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The US Drone Attacks: Have We Become An International Outlaw?

David Letterman jokes that the most dangerous job in the world is "the number 3 man in Al Queda." Why? "Because," as Dave says, "We keep killing him." How we do this, or claim as much, is no joke especially to the many innocent bystanders and civilians who die as uncounted and unaccountable "collateral damage." Letterman's joke makes us ask the unspoken question: How can a missile sent from an unmanned drone, controlled by a joystick ten thousand miles away, have any idea who is getting killed?

Is the United States' use of deadly drone attacks enough to make this nation - once praised as a beacon of liberty - an international outlaw? There are plenty of Americans who probably think that simply asking such a question is wrong, or worse. But are we? Have we become international outlaws? Sadly, this question has no easy answer.

One of the great problems with international law is the "Clintonian" nature of its interpretation. If George W. Bush, Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld state categorically that using armed drones is a perfectly legal exercise of force by the United States - no matter who gets killed or where this killing gets done - many progressives and those on the left will argue they are wrong. Some see visions of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61." But, when the identical Bush/Cheney arguments come flying from the mouths of Obama administration officials such as CIA Director Leon Panetta - where is the progressive opposition? What happened to the outrage? I keep looking toward Washington Square, but I hear nothing. In fact, perhaps a better question might be: What Happened to the Change We Can Believe In? The new sheriff may not look like the old one, but the cop on the beat is still breaking heads - and more of them.

I have heard all the pro-administration arguments, all the reasons put forth to justify anything we decide to do, anywhere in the world, because - lest we forget - we were attacked on September 11, 2001. Leave all that aside for the moment. For the sake of discussion, let's assume the US is acting legally anywhere and everywhere in the world where we currently employ deadly force. Double 07 are no longer the numbers with a license to kill. Now its 9/11. Let's also assume that the Obama Doctrine - the concept that the US is allowed to kill anyone, anywhere in the world if the President declares those persons to be terrorists, even citizens of the United States - is also legal. If you accept that, how then do you answer this question: Does the same principle apply to other nations? Isn't self-defense a universal right?

Suppose Cuba decided to launch armed drones on an easy mission of less than a hundred miles to strike the "training camps" for anti-Castro Cubans they claim still exist in Florida? Would a deadly attack on sites in Florida be legal? What if leaders of the anti-Castro movement were hit in their homes in Miami or other South Florida cities by missiles fired from drones? What if they and their families and perhaps some unfortunate neighbors got killed? Just as legal as the US hitting homes and villages in the so-called "tribal areas" of Pakistan? Or, an act of war by Cuba against the United States? We're paying cash reparations in Pakistan. What if Cuba offered the same?

What about this possibility, suggested by George Kenney, former US diplomat in Bush The Elder's administration, who asks how the US might react if a "Free Tibet" organization were to be headquartered in San Francisco and the Chinese government sent in deadly drone attacks with missiles exploding in San Francisco aimed at the leaders of this "terrorist" organization - "terrorists" in the eyes of the Chinese? Wouldn't that be just as legal, and even just as righteous as our drone attacks in Pakistan? Not to us maybe, but how about to the Chinese?

If the United States can use military force against anyone our government - devoid of due process - labels as "terrorists" anywhere in the world - even those who happen to be US citizens - and if other nations, for example Israel, can launch attacks against "terrorist" groups such as their massive attack against Hezbollah in Lebanon, why can't any nation do the same anywhere in the world against any target they denounce as "terrorists"? Wouldn't that be exactly the same as the US sending deadly missiles into Pakistan, fired from remotely controlled drone aircraft?

Not possible, you say? Wrong. Some 40 nations currently have drone capability. They are cheap and easy to purchase on the world arms market. Any country, no matter how poor, could probably equip itself with armed drones ready to do exactly what the United States is doing every day right now.

Carry this to its most ridiculous but hardly impossible extreme. Imagine the Vatican with a fleet of Christian drones aimed at Catholic dissidents and yes - aggressive litigants - in cities across the globe. Couldn't the Pope defend the faithful by killing those he felt to be "anti-Catholic terrorists" determined to destroy the Holy Mother Church - and claim every killing to be perfectly in accord with international law?

I wish I could agree with the optimistic George Kenney who honestly believes that one day the leaders of the United States will be brought justice for the crimes of this nation. But I am afraid he is wrong and I side with Dave Letterman on this one.