplished foreign policymaker with the experience needed to serve as commander in chief.

As sad as it may be to admit, Obama’s foreign policy appears always to have been focused on securing his legacy. Despite the fact that his ghastly “kill don’t capture” policy has normalized assassination all over the globe, Obama will end up looking pacific next to anyone who comes after him, including Hillary Clinton, who remarkably vaunts endorsements from Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger. Most, if not all, of the Republican candidates have gone on record to say that they will immediately shred the negotiated deal with Iran to limit that country’s nuclear capacity.

What will remain of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, once he has left the White House? Renewed and emboldened intervention in the Middle East, along with the image of the 44th president as a peace maker etched into history. Surely he will look better than his successor in body count tallies, and few people will view Obama as the proximate cause of what he in fact wrought.

Why does Italy Need 156 Hellfire Missiles? Or: Lethal Creep 5.0

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The latest beneficiary of DARPA’s ingeniousness and US taxpayer largesse appears to be the government of Italy, which has been clamoring for lethal drones since 2012, and was recently reported to be next in line to receive a cache of some of the latest and greatest implements of homicide developed by the United States. These munitions were produced for use in what the killers continue to refer to as “war”, despite the fact that drone operators run no risk of physical harm when they dispatch suspects in lands far away.

Yes, the US government has acceded to the Italian government’s request and will be furnishing them with 156 Hellfire missiles, which can be attached to their two Reaper drones (UAVs or unmanned aerial vehicles) to realize the potential implied by the very name ‘Reaper’. Yes, now Italy, too, along with the United States and Britain, will be among the Western states “blessed” with lethal drones and prepared for … what exactly?

One has to ask: why does Italy need to have 156 Hellfire missiles ready to deploy by Reaper drones? Is Italy at war with any other nation? Or will the Italian government be using these slick implements of homicide to follow the examples of US President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who eliminated countrymen deemed by their analysts behind closed doors “evil terrorists” and “high-value targets”? No need to capture, contain, indict and try suspects for treasonous crimes in the Drone Age. Due process and the separation of government powers are so twentieth century!

By the fall of 2011, President Obama had authorized the execution by lethal drone of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki (among others) located in Yemen. By August 2015, Prime Minister Cameron had authorized the execution of British citizens Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, located in Syria, despite the fact that capital punishment is prohibited by British law and the EU Charter. Not that Cameron had much to worry about, with the US government standing by his side (remember the bond of brothers Tony Blair and George W. Bush?) and praising the fact that Cameron, too, had now effaced the line formerly distinguishing blacks ops from “just war”.

These days it’s simple to transform an illegal act of assassination—undertaken by deniable operators before the Drone Age—into what politicians the world over are willing to call an act of war. It suffices to deploy a missile rather than a strangulation wire, an exploding cigar, a poisoned meal, or a good old-fashioned pistol! One must own that this has been quite a feat of political léger-de-main.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once asked Colin Powell (a top military official at that time): “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” It’s an incontestable maxim of practical rationality that one not squander large sums of money on useless stuff. In the case of munitions, there’s no point in having them at all unless one is ready and willing to use them, particularly when they have no power to deter anyone from doing anything—as in the case of nuclear warheads, at least according to advocates of their development throughout the Cold War.

Weaponized drones do not and cannot deter anyone from doing anything—aside from talking with other community members or perhaps associating in groups for public events such as weddings and jirgas—because they are deployed at the culmination of secretive deliberations wholly immune from critique. Virtually anyone could be on the hit lists generated by government-contracted analysts and based on hearsay from shady, bribed informants and circumstantial evidence derived from cell phone data and SIM cards, etc. As Ernest Hemingway once said about cats: “One [associate] just leads to another…”

So what will Italy do with its Hellfire-missile-equipped Reapers? No doubt they will do their best to find some Italians holed up somewhere in a tribal region of some hotbed of conflict—Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Mali, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria, Egypt, … the list continues to lengthen—and seize this historical opportunity to do what in centuries past was deemed illegal: to execute citizens without trial and without even charging them with crimes. In the Drone Age, political leaders are capitalizing on the latest military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex boom: the creation of lethal drones which must be used in order to rationalize their purchase.

Political leaders with access to lethal drones kill because they can, and also because this form of homicide has been christened “smart war” by the first Drone Nation, the United States of America. The members of the once small club of nations whose leaders succumb to the temptation to dispatch annoying dissidents with no judicial process whatsoever can be expected to continue on until nearly everyone in the Western world is complicit. Ximena Ortiz has incisively termed this strange twenty-first-century phenomenon “the Third Worldization of America”, and it is has already infected Britain. Italy is next in line.

The more nations complicit, the more difficult it will become—reaching eventually the point of being impossible—to bring any of the lot before the International Criminal Court in the Hague for violating international law. Among the protocols essentially abandoned by the self-styled drone warriors are the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, according to which persons suspected of wrongdoing must be provided with the opportunity to defend themselves against the claims made by persons in positions of power that they deserve to die.

It’s a slippery slope, and the Italian government, which admirably took to task the CIA for their illegal rendering and torture of Osama Mustafa Hussan, finding the perpetrators guilty as charged back in 2009, appears poised to let bygones be bygones in the case of summary execution without trial. Surely someone in Italy recognizes that the remote-control killing of suspects is infinitely worse than prolonged detention without charges and “enhanced interrogation”. The persons detained at Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba were horribly wronged, but they were not whacked with impunity by “drone warriors” under the preposterous presumption that all suspects are guilty until proven innocent, not the other way around.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone, maintained by the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, is ready for take off at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan in this June 29, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/Files

REUTERS/Baz Ratner/Files

For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 1: Drone Nation; Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 10: Death and Taxes; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants do