The Government’s Orwellian Justification of its Deadly Drone Strikes

President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, gave a talk on behalf of the administration April 30 of this year at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. The talk’s title was “The Ethics and Efficacy of the President’s Counterterrorism Strategy.” What chutzpah! I read the transcript and George Orwell immediately leapt to mind. Political prose, he said, makes “lies sound truthful and murder respectable—.”

Let’s examine the administration’s political prose in claiming that its drone strikes are efficacious, ethical, legal, and wise.

On the Orwellian Claim that Drone Strikes are Efficacious

To be efficacious, drone strikes must a) actually achieve their objective and by a reasonable deadline; b) pursue the right objective; c) pursue a credible objective; d) be the best means available to achieve the objective; and e) avoid undesirable side effects and chain reactions.

a. Drone strikes can never achieve the objective of eliminating al-Qaeda and ending terrorism against the U.S. Drone strikes anger people in the countries struck, guaranteeing that al-Qaeda or mutations of it will keep the U.S. war on terror in perpetuity.

b. The objective of eliminating terrorism by eliminating al-Qaeda is not the right one. An unachievable objective can never be the right one.

c. Despite the propagandizing for it, the objective isn’t credible. Not everyone is gullible.  Consider these two truly patriotic and knowledgeable Americans. Paul Craig Roberts, a high-ranking official in the Reagan administration thinks the war on terror is a hoax designed to make Americans fearful and subservient. Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the antiwar group Code Pink wasn’t fooled either. She was in the audience and interrupted the speaker to dispute his claims before being whisked away and handcuffed.

Another benefit to the administration is that its war propaganda and warring help distract Americans from the growing deterioration of socioeconomic conditions at home while U.S. militarism and imperialism continue to starve the domestic part of the federal budget solely for corporate and political self interests.

d. Drone strikes are the worst means for eliminating terrorism. The best means would be those designed to end the U.S. support of Israel’s militarism and her illegal building of settlements; substantially reduce U.S. military presence in the Great Middle East; substantially reduce welfare to the war industry; reduce dependence on foreign oil; and stop aiding global exploitation by multinational corporations headquartered in the U.S. or doing business primarily in the U.S.

e. Drone strikes can never avoid the so-called “collateral” killing and maiming of hundreds of non-targeted men, women and children and might not be able to avoid eventual retaliation worse than the attack on the twin towers.

On the Orwellian Claim that Drone Strikes are Ethical

Throughout history and across very different cultures certain ethical values have remained constant such as accountability, caring for others, excellence, fairness, fidelity, honesty, integrity, promise keeping, respecting others, and responsible citizenship. Only an Orwellian claim could twist those universal values to justify drone strikes; could argue that the “principle of humanity,” whatever that means to the administration “requires it to use weapons that will not inflict unnecessary suffering;” could cite abstruse principles of “necessity,” “distinction,” and “proportionately” as additional proof that drone strikes are ethical; and could assert that the administration is “harnessing every element of American power— [including] the power of our values.”

While acknowledging that many innocent, noncombatant men, women and children have been killed and wounded by U.S. drone strikes, the speaker claims the “administration puts a “premium—on protecting human life, including innocent civilians” but does not go on to say what exactly this premium is and what limit, if any, the administration has set on the toll taken by drone strikes before it decides that they are no longer efficacious and ethical. In truth, the administration, like those before it put a premium on sustaining the corpocracy, the Devil’s marriage between powerful corporate and political interests.

On the Orwellian Claim that Drone Strikes are Legal

Purportedly authoritative legal sources are cited, one after another, to substantiate the claim that drone strikes are legal but no mention is made of counter arguments such as, for instance, one made by the U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich that “Drones [are] a direct hit upon rule of law” or one made by Philip Ashton, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings suggesting that in certain circumstances (e.g., when the CIA is conducting the strikes) “U.S. drone strikes may violate international law.”

There is no acknowledgement by the administration that it is relying on legal loop holes to claim the legality of drone strikes; loop holes such as not declaring drone strikes to be an act of war since the Constitution requires Congress to declare war and using the CIA because it is somehow not bound by the same legal accountabilities.

Like Mafia bosses with their hit men, it can be argued that the war industry and war politicians are committing surrogate murders. What is ethical and legal about surrogate murdering?

On the Orwellian Claim that Drone Strikes are Wise

Drone strikes compared to other military means are a wise choice according to the Orwellian claim. Drone strikes are less constrained by geographical considerations; can be done more quickly; avoid danger to U.S. personnel by remotely flying the drones; reduce the danger to innocent people in the targeted area; can aim precisely at the intended targets; and strategically avoid troublesome consequences that can ensue from “deploying large armies.”

In assessing the wisdom of its choice the speaker side steps the issue of whether a wiser choice in the long run would be to persistently pursue peaceful means to eliminating al-Qaeda.

Only an Orwellian spokesperson would brag about the precautions the administration takes to ensure that its drone strikes demonstrate that the administration is a “standard bearer,” on the insistence of President Obama, in the conduct of war, including the use of drone strikes, adding that “if we want other nations to use these technologies responsibly, we must use them responsibly.” Welcome world to the Devil’s premium quality drones!

In Closing

Reading the transcript also reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s phrase, “the banality of evil” that she coined to characterize the thoughtless mind of Adolph Eichmann, whose trial she was reporting on for The New Yorker. Well, some of us have looked banal evil in the eye and it did not blink.

America’s worse enemy is not al-Qaeda, as treacherous as it may be according to the administration. America’s worse enemy is her own corpocracy. The only way to end it for good in this writer’s opinion is for Americans to organize and launch “two-fisted democracy power,” with one fist being a virtual network of organizations and groups carrying out a strategic plan of political, legislative, judicial and economic reform initiatives and the other fist being a large coalition of different segments of the populace applying pressure behind the reform initiatives (see further details here). The corpocracy is united. Its opposition is divided and weak.

Gary Brumback, PhD, is a retired psychologist and Fellow of both the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science. Read other articles by Gary.