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Drones and Rumsfeld's Question

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Earlier this week, a U.S. Senate subcommittee held hearings on the use of drones. Most of those who testified were Constitutional law professors or terrorism experts. In what was an emotional highpoint of the proceedings, the committee also heard from a young U.S. educated Yemeni, Farea Al-Muslimi, whose village had been hit by a drone attack just one week earlier. With his powerful and personal testimony, Farea put his finger squarely on the problem drones should pose for American policymakers.

After recounting his time in America, what he learned and how he came to love our country and its people, Farea told the committee how he returned to Yemen committed to serving as an ambassador for America to ordinary Yemenis. It was only then that he learned first-hand of the impact drones would have on his self-proclaimed mission.

Farea described how:

"Late last year, I was with an American colleague from an international media outlet on a tour of Abyan [a region in southern Yemen]. Suddenly, locals started to become paranoid. They were moving erratically and frantically pointing toward the sky. Based on their past experiences with drone strikes, they told us that the thing hovering above us -- out of sight and making a strange humming noise -- was an American drone. My heart sank. I was helpless... I was standing there at the mercy of a drone..."

"That feeling, multiplied by the highest number mathematicians have, gripped me when my village was droned just days ago."

Farea went on in his testimony to note how he was "devastated" by the attack fearing that the use of drones "would empower the militants," while putting his life at risk making him "look like someone who had betrayed his country by supporting America."

The Constitutional lawyers can argue until they are blue in the face whether there are legal justifications for using drones, and tacticians can similarly make the case for the relative ease with which this new technology can help us target and eliminate "bad guys" without putting American lives at risk. But the consequences of using this technology are real, as are the dangers.

First and foremost, is the feeling of helplessness drones create not only among the "bad guys," but among entire populations in the countries where they have been used. As we have seen too many times in history, air power creates enemies. People aren't cowed by unseen overwhelming force, they resent it. And when the calm of their daily lives can be shattered by destructive force beyond their control, they hate the source that disruptive power.

In the West we can marvel at the technology involved in a process by which one man thousands of miles away can spot, identify, target, and destroy an alleged enemy. But at the other end of the line, there is fear, a loss of control, helplessness, and hatred -- precisely because that unseen hand has made me afraid, has the power to bring instant death and destruction, and has rendered me helpless.

The experts can boast of the drone's efficiency and speak casually of "limited collateral damage," but for the populations at the point of impact, every innocent killed is a victim with family and friends, and even the successful strikes create a widespread sense of terror and resentment.

There are, of course, other reasons to be deeply concerned about the use of drones -- especially when used in areas where we are not in a declared state of war. No matter what fancy terms we may now use to describe these attacks, in using drones we are engaged in assassinations, plain and simple. We can try to make the case for our actions, as we have, when the targets have been major figures in al Qaeda. But when we "take out" lower level, lesser known figures, who may or may not pose an "imminent threat," our justifications ring hollow. Making the case, after the fact (especially when the "fact" is death), is a weak case, indeed. And finally, we should be concerned that while at this time we are the sole power possessing this technology, we must know that, in the not too distant future, other nations and non-state actors will also develop drone technology. In operating as we have, we are writing new "rules of the road," that others will claim the right to apply in their own conflicts. I fear we will live to rue the day we threw out the rule of law, opening the door to the "law of the jungle."

Back in October, 2003, as it became clear that the Iraq war would not be a "cake walk," then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wrote a memo to his staff, in which he famously asked "[a]re we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?" As we now know, he may have asked the right question but, in the end, he came up with the wrong answers.

At the close of his testimony, Farea Al-Muslimi observed "the American and Yemeni governments are losing the war against AQAP [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula]. Even when drone strikes kill the right people, it is at the expense of creating...more strategic problems." Our strikes, he notes, create hatred of America, undoing all the positives generated by our remarkably effective aid programs. The strikes also perversely create sympathy and support for the very enemy we are trying to eliminate.

My advice: throw out the legal treatises and the writings of the experts and read Farea's testimony, and, in light of that, try to answer Rumsfeld's question.