The Drone at the Door
Yesterday the international law clinics of NYU and Stanford released an in-depth study of drone strikes in Pakistan, looking at the controversial practice’s legality, efficacy, and how it affects innocent Pakistanis who must live in the ever-present fear that they will become “collateral damage” in the US’s war on terror. For anyone who cares about international law, US foreign policy, or human rights, Living Under Drones is a must-read.
It’s worth noting, however, that calling Living Under Drones (LUD) a “report,” while strictly accurate, is possibly somewhat misleading. The word implies a level of objectivity, an empiricism, that LUD quite consciously rejects. The authors of this document are making an impassioned, thoughtful, rigorous but ultimately political argument. In my eyes, there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s impossible to discuss policy intelligently without inevitably bringing politics into the conversation. But understand that LUD is not the equivalent of a report from the Rand Corporation. (For more on the report’s biases, check Joshua Foust’s latest in The Atlantic.)
For people with a primary interest in civil liberty issues, drones are a problem. Unlike other signature policies of the War on Terror — a proper noun in the Bush era, which ended in name only under Obama — like indefinite detention, torture, extraordinary rendition, or CIA-run black sites throughout Eastern Europe, drones are new. And they’re not new like this post is new or like the next episode of Breaking Bad will be new; they’re new in the way the iPod was new, or the BAR was new. Not to go all Thomas Friedman on you, but it’s a kind of newness that renders old ways of thinking moot.
Yet the way much of the conversation about drones has played out suggests an unstated assumption: if we want them to, the drones will go away. They will not. Their appeal is too great, their technological potential is too vast, and the arguments in their favor too formidable. Reading Daniel Klaidman’s recent book on President Obama’s anti-terror policies, Capture or Kill: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, you see how the utility of drones for a President is so overwhelming, it’s not unlike a drug.
All the power of the Commander-in-Chief with nearly none of the political blowback; the ability to kill “bad guys” without declaring war, putting American lives (well, most American lives) at risk; and the means to do this all in about as quiet and limited a manner as possible? In a political context that’s less than 10 years removed from Operation Iraqi Freedom — where, as the ongoing response to the Benghazi attack has shown in abundance, the power of Islamophobia, militarism, and fear remains considerable — the reasons Obama has embraced drone technology should be self-evident.
What’s happening right now at the intersection between drones, human rights, international law, and American foreign policy is a story that’s unfurled countless times in human history. It’s of technology acting as a catalyst for societal change, often against the wishes of those living through the transition. This version of the story will not be the one that, despite the odds, has a twist ending. The genie and the bottle, never again the twain shall meet.
Acknowledging that we can’t go home again when it comes to drone warfare is not the same thing as accepting drone warfare as it exists in 2012. The lack of oversight of the program, the lack of transparency as to how the odious “kill list” is composed, the claims of state secret prerogatives to any request for information as to how the Department of Justice decides whether an American citizen can or cannot be targeted — all of this is unacceptable. The very idea that we should be deploying as many drone strikes in Pakistan as we are, regardless of the potential blowback from traumatized and radicalized innocents, this too deserves profound scrutiny.
But if the fight being waged continues to be overly concerned with the tool, the drone, rather than the ideology and strategy that makes drones so enticing, a rigid dichotomy of all or nothing will arise. And those who will be seen as “anti-drone” will lose. And America, international law, human rights, and, potentially, geopolitical stability will be worse for it.