Writing in Urban Tulsa Weekly, Ray Pearcey has taken the time to attack my column following the Newtown Connecticut school massacre, in which I argued that Americans who tacitly consent to the CIA and US military’s illegal drone program, which kills many children, have no write to mourn dead Americans even as they ignore the misery of dead Pakistanis and their survivors.
First and foremost, I want to say that I appreciate it when a critic takes the time to carefully deconstruct my writing as was done here. I don’t have anything against Mr. Pearcey. In fact, I have never heard of him before. So none of this is to be taken personally. However, he brings up a number of points that need to be countered for the record.
I think the best way to go about this is to “Fisk” the column point by point, so here goes.
Empirically even the most detached studies suggest that the bulk of killings over the entire eight year history of the US drone counterterrorism campaign have been documented “combatants”: estimates of noncombatant deaths range from about 15 to 23 percent of all strikes — a number well short of the 3,100 “murders” that Rall posits in his piece.
Always beware of the word “empirically.” The fact is, no one really knows who or even exactly how many people have been killed by US drone strikes. Partly this is because the program is shrouded in secrecy. Partly it’s because the attacks take place in remote regions where reporting is notoriously unreliable or unavailable. Certainly neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations seem to have any interest in discussing civilian deaths, and have a high interest in downplaying them. What seems obvious is that it’s pretty difficult to lob bombs and missiles into private homes and cars without killing a lot of innocent people inside them or nearby. That said, I think it’s pretty telling that the author fails to note a recent English study that found that 98% of drone strike victims were not their intended targets.
…sometimes, sadly, protecting life or an entire society means dropping an epic diplomatic initiative (assuming that the other side will take negotiations) and resolving to roll evil back.
I am fascinated by this line. The US is currently engaged in a unilateral drone war against Islam’s militants in the tribal areas of western Pakistan, eastern Afghanistan, Somalia, and rural parts of Yemen. If there have ever been any diplomatic initiatives launched by the United States to discuss anything at all with the leadership of the radical Muslim groups being targeted, I have not heard of it. Also, I don’t really see how you can unilaterally categorize the victims as “evil.”
I’m glad Rall wasn’t Abe Lincoln’s military advisor — I might still be a slave.
This assumes that the North fought a civil war against the Confederacy in order to free the slaves. Although emancipation was a happy result of the war between the states, I think it is pretty clear that nationalistic and economic concerns reigned paramount for most Northerners and certainly for president Lincoln. Furthermore, I am pretty sure that if the North had respected the Confederacy’s legal constitutional right to secede from the union, blacks in the South, who constituted a majority of the population, would sooner rather than later risen up in a righteous revolution and overthrown their white masters. Then the North could have established diplomatic relations with either an egalitarian or a black-led South. I don’t really think I see a problem with that. And I’m not even going to get into the comparison between emancipating slaves and dropping drone missiles into private houses in countries that the United States has absolutely no interest or plans to invade and liberate.
And I wonder if he would have supported the drone-centric Libyan action last year: a U.S. humanitarian intervention that forestalled as many as 750,000 deaths in Benghazi.
This, of course, is pure fiction. Not that I would have supported deposing Col. Qaddafi, which I would not have because the United States should not be involved in such things, but the idea that 750,000 people were about to be massacred in Benghazi. It is a classic neoconservative style what if. Sure, anything is possible, but then the burden of proof or evidence ought to be on the person proposing military action. Furthermore, I wouldn’t call the Obama administration’s support of the Libyan rebels based in Benghazi a humanitarian intervention. Had an military intervention actually occurred, you would’ve seen massive shipments of food and other vital supplies pour into Libya. That didn’t happen. The Libyan people are in big trouble, much worse than they would have been under Col. Qaddafi. And, of course, it’s up to the Libyan people to liberate themselves and establish their own destiny. Every country has the right to its own self-determination.
As readers may know, Rall is an award-winning cartoonist/graphic novelist in addition to being a nationally syndicated columnist. He’s also widely traveled. And while the world of the graphic novel certainly has brilliant works with enormous intellectual/artistic power — Art Spiegelman’s Maus comes to mind — seeing the world from this flat one-dimensional vantage can be limiting.
Get it? Cartoonists work in two dimensions. Therefore they must use two-dimensional thinking. I guess architects probably can’t be trusted either. Or people who use computer screens. Those are two dimensions too. Always beware of the ad hominem attack. It betrays a cheap attempt to sidestep the substance of the victim’s argument.
Rall’s portrayal of Barack Obama and his national security team as cold-eyed participants who are willingly engaged in a murderous campaign via our drone counterterrorism effort, is not only an outrage, it may also be an artifact of his role as a cartoonist — someone with a flat conception of morality and the world.
Wow, still at it? Let’s see, who else works in two dimensions? Oh, I know, people who write columns! Columns like the one that my critic’s writing. Look, it is a simple fact that Obama and his national security team are perfectly willing to lob explosive devices into private homes and cars and trucks all over the world without having much idea of who was inside these targets. To me, that requires a coldness and hardness that I hope I personally never experience. Morality? I’m not perfect, but I think I have an edge on these guys.
…Barack Obama’s ascension to power sparked a fevered search for less brutal, more nuanced ways of rolling back al-Qaida’s many-sided terror campaign. The search for a strategy with fewer civilian casualties and a lighter impact on the Afghan — and later the Pakistani — countryside, was the signal rationale for the elevated use of drones and special forces in the president’s counterterrorism campaign.
First of all, Al Qaeda no longer represents a significant threat to the United States of America. That’s not me: that’s CIA analysts and a lot of mainstream right-wing pundits. Second, the people being attacked in the tribal areas of Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan represent absolutely no threat to the United States at all. These are Islamist militants who were trying to overthrow the puppet regime of Afghan Pres. Hamid Karzai and the Pakistani government, which they view as being too secular. Third, for a guy who is trying to be less brutal and more nuanced, you would think that he would couple that with greater transparency to prove it, and that he would be launching fewer rather than more drone strikes. In fact, and I was going to link to something to prove this but I feel that everybody already knows it, Obama uses drones a lot more than Bush did.
Al-Qaida and its sister organizations and the people who run its killing logistics have decided that Americans are to be targeted and killed at the pace and with a timing of their choosing — a function of their lurid work program. One of the singular obligations of an American president is to protect our shores, American embassies, consulates, and our extended overseas diplomatic community and to have the capacity to support military folks when they are under attack or in battle.
And here is of course the crux of the matter. By the way: “lurid”? Without a doubt, Pres. Obama is tasked with protecting our shores. But nobody seriously believes that members of, say, the Haqqani network in Pakistan plan to attack American soil. Even if they wanted to, how could they? Hint: geography is a problem. Yes, we have to be careful about our foreign embassies and consulates. But, as many Americans may not know, that duty actually falls to the host countries. If they cannot provide a safe security environment, then we should close those offices. Finally, the idea of supporting military personnel when they are under attack or in battle doesn’t make much sense when you consider the fact that they wouldn’t be in battle or under attack if they weren’t attacking Afghans, Iraqis, and countless others in more aggressive wars than anyone can count.
We also have the “little” example of 9/11 and myriad other instances where al-Qaida and its sister organizations have attacked Americans whenever the opportunity arose and when they thought they could prevail.
Like the previous assertion about the 750,000 people who might have gotten killed in Benghazi, this is a what if situation. Yes, there were the 9/11 attacks. I wouldn’t call the other instances. In any way. There were the attacks against the embassies in East Africa in 1998, and the bombing against the USS Cole, and that’s about it. At least as far as Al Qaeda is concerned. What we should be responding to is facts, not fiction. This kind of reasoning is the reasoning that led us into Iraq: what if Saddam Hussein still had weapons of mass destruction? What if he gave them to Al Qaeda? What if Al Qaeda use them against the United States? Too many what if’s to go to war over.
Here is what one of the most serious scholars of drone policy says about the outsized ethical logic of using drones, quoting from Scott Shane’s “The Moral Case for Drones” in The New York Times:
“‘I had ethical doubts and concerns when I started looking into this,’ said Bradley J. Strawser, a former Air Force officer and an assistant professor of philosophy at the Naval Postgraduate School. But after a concentrated study of remotely piloted vehicles, he said, he concluded that using them to go after terrorists not only was ethically permissible but also might be ethically obligatory, because of their advantages in identifying targets and striking with precision.”
Speaking of words to be aware of, always be very wary of phrases like Very Serious People. I’m not even going to go crazy countering this part, because when you have defined a former Air Force officer and a professor at the Naval postgraduate school to speak out in favor of the ethics of using drones, well, what can I say? I would be a lot more impressed if members of human rights groups thought drones were awesome.
So, the people who executed the 9/11 plane takedowns and who blew up U.S. embassies in Kenya, elsewhere in Africa (pre-9/11), and did a myriad of big civilians kills in Western Europe: are they simply, as Mr. Rall would have us believe, aggrieved? That is, are they merely political opponents, as he says of “oppressive regimes allied with United States”?
Well, they certainly were aggrieved. They were angry at the United States, primarily for supporting Israel and repressive dictatorships in the Arab and Muslim worlds. More to the point, these are events that date back at least 12 to 15 years. The world is changed a lot since then. By all accounts, Al Qaeda is no longer the threat to the United States than it once was. The people we are killing in these drone strikes are not plotting attacks against the United States or against its embassies abroad, but trying to overthrow the governments of Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, and so on. Which, frankly, is not really our business.
If, as Rall’s forcefully suggests, the president and his national security team have no concerns — that is, “do not care” — about innocent victims of drone attacks, why do they take elaborate precautions before attacks are ordered to minimize noncombatant casualties? Why does the president personally review, according to writer Michael Lewis and a blizzard of other diplomatic, national security, and foreign policy writers, these strikes and try to ascertain that due diligence — that is, high level, earnest efforts have been made to avoid strikes that will be problematic given the closeness of schools, religious buildings, residential areas, ambiguity about individual targets, and so forth?
I have no doubt that it is true that Pres. Obama and his advisers carefully review the targets of drone strikes. But this is missing the forest for the trees. Drone warfare, and indeed aerial bombardment, is inherently flawed and should be prohibited by international law. It is simply impossible to know the identities of those who are going to be killed or to anticipate the possible ramifications of an explosive device striking a target. For example, if a bomb strikes the building, how can Pres. Obama anticipate the possibility that it will spark a devastating fire that will travel through gas lines down the block, killing hundreds of innocent people? Even with the amazing technology provided by facial recognition software and high resolution spy cameras mounted on drone planes, misidentification happens all the time. How many seconds in command have we killed over the years? How may times have we killed the same guy over and over? Someone died each of those times. But not the person that we wanted to kill.
And this is all skirting the big issue. Which is that we have no legal right or constitutional basis for these strikes. First and foremost, these are acts of war, aerial invasions, acts that would provoke most countries, including the United States, to declare war against its perpetrator. We are not allowed to fly planes over Pakistan or Iran or Somalia or anywhere else. Second, we have no legal basis for killing people without an active state of war between our country and the country that they are in. If we have an interest in bringing someone to the United States for trial, then we have to ask the relevant police forces to arrest the individuals, present proof of their culpability, and put them on trial here in the United States. Third, there has been absolutely no judicial or other public review by any authority whatsoever inside the United States of the people we are killing. This is a secret program of assassinations, nothing less. And it is absolutely disgusting and counterproductive. It makes the citizens of other countries, many of whom might otherwise be sympathetic to us, hate us. And I don’t blame them.
Does Rall know about the strategic review under way to reconsider our decade-plus “War on Terror” — a high-tempo effort being pushed by top Obama national aides who are crafting new policies that what would substantially end our counterterrorism campaign or at least ratchet it down in dramatic ways? The Daily Beast reported in December:
“[B]ehind the scenes Obama has led a persistent internal conversation about whether America should remain engaged in a permanent, ever-expanding state of war, one that has pushed the limits of the law, stretched dwindling budgets, and at times strained relations with our allies. ‘This has always been a concern of the president’s,’ says a former military adviser to Obama. ‘He’s uncomfortable with the idea of war without end.'”
Well, isn’t that swell: Obama is uncomfortable with the idea of war without end. Guess what: so am I. But I’m not in the same position Obama is in. When Obama took office, he could and should have ordered immediate withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq. But he did not. He could’ve ended the drone program but he did not. I really don’t give a rats ass that he feels bad about what’s going on considering the fact that he is perhaps more responsible than any other human being on the planet for all of it. It’s been four years. He has killed thousands and thousands of people. What does he have to show for it besides a suppose it persistent internal conversation? Nothing.