Countering the Right: Foreign Affairs Op-ed Defending Drones Part II

Continued from part I here

Carrying on the argument against the op-ed in Foreign Affairs advocating drone use, his next point gets at a key point in the debate:

Individuals join anti-American terrorist groups for many reasons, ranging from outrage over U.S. support for Israel to anger at their own government’s cooperation with the United States. Some people simply join up because their neighbors are doing so.

What he fails to mention here is that some people also hate and attack America because of the United States’ killing people overseas, which would obviously include drone attacks.  We know incidents like the Ft. Hood shooting and the Boston Marathon Bombing were carried out for this reason because the perpetrators have said so.  In short, it is a cycle of violence with no real end in sight or an end that is truly feasible without one side ignoring past casualties, a scenario that is highly unlikely.

But sometimes imminent and intolerable threats do arise and drone strikes are the best way to eliminate them.

This assumes, of course, every drone strike that is carried out is launched against an “imminent” threat, a point that is highly debatable since we now know drones have been used to kill people who were not after the United States.  If all or even most of the “militants” killed by drones were “imminent threats”, why has the government been so reluctant to give any proof of a just a few of the lesser known casualties?  We know about the bigger names killed as they are reported extensively, but they are the minority.  Can’t they just give us some of the smaller fish and show exactly how they were deemed “imminent threats”?  Since the attacks are carried out in the name of U.S. citizens, it is something we deserve to know and be able to confirm.

A memo released by the antisecrecy website WikiLeaks revealed that Pakistan’s army chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, privately asked U.S. military leaders in 2008 for “continuous Predator coverage” over antigovernment militants, and the journalist Mark Mazzetti has reported that the United States has conducted “goodwill kills” against Pakistani militants who threatened Pakistan far more than the United States.

Wait, I thought I was making the case for that being a bad use of drones?  Kind of bizarre an advocate would mention it as well since this is a clear misuse of the system.  And with calls for austerity and the ongoing sequester, how much of our tax dollars went into fighting Pakistan’s battles for them?  As the NSA scandal has focused on secrecy from a domestic perspective, we should keep in mind that that is not the only government secrecy we should be worried about because a much more destructive kind is being carried out overseas.

A 2012 poll found that 74 percent of Pakistanis viewed the United States as their enemy, likely in part because of the ongoing drone campaign…A poll conducted in 2007, well before the drone campaign had expanded to its current scope, found that only 15 percent of Pakistanis had a favorable opinion of the United States. It is hard to imagine that alternatives to drone strikes, such as SEAL team raids or cruise missile strikes, would make the United States more popular.

And we are now taught by this that our only “alternatives” to drones are boots on the ground or bigger bombs.  In other words, we can choose the “kill a lot of people approach” or the “kill even more people approach”.  Here’s an idea.  How about neither?

I’m reminded of a comment bin Laden made back in 2004 just before the U.S. presidential election.  He stated, “…contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom.  If so, then let him explain to us why we don’t strike for example – Sweden?”  A fair question.  And since it has been so long, maybe that has changed…Nope.  Still no Islamist attacks on Sweden.  I wonder what those crazy Swedes do so different from the U.S.?  Are they putting boots on the ground instead of using drones?  Maybe their bombs are bigger?  Or maybe they do neither and don’t get targeted in return.  Just a thought.

Indeed, it appears that Awlaki is the only U.S. citizen who has been deliberately killed by a drone.

This is a nice dodge of the fact the government has acknowledged four Americans were killed by drones, including a minor and a man on the FBI’s Most Wanted List (who we apparently weren’t specifically targeting).  He does use the word “deliberately” to deliberately ignore this fact and it’s clever.  Shady, but clever.  In all honesty, with thousands killed by drones, I don’t know why the author even bothers going out of his way to dodge this.  It’s a well known fact at this point so who does he think he is hiding this from?  It’s just a weak attempt at covering the truth about how many American citizens have been killed by drones.

The ultimate truth about drones is the faster we retire the program, the faster we will be doing something to actually stop the level of hatred in the Islamic world of one vicious aspect of United States’ foreign policy.

Countering the Right: Foreign Affairs Op-ed Defending Drones Part I

Foreign Affairs published op-eds recently to debate the for and against sides of drone warfare (although the against often sounds like a commendation of the program).  Since I have made no secret about being against the policy, I’ll be taking a closer look at many of the points advocating for drones.  Let’s get into it.

Critics of drone strikes often fail to take into account the fact that the alternatives are either too risky or unrealistic…Worse yet, in Pakistan and Yemen, the governments have at times cooperated with militants. If the United States regularly sent in special operations forces to hunt down terrorists there, sympathetic officials could easily tip off the jihadists, likely leading to firefights, U.S. casualties, and possibly the deaths of the suspects and innocent civilians.

The author here is admitting the only difference between drones and the alternatives is U.S. casualties since the other deaths would likely happen either way.  In other words, the deaths of foreigners are acceptable, whether innocent or not.  Can’t imagine why that position would anger anyone overseas.

And this ignores the fact that, just maybe, governments are helping their own people because they are not fans of their sovereignty being violated by a foreign power and they look weak when their people are attacked.  The author points out there are secret agreements between the U.S. and these governments but they still openly oppose them to their populations.  This means, from the perspective of their citizens, anytime an attack happens their governments look weak and powerless against the U.S., further stoking hatred in the general population against America and creating more extremism.

And even if a raid results in a successful capture, it begets another problem: what to do with the detainee. Prosecuting detainees in a federal or military court is difficult because often the intelligence against terrorists is inadmissible or using it risks jeopardizing sources and methods. And given the fact that the United States is trying to close, rather than expand, the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, it has become much harder to justify holding suspects indefinitely. It has become more politically palatable for the United States to kill rather than detain suspected terrorists.

So, we have enough evidence to kill someone but we can’t prove that in a court of law?  One way of looking at that is the part highlighted.  Another, however, is the fact that more than half of the inmates at the mentioned Guantánamo Bay facility have been granted their release but still remain in prison.  Which begs the question: are we choosing to kill because of the inadmissibility of evidence and giving up intelligence or are we doing it because we don’t want to admit we get info wrong about many suspects and do it more often than we want to acknowledge?  Considering the facts, it’s a very fair question.

Furthermore, although a drone strike may violate the local state’s sovereignty, it does so to a lesser degree than would putting U.S. boots on the ground or conducting a large-scale air campaign.

This still ignores the fact that it’s a clear violation of international law and it angers people throughout the world, whether friend or foe, when the U.S. conducts these acts regardless of which we choose.  The anti-drone argument gives some of the international polling data on drones with “Turkey (81 percent against), Jordan (85 percent against), and Egypt (89 percent against)…51 percent of Poles, 59 percent of Germans, 63 percent of French, 76 percent of Spanish, and a full 90 percent of Greeks” opposed to the policy.  And it should be noted those countries are not the ones being attacked with drones.

How Healthy is Government Secrecy?

One of the most important aspects of government, regardless of whether we are discussing democracy or authoritarianism, is government secrecy.  This can show up in many forms but one of the key reasons for its existence is the illusion of competency at all times by the ruling entity.  The risk the ruling elite face when something damaging reaches the masses is too great no matter how small or big.  If this were ancient times, for example, an Egyptian pharaoh would not want the people realizing he does not actually possess supernatural powers.  In today’s more democratic world, governments do not want people knowing anything that may be used to put their reelection chances in jeopardy.

An article in The Guardian this weekend gives the perspective of what dangers may come from one former U.S. government insider William Leonard, ex-head of the Information Security Oversight Office from 2002 to 2007.  Leonard points out the amount of documents being kept secret has expanded greatly over the past two administrations and wonders how positive this is for the public.  He sums up the most lethal actions in this statement:

Governments have decided under the cloak of secrecy to unleash the brutality of violence in our name and that of our fellow citizens. So extra judicial kidnapping becomes ‘rendition’, torture becomes ‘enhanced interrogation’, detainees are held on information that barely qualifies as hearsay, and assassination becomes ‘targeted killing’.

One always must remember that in a democracy the actions taken by the government are always assumed to be the will of the people no matter how horrible those actions may be.  Take U.S. support in the past for former dictatorial strongmen around the world.  The Shah in Iran.  Mubarak in Egypt.  Hussein in Iraq.  The American people were never asked whether we wanted to support these men and, if aware of their actions and not fed their “shining” personalities through the lens of the government wanting to support them, would not likely have condoned U.S. support.  But, since we democratically elect our leaders, it is assumed our government’s actions are our will.

Which brings us to a few more articles that appeared over the weekend.  It was revealed by a UN investigator on Friday the Pakistani government does not officially sanction U.S. drone strikes on its soil.  Although it does appear likely that a secret understanding exists between the U.S. and Pakistani governments over this policy, the strikes are so unpopular in Pakistan the government must maintain a veil of innocence regardless of whether they approve or not.  As stated in the article, “it is estimated that between 2004 and 2013, CIA drone attacks in Pakistan killed up to 3,460 people.  About 890 of them were civilians.”  Judging from their cooperation (Pakistan’s government, not its people) and lack of true outrage at the U.S., it seems very likely that secret agreement is very real.

This leads to another article on drones and an issue that has been hotly debated but might be a colossal distraction from a bigger problem (a possibly welcomed distraction by the U.S. government).  Jonathan Hafetz, Associate Professor of Law at Seton Hall University School of Law, points out in an op-ed that debating whether U.S. citizens should or shouldn’t be targeted by drones distracts us away from the use of drones themselves and the thousands that have been killed by them, whether guilty or innocent.  Hafetz states there have only been two cases of American citizens being targeted by drones in comparison to the thousands of foreign nationals who have suffered the same fate.  His most important points:

Despite increases in the accuracy of drone strikes, errors still occur. Those errors have a devastating effect not just on the family members of victims and their communities, but also influence opinions about the US in countries where the strikes occur. One consequence is to increase radicalisation and undermine support for US counterterrorism operations – precisely the result the US wants to avoid.

Another consequence is the precedent the US is setting on the international stage. Over time, more countries will have access to this new technology, which they may use against perceived threats in ways the US does not like and that could unleash destabilising forces. The US will be in a stronger position to exercise leadership in this area in the future if it acts responsibly now and conforms its conduct to broadly accepted legal principles. In the final analysis, the US will be judged by how it uses drones not against its own citizens, but against others.

Every mistake made in drone policy has devastating consequences and all of those mistakes are not viewed by foreign peoples as an error in judgement by a few officials in government.  It is seen as a mistake by the U.S.A. no matter what state you live in or who you voted for.

Which brings us to one last issue in relation to government secrecy that arose this weekend.  In an interview with Israeli TV, President Obama stated, “right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close.”  This somewhat echoes the recent revelation by Israeli intelligence that they believe Iran will not have a nuclear weapon until 2015 or 2016 but does not tell us why Obama believes that or what type of intelligence we have that Iran is even pursuing a nuclear weapon in the first place.  This being the case, are we truly willing to allow Iranian blood (or anyone’s blood for that matter) to be shed with little to no evidence given to the American people as to why the attack on Iran is even needed?

All of this being said, is government secrecy in a democracy healthy?  Let’s take two relatively recent cases where government incompetency was exposed and might have been avoided if the public had increased transparency to what the government was actually doing.  First, a small one, the GSA scandal over the agency’s conference in Las Vegas.  The cost of this was relatively small and the scandal not particularly devastating but it rightly deserved to be shown for what it was, a gross excess by irresponsible government employees.  If those at fault had been aware of possible public scrutiny and were more fearful of exposure of their extravagances, they likely would not have been so careless in the first place and the hundreds of thousands in wasted taxpayer dollars would have not been spent.  Second, a bigger and more devastating instance of government secrecy: the Iraq War.  If the public was aware of how shaky the intelligence was regarding the WMDs, would the war have been allowed to begin in the first place?  Not likely and, again, money and, more importantly, lives would have been saved before the government was allowed to carry out its incompetent action.

Some may make the argument a certain level of government secrecy is needed, for instance how to build a nuclear bomb and where these bombs are being housed.  Fair enough.  But that has seemingly been expanded to new levels and is growing in ways that are certainly unhealthy to the public the government is supposed to be serving and representing.  With the amount of media outlets available today, more government transparency would be healthy regardless of political leanings.  The number of enterprising reporters doing investigative work would ensure that every level of government is kept under the watchful eye of the public and fewer and fewer instances of carelessness would occur.  When you know someone is looking closely over your shoulder, you make sure you are doing the best work possible, which is something we are at liberty to want and should expect out of our government.

But this will not happen if government secrecy continues to expand.  The time has come to further question what we need to know about government and what we will allow to occur in our names.  The difficult part is having one of the political parties swallow its pride and say they will allow this while they are in power and are potentially exposed to the effects of more transparency.  It is up to us to demand this change in the relationship of public and government from the political party we support for the greater good of everyone, whether we live on American soil or anywhere else on Earth.