Obama and Drone-Speak

Targets Intentional or Otherwise

Well it was that President Barack Obama would make the claim that the way prisoners are detained and the way drones are used in terms of targeting would “define” the United States as a nation. A nation of opportunistic, moneyed hustlers intent on bruising the next foreign nose is already a definition worth having. But Obama wants something else. He wants a different style in counter-terrorism strategy, one of death under the guise of law. This has been every nation’s greatest challenge: finding the legitimate means of killing your opponents without feeling too bad about it.

Having been fairly mute – with the exception of a few murmurings – the President has tended to allow his unmanned vehicles to strut their murderous stuff. Legality has been a distant consideration. Critics are popping up. Concerns are growing.

A few snippets from Obama are worth noting – the 500 strikes that were conducted in Afghanistan last year, and the CIA’s own exclusive bevy of killings “mainly concentrating on strikes in Pakistan’s border region as well as in Yemen and Somalia” (Dawn, May 24). The CIA has managed to court Obama into embracing its methods. As Greg Miller of the Washington Post (May 26) suggested, the CIA’s expansion into areas such as Yemen were largely due to their prowess, being “simply better than the Defense Department in locating and killing al-Qaeda operatives with armed drones, according to current and former U.S. officials involved in the deliberations.”

Consider, then, the prospect that Obama will rein in the role of his brutes, his attack dogs, replacing them with a different type of breed: those from the Pentagon. True, the President did suggest that the drone was something of a powerful seduction and excuse in the making (or even unmaking) of foreign policy. The availability of such weapons might well “lead the president and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.”

Obama, in short, is going to use the military to channel legality into the operation. Make it open. Keep the killing not so much clean as above board where legal blessings can be granted. If the Pentagon hacks dirty Waziristan with their trigger-happy indiscretions, as opposed to their brothers and sisters of the satanic shadows, then the transparency freaks will be satisfied. They are all about the laws of war in the Pentagon.

The CIA has its supporters, which will make the proposals difficult to implement. The golem was already taking form during the Bush administration, but it was Obama who proved to be the chief conjurer, the one who summed the drone program up with an intoxicated enthusiasm. What better salute to legality than to pretend it has clothes? (The costumers here will be “kill courts” vetting the appropriateness of targets.) Bush, characteristically, did not even bother with the knickers.

Drone-speak operates on various frequencies – there are casualties that arise from “collateral damage”, that most bloody of euphemisms – but the Obama crew would like to let you know they are sincere about it. Will the suits in the Defense Department show such heavy-hearted consideration? Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the formidable Senate Intelligence Committee is not so sure, claiming that the CIA “exercise patience and discretion specifically to prevent collateral damage”. She would, in short, have to be “convinced that the military could carry it out as well.” Murder is a technical business, requiring skill, precision and a certain rehearsed moral stance. As Norman Mailer claimed about America’s premier intelligence organisation, they are only half rotten.

Here is the rub – Obama sees the battle against terrorism as ending. “This war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.” The madness need only be finite. Till then, the United States will have to tolerate not merely the killing of those that fall into the dubious “terrorist” category – they will also have to anticipate the killing of Americans who nudge their way into the dark zone of terror.

The admission by Obama – that America has a drone program that has been doing a good deal of killing – is a tactical confession. Furthermore, we did kill American citizens, but we did so within context. Remember: context is everything, even if the killing of civilians does “haunt” the president. “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.” The position has been praised by U.N. human rights special rapporteur Ben Emmerson (BBC, May 24), a confirmation that human rights in war, if it ever existed, is a dead as a dodo letter.

That said, there was no explanation from the Whit House as to why Abdulrahman Anwar al-Awlaki was killed two weeks after a CIA strike killed his father, considered a high profile al-Qaeda target. Three other Americans can also be added to the mix. The ghost in the machine has been busy.

Obama claims that a new classified policy will deal with the use of unmanned aircraft in areas where the term war is simply not used – Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen. Lethal force will be deployed against those who pose “a continuing, imminent threat to Americans”, and cannot be captured in any practicable way. That, at least, is the drone-speak humming from the pen of Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.

The President himself claimed that he only appends his signature to a drone assassination when the capture of the subject is impossible, and there is a “near-certainty” that civilian casualties will be avoided.

The Onion, bless its satirical socks, decided to run a piece of humour on it – Obama is thinking of turning the focus on limiting civilian casualties by switching to taser drones. The switch would be humorous, but surely, no less lethal. The key is to kill within a false sense of what the legal actually is. Keep it clean. Keep it safe. Suspend it, and let your imagination do the rest.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.