Thursday, January 19, 2017

44's Drone Legacy

The most convenient stick for certain elements with which to whack 44's foreign policy has always been his use of military drones to kill American enemies in chronically anarchic parts of the Mideast and Somalia.

A president who came into office hoping to put a friendlier face on American empire has made significant use of a global assassination technology that seems disturbingly uncircumscribed, not only by domestic laws and democratic oversight, but even by cost or inconvenience

Drones are to the 21st century what the atomic bomb was to the 20th and the crossbow was to the 12th: a new class of weapon that inspires an emotional nightmare of indiscriminate and rising bloodshed. It is an idea that seems to demand the creation of new taboos.

From the standpoint of innocent non-combatants who might be killed in a drone attack, the horror of the drone is just the same as the horror of ordinary bombing, whether perpetrated by planes or ships or wearers of suicide vests. It can really be of no comfort to the dead to know that their destruction was endorsed by an independent committee, or followed some sort of secret adversarial trial.

But since the legislative branch of the U.S. government has left the use of drones up to the president personally, and since the power to assassinate is hard to delegate even within the executive, drones have had a philosophical tendency to delineate the structure of American empire—to reveal the way in which death flows out into the world from the mind, some would say the whim, of one man. It is, in a sense, a public relations problem, one that Islamists have not been slow to exploit.

It was sheer chance that a constitutional lawyer was president when U.S. military drone technology reached an advanced state of perfectibility. Not that this seems to have made much difference. (When constitutional lawyers were needed to endorse torture, America had no trouble finding some.) Since historians continue to have no scholarly access to alternate realities—put DARPA to work on that one!—we have no way of knowing whether 44’s choices about drones have improved the world or made it worse.

The dead can be enumerated, loosely, although the White House’s estimates of “civilian” deaths are an order of magnitude lower than those of non-government assessors. Critics rightly ask whether we can know who is definitely a “civilian.” Indeed, they take Obama to task for the unintended deaths of rank-and-file combatants who were not personally any threat to the United States.

Politicians always think that history will be kind to them—that once all the records of their dilemmas and options are known, and their sincerity can be judged, they will be forgiven even their objective mistakes. They create diaries and assemble libraries knowing that they are pleading a case for themselves to be argued by others. Probably 44 is no different, privately.