Thursday, April 19, 2012
Boys and their toys
Michael Hastings has another blockbuster article in Rolling Stone about America's secret drone war:
During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the military conducted only a handful of drone missions. Today, the Pentagon deploys a fleet of 19,000 drones, relying on them for classified missions that once belonged exclusively to Special Forces units or covert operatives on the ground. American drones have been sent to spy on or kill targets in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Libya. Drones routinely patrol the Mexican border, and they provided aerial surveillance over Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In his first three years, Obama has unleashed 268 covert drone strikes, five times the total George W. Bush ordered during his eight years in office. All told, drones have been used to kill more than 3,000 people designated as terrorists, including at least four U.S. citizens. In the process, according to human rights groups, they have also claimed the lives of more than 800 civilians.[...]
Drones have also radically altered the CIA, turning a civilian intelligence-gathering agency into a full-fledged paramilitary operation – one that routinely racks up nearly as many scalps as any branch of the military.
But the implications of drones go far beyond a single combat unit or civilian agency. On a broader scale, the remote-control nature of unmanned missions enables politicians to wage war while claiming we're not at war – as the United States is currently doing in Pakistan. What's more, the Pentagon and the CIA can now launch military strikes or order assassinations without putting a single boot on the ground – and without worrying about a public backlash over U.S. soldiers coming home in body bags. The immediacy and secrecy of drones make it easier than ever for leaders to unleash America's military might – and harder than ever to evaluate the consequences of such clandestine attacks.
I can't help but be reminded of this every time I read one of these stories about the Drone War.
It’s an interesting anomaly of Barack Obama’s presidency that this liberal Democrat, known before the 2008 election for his antiwar views, has been so comfortable running America’s secret wars.
Obama’s leadership style — and the continuity of his national security policies with those of his predecessor, George W. Bush — has left friends and foes scratching their heads. What has become of the “change we can believe in” style he showed as a candidate? The answer may be that he has disappeared into the secret world of the post-Sept. 11 presidency.
Obama is the commander in chief as covert operator. The flag-waving “mission accomplished” speeches of his predecessor aren’t Obama’s thing; even his public reaction to the death of bin Laden was relatively subdued. Watching Obama, the reticent, elusive man whose dual identity is chronicled in “Dreams From My Father,” you can’t help wondering if he has an affinity for the secret world. He is opaque, sometimes maddeningly so, in the way of an intelligence agent.
Intelligence is certainly an area where the president appears confident and bold. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence who has been running spy agencies for more than 20 years, regards Obama as “a phenomenal user and understander of intelligence.” When Clapper briefs the president each morning, he brings along extra material to feed the president’s hunger for information.
This is a president, too, who prizes his authority to conduct covert action. Clapper’s predecessor, Adm. Dennis Blair, lost favor in part because he sought to interpose himself in the chain of covert action. That encroached on Obama, who aides say sees it as a unique partnership with the CIA...
Perhaps Obama’s comfort level with his intelligence role helps explain why he has done other parts of the job less well. He likes making decisions in private, where he has the undiluted authority of the commander in chief. He likes information, as raw and pertinent as possible, and he gets impatient listening to windy political debates. He likes action, especially when he doesn’t leave fingerprints.
I'm fairly sure that David Ignatius, who wrote that for the Washington Post, really admires that about him.
I care little about the president's image as a superspy man-of-action. All that stuff kind of makes me sick if you want to know the truth. But there is a foreign policy implication in all this that should be discussed before the United States government just starts patrolling the entire world, including our own cities, with militarized sky robots.
"Drones have really become the counterterrorism weapon of choice for the Obama administration," says Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor who helped establish a new Pentagon office devoted to legal and humanitarian policy. "What I don't think has happened enough is taking a big step back and asking, 'Are we creating more terrorists than we're killing? Are we fostering militarism and extremism in the very places we're trying to attack it?' A great deal about the drone strikes is still shrouded in secrecy. It's very difficult to evaluate from the outside how serious of a threat the targeted people pose."
That would be the point, I'm afraid.
I think Barbara Tuchman's observation in The Guns of August about how untried technology leads to hubris is probably worth contemplating here. This new weapon makes it very easier to start wars but there's nothing in the technology that will make it easier to end them.
Update: In case anyone thinks that this is only a Commander in Chief problem, think again. The congress has a whole bipartisan caucus formed around this topic called the Unmanned Systems Caucus, chaired by crooked Republican "Buck" Mckeon. We have a chance to replace him with a progressive congressman named Lee Rogers this time out. (You can contribute to his campaign here.) He will not be joining the Unmanned Systems Caucus. Baby steps.
digby 4/19/2012 01:00:00 PM