Dear President Obama: This open letter comes from a friend. I voted for you twice and am, in the main, your admirer. However, I am not on board with your unilateral use of targeted killing of suspected terrorists by drones.
Unfortunately, your speech at National Defense University last week did not allay my concerns. While you announced the end of "the global war on terror" and the need for a democracy to get away from a permanent wartime footing -- enormous thanks for that -- and you restated your determination to close Guantanamo prison, your drone program remains basically intact.
That's the problem. For while you defend drones as the least bad option in going after the terrorist suspects who remain, and while you stated a willingness to cede some authority to wage such warfare to greater oversight (though how is murky), it remains the case that your targeted killings abroad may actually be creating new dangers for us at home, making us targets, too. In other words, I write because I have skin in the game.
What a concerned citizen can learn of your not-so-covert drone program is this: According to a news story broken by the New York Times last year, you conduct weekly meetings, known around the White House as "Terror Tuesdays," to update your "kill list" of candidates, all alleged terrorists, for death by drone. A concerned citizen also learns we are now training more drone operators than regular pilots. In brief, your drone program, while secret, is both institutionalized and substantial.
This time, it must be said, the Republicans were right: If George W. Bush had authorized as many drone killings as you have -- Bush ordered 50 strikes during his entire eight-year tenure while you have ordered some 400 to date, your fifth year -- Democrats would be up in arms, protesting the abuse of executive power. (However, I note Republicans give you no points for ceding some of that power in your NDU speech, accusing you instead of naively returning to a pre-9/11 mindset.)
But the left is unnerved for another reason: We protested Bush's torture of terrorist suspects, we were thrilled when you outlawed torture first thing when you took office, so how can we support your decision to skip the prison part, where torture once took place, and skip our court system, and instead rain death from the skies in seemingly freelance fashion? "We don't torture, we kill" -- surely, as an astute thinker, you see the sophistry?
Given the national security briefings you get daily of terrorist threats to this country, no doubt dire, and given the public's war-weariness after Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea of taking care of state business via remote control must carry enormous appeal: Our troops are kept out of harm's way or are not even called upon, while an unpiloted drone, operated via computer in isolated safety, inflicts the actual harm -- the killing -- with no blowback on our troops. It's neat, clean, risk-free -- in theory.
But there is blowback and there is risk, on any number of grounds -- moral, legal, constitutional, strategic, diplomatic, historic, as well as military precedent -- all of which are being argued now with increasing frequency and volume (here, here, here, here, and here). While I am usually ready with the moral argument, this time I argue on even nearer grounds -- the basic instinct for survival -- a view not likely central in the "Terror Tuesday" meetings and not reflected in last week's speech. Two main points:
One: Anybody, including non-state actors, can engage in drone warfare -- which means a dangerous free-for-all with no rules.
Baldly stated: Drones being cheap and accessible -- you can order one over the internet -- and moreover easy to weaponize (with, say, anthrax powder) -- what's to keep a non-state terrorist group from letting fly in front of the White House, as payback at our freewheeling president? Or at the Capitol? Or on Wall Street? Or, for that matter, at the upcoming local Fourth of July picnic?
And what's to keep a self-radicalized individual, homegrown or otherwise, from doing the same? The recent Boston Marathon bombing makes vividly clear the mayhem a few such types can create with their homemade devices. Next frontier for this ilk: getting their devices airborne. Why set them an example, Mr. Obama? Moreover, against such under-the-radar attacks there is, by definition, no defense.
While the U.S. acts as if it has proprietary rights to drone warfare -- as your free use gives the impression, Mr. Obama -- because of their comparatively minimal cost, many other countries have full-fledged military drone programs besides ourselves. At last count that number is 76, according to Peter Singer and Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution. While it's not a problem if a sovereign nation bound by treaties and the Geneva Conventions possesses the capability of drone warfare, it is a problem if such a nation, so bound notionally, plays by its own rules and launches drone strikes when it pleases, as we are, and in countries -- Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen -- with whom we are not formally at war. And if a non-state actor, unbound by any rules at all, should take up drone warfare, it is calamity.
Two: Because of their stealth nature and the "collateral damage" they inflict, U.S. drone attacks are creating more enemies than friends for the U.S.
Firsthand accounts of survivors of U.S. drone attacks describe the subsequent fury at the U.S. and the helpless humiliation.
A recent example of this view from "under the drone" is Congressional testimony of Farea al-Muslimi, a young Yemeni journalist, democracy activist, and avowed friend of America. Al-Muslimi told of the aftermath of U.S. drone attacks in his home country, including a man whose two children died in his arms when his house was targeted by mistake, and a boy who carries a picture of a plane and vows revenge against his father's killer, America. He also told of being caught in a drone strike himself while visiting Yemen and feeling torn between allegiance to the U.S. and the drone above him that could not differentiate between him and an al-Qaeda militant:
That feeling, multiplied by the highest number mathematicians have, gripped me when my village was droned just days ago... I was devastated for days because I knew that the bombing in my village by the United States would empower the militants. Even worse, I know it will make [the target] look like a hero, while I look like someone who has betrayed his country by supporting America.
In short, says this Yemeni friend of America: "What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant [emphasis mine]: there is now intense anger and growing hatred of America." Likewise, in Pakistan, a recent poll shows 92 percent of the Pakistan public disapproves of the U.S., in part because of our drone strikes -- not a desirable popular sentiment in a nation with a nuclear arsenal.
As for "collateral damage": John Brennan, architect of the drone program who's now your CIA director, in a speech last year publicly introducing the program, claimed that because of precision targeting, "it is hard to imagine a tool that can better minimize the risk to civilians than remotely piloted aircraft." But imagine this: In reality, between 558 and 1,119 civilians -- including children -- have died in our strikes, as of this January. (These are estimates; accurate figures are hard to come by because of your program's secrecy.) In your NDU speech you noted appropriately these deaths would "haunt" you and your command "as long as we live." To appreciate the human toll, best if the distancing term "collateral damage" is dropped and we all refer instead to the innocent dead.
But what kind of care for civilians do we show if the teenage son of the American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was droned in Yemen while sitting in an open-air restaurant? My jaw dropped when I read of that in Mark Mazzetti's new book, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth. Unless that restaurant was filled with terrorists, or business was off and the place was empty, innocent civilians died in that strike. And now we learn that civilians die as al-Qaeda and Taliban militants take reprisal on them for allegedly aiding the U.S. in targeting the strikes.
Also alarming is the phenomenon of "signature strikes" -- killing terrorist suspects whose identity can't be confirmed but whose pattern of behavior raises a red flag. But many mundane behaviors do that: someone carrying a rifle, which Senator John McCain notes is common in the Middle East; or "a chump going to a meeting," as a former ambassador noted; or, I'd add, someone sitting in a restaurant. Or, most egregiously, simply being a military-age male and thus automatically designated a combatant, as was the case until you properly corrected it in last week's speech. (Is this how the civilian death toll in drone strikes is kept low: the dead are counted as combatants?) On top of the violence, with these signature strikes, which now outnumber "personality" strikes, we add the traumatizing anxiety of living under "the angry bird."
Adding to that anxiety, and grounds for revenge, are the "double-tap" strikes, that follow up an initial strike to take out rescuers or, later, funeral-goers (also here and here). Mr. Obama, this enters into extremely fraught territory. Some legal scholars even speak of war crimes; there is to be a U.N. inquiry. Not only does your drone program make us targets for revenge, it makes us complicit too: Your program, possibly criminal in this aspect, becomes ours.
And now, the chilling prospect of robotic warfare, with robots at the controls, not human beings, but with masses of human beings at the fiery receiving end....
Mr. Obama: Stop, rethink, and get thee to Geneva. Another Geneva Convention -- to address drone warfare as a new form of war and to establish new rules -- is called for, in fact is overdue.
As Mr. Brennan himself acknowledged, "The United States is the first nation to regularly conduct strikes using remotely piloted aircraft in an armed conflict," going on to say the national security team is "very mindful that as our nation uses this technology, we are establishing precedents that other nations may follow, and... not all of them will be nations that share our interests." The word "precedent" alone should be enough of a prompt: Rather than argue the point that your drone program is "legal, ethical and wise," test those claims in an international forum with other sovereign nations, where new rules can be set. This is not a game of solitaire.
On that point, it was unsettling that no oversight of any kind -- whether a court or board----had been allowed, until last week's speech, to exercise a check on your drone program. What was that but hubris, Mr. Obama? Shakespeare wrote at length about what hubris unchecked, and fear, do to the head of the head of state.
What is inspiring about your NDU speech is that, clearly, you have taken yourself to Gethsemane to ponder all these things: "To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance." It would be the best of wisdom to call for an international forum on drone warfare. One brilliant mind in charge, even one ceding to more domestic oversight, isn't enough; in matters of life and death, a broad countervailing force is required. Rather than be remembered as the drone president, earn your Nobel peace prize, widely understood to have been awarded you in prospect and not for peace achieved, by discontinuing freelance drone warfare and setting the table for peace in the 9/12 world.
Of course, those gung-ho for drone warfare -- including the 65 percent of Americans who approve of drone strikes abroad -- enamored of its risk-free promise, ask if we'd really prefer the old, historic way of war: the bloody battlefield, soldiers dying horrible deaths, the human toll. But that's what's missing from your drone program: a sense of the human toll at being droned, the rage and urge for revenge it creates.
The Golden Rule applies: Just as Americans would howl if Bush's policies of regime change and torture had been done unto us, so too drone strikes on U.S. soil. We need to talk further in the public square about drone warfare's killing implications.
We are at a new frontier. As Mazzetti writes in The Way of the Knife:
Rare is the technology that can change the face of warfare. In the first half of the past century, tanks and planes transformed how the world fought its battles. The fifty years that followed were dominated by nuclear warheads and ICBMs, weapons of such horrible power that they gave birth to new doctrines to keep countries from ever using them. The advent of the armed drone upended this calculus: War was possible exactly because it seemed so free of risk. The bar for war had been lowered, the remote-controlled age had begun....
Again, get thee to Geneva, Mr. Obama, before the Pandora's box which you and Mr. Bush opened with freelance drone warfare comes back to haunt, and hurt, us. I rely on your deep humanity -- and on the fact that at the bottom of Pandora's box, after all the evils of the world had been released, what remained was Hope.
For the report, "Living Under the Drones," compiled by the law schools of Stanford University and New York University, see here. For the report, "The Civilian Impact of Drones," by Columbia Law School, see here. For statistics and other detail on U.S. drone warfare, see ProPublica, New America Foundation, Long War Journal, and the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. For a FAQ sheet on drone warfare compiled by The Washington Post, see here. For a new factsheet posted by the White House, see here.
Carla Seaquist is author of a book of commentary, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11
Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she is author of the recently-published volume, "Two Plays of Life and Death," which includes "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."
How will Trump’s administration impact you? Learn more