Both Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were among the Friends of Syria who met in Paris last week to demand that Russia and China end their support for Bashar al-Assad's murderous regime. Both Russia and China have decided it’s in their national interest to help Assad stay in power and they refuse even to pressure him to end the terrible brutality against his own people.
But Russia and China know how to fight back. While they were being condemned on Syria, the two jointly issued a statement condemning the American use of unmanned aerial assault vehicles – drones – to kill its enemies wherever it chose. Easy enough to mock the Russians and Chinese as hypocrites, of course, but harder when Jimmy Carter asserts in the New York Times that drone strikes violate human rights in a way that “abets our enemies and alienates our friends”.
I wonder whether, while they were together in Paris, Minister Baird might have whispered in Secretary Clinton’s ear a word about her boss’ practice of killing people around the world by remote control using drone missiles. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, an estimated 4,000 people have been killed in U.S. drone strikes since 2002 in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. A large number of these, estimated at more than 800, have been noncombatants, many of them women and children.
I’ve never been sure of the difference between killing and murdering when the victims are unknown or currently engaged in no criminal activity. One thing is clear: these killings are in clear violation of both international and American laws. One senior UN official believes drone strikes may even be “war crimes”, making the president eligible for trial by the International Criminal Court. That’s a long way from the Nobel Peace Prize he won in the rosy dawn of his presidency. Presumably, the Nobel Committee was unaware that the president by then had already authorized more drone strikes than President Bush did during his entire presidency. This should spark a debate or two at American liberals’ dinner parties as the presidential election heats up.
Of course the president makes his decisions on the same basis as, say, Russian President Vladimir Putin does. He believes they’re in his country’s – and his own – interests. But despite what virtually all Americans believe, America's national interests don’t invariably enhance freedom, justice and democracy. Consider, for example, America's support down the years for the likes of the Saudi royal family, Saddam Hussein, Gadhafi, Mubarak, Chiang Kai-Shek, Marcos, Papa and Baby Doc, Pinochet, Noriega, Mobuto, Suharto, the contras, apartheid, the Mujahadeen, the Shah of Iran and a hundred other less celebrated examples.
Think of it this way: If it’s okay for the United States to kill anyone anywhere it declares to be its enemy but who may well be guilty of nothing at all, why will it be intolerable when Russia decides it too has the same right? Or Iran, China, Israel, Pakistan or North Korea?
Let me make four brief points about the drone phenomenon. First, as the New York Times recently revealed, the president chooses most targets personally from a “kill list” provided by his advisers. They’ve dubbed it “Terror Tuesday”, the day most weeks when Mr. Obama and his national security team gather to hand-pick the next alleged national security threats to be executed by remote control. The President signs off personally on about a third of the drone strikes, which are for the moment restricted to Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. But why stop with these three? In my mind I can’t stop hearing the searing anti-Vietnam war chant from the 1960s, “Hey hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
Second, not all strikes are directed at individuals specifically suspected of terrorism. On the contrary, Mr. Obama and his team at times use something called “signature strikes” to target groups of men who aren’t personally known but appear to be hostile militants. They then consider all adult males in a strike zone to be combatants, even though they may not know a thing about them. Often enough, the target group includes women and children too.
So it’s not only identifiable terrorists whose death warrants are being personally signed by the president. It’s also innocent civilians who happen to be near a strike zone. As an anonymous Obama official acknowledged, “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.” In fact Mr. Obama’s first authorized drone attack in Yemen led to the deaths of 14 women, 21 children, and exactly one al-Qaeda affiliate.
But to the Administration it’s all Kafka 101. If they weren’t terrorists they wouldn’t have been targeted. If they’re targeted it proves they’re terrorists. If they’re near terrorists, they too must be terrorists. That’s how an Obama official could claim last year that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes.
Third, U.S.drones are operated by the CIA from close to its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC, and by the military from airbases in Texas, Nevada and elsewhere. The “pilots” are literally a world away from their victims. They come to work, press some buttons, go home again. For the politicians, there are none of those awkward body bags returning home to agitate voters. It’s no longer a war, with all its awful implications. It’s a video game whose human consequences are largely abstractions.
Finally, while Terror Tuesdays have no doubt actually knocked off some genuine al-Qaeda terrorists, and have certainly made it harder for the Republicans to play the usual wussie card against a Democratic president, many serious observers believe these drones killings are counter-productive. Their most certain payoff is to foment ill will against the U.S. and its allies. Mr. Obama is sowing the seeds for future terrorist violence against America. As the Times says, “Drones have replaced Guantanamo as the recruiting tool of choice for the militants.”
As luck would have it, Baird and Clinton will be together again this weekend at yet another meeting, this time in Cambodia. It has nothing to do with Syria, but maybe the former could gently mention to the latter that Syria’s Friends would have more credibility if her Commander-in-Chief decided to play golf on Tuesdays instead.