Good Reads: Drones, Al Qaeda, and American exceptionalism

The debate over the use of drones – President Obama's weapon of choice in the war against Al Qaeda – has gathered steam after the killing of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.

By , Staff writer

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    A US army soldier with the 101st Airborne Division Alpha Battery 1-320th tries to launch a drone outside Combat Outpost Nolen in the village of Jellawar in The Arghandab Valley on September 4, 2010.
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It’s easy to understand why the notion of fighting a war by remote control would appeal to a politician or military leader. With unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as “drones,” targets can be pinpointed from several thousands of feet in the air, fired upon, and eliminated, all without having to put boots on the ground.

Drone wars lack the horrific death toll of traditional trench warfare, like the battles of Gettysburg, Stalingrad, or Gallipoli. Imagine a war without coffins draped with American flags, without yellow ribbons, without post-traumatic stress disorder. But drone wars are not bloodless, and for every “successful” strike against a “legitimate” target like Anwar al-Awlaki, there are several others that go astray, hitting a civilian hospital, a school, or someone who bore an unfortunate resemblance to the target.

The use of drones by the administration of US President Obama – he’s used more than any other US president – generates a fair amount of controversy over legalities and morality. Is it legal for a US president to order the death of another human being – and particularly, as was in the case of Mr. al-Awalki, a US citizen – on foreign soil, without congressional approval and without legal due process?

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Peter Gelling, writing for the online news website Global Post, does a great job of laying out both the statistics and the ethical issues. Between 2004 and 2007, there were 13 drone strikes in total. In contrast, there have been 81 strikes so far this year in just Pakistan and Yemen alone, he reports. (Many more go unreported in the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq.) If Al Qaeda ceases to exist as a functioning organization, it may very well be helped along by technological advances such as phone monitoring and the use of drones. But does this technology come with a cost?

Few would deny that targeted drones are preferable to carpet bombing, but their accuracy is reliant on accurate intelligence. And more than once the United States has gotten it wrong – perhaps most tragically on Oct. 30, 2006, when an errant drone strike obliterated an Islamic boarding school in Chenagai, Pakistan, killing 82 people.

That al-Awlaki was urging people, including US citizens, to kill Americans is not under dispute. As the Monitor’s Warren Richey notes in his coverage of the ongoing case of the “underwear bomber” in Detroit, Awlaki was in regular contact with those in the process of planning attacks against US civilians, giving both religious and practical guidance.

Even when drones get their man, significant questions arise about whether the killing would be legal under the US Constitution, which starts with the premise that individuals are considered innocent until proved guilty in a court. Lawyers working for the Obama White House have argued that such killings are legal, as noted in this New York Times piece.

Bruce Ackerman writes in Foreign Policy that the Obama administration’s reliance on a Justice Department memo allowing drone strikes is just as indefensible as the Bush administration’s reliance on a Justice Department memo allowing the US of torture against Al Qaeda suspects.

Christopher Hitchens, writing for Slate, seems willing to cut Obama some slack, arguing that the Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution simply couldn’t imagine a world in which drones could exist, and that US courts are struggling to find 18th century justifications for a 21st century war.

But perhaps the larger issue of what’s at stake is the very idea of America itself. Americans like to think of their society as being rooted in fairness, law, decency. Is it any wonder, then, that the citizens of other nations – particularly liberal Pakistanis or justice-minded South Africans who otherwise embrace “American” notions of liberty and fairness – are becoming increasingly suspicious of the actions of a globally powerful country like the US that can turn off a life with the flick of a switch?

In any case, Steven Walt reminds us in a piece for Foreign Policy that history is littered with great empires that cherished their own “exceptionalism.” The more influence they wielded, and the more their ideas were accepted, the less exceptional those great empires became.

Most great powers have considered themselves superior to their rivals and have believed that they were advancing some greater good when they imposed their preferences on others. The British thought they were bearing the "white man's burden," while French colonialists invoked la mission civilisatrice to justify their empire. Portugal, whose imperial activities were hardly distinguished, believed it was promoting a certain missão civilizadora. Even many of the officials of the former Soviet Union genuinely believed they were leading the world toward a socialist utopia despite the many cruelties that communist rule inflicted. Of course, the United States has by far the better claim to virtue than Stalin or his successors, but Obama was right to remind us that all countries prize their own particular qualities.

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