The Inevitable War
Despite Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump’s disagreements, they agree on one policy which has not changed since the twilight of the George Bush administration: the United States’ use of unmanned drones kill suspected terrorists in countries that tacitly submit to our surgical war.
Both Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton would enthusiastically continue using these weapons. Mr. Trump advocates waging an extensive aerial campaign against ISIS, which would include the use of drones. He criticized President Barack Obama for refusing to use drones to target members of the Haqqani network in Miramshah, Pakistan, a policy he called “absurd,” and one that is more interested in being “politically correct” than successful. Secretary Clinton has also endorsed the use of drones, saying that we should use “all the tools at our disposal,” a policy she specifies, “includes targeted strikes by U.S. military aircraft and drones.”
Drones have become the most recent technological fetish of the United States military. I doubt the late George Orwell would be surprised to learn of the proliferation of these fantastically complex, remotely piloted unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are armed with upwards of four thousand pounds of Hellfire air-to-ground homing missiles and five hundred pound JDAM precision laser-guided smart bombs as well as three hundred and sixty eight cameras – capable of producing images totaling two billion pixels at a rate of twelve frames per second – tasked with tracking, identifying, and destroying targets from the cruising altitude of the average airliner without being detected.
The most frightening aspect of drone warfare is not the weapon itself, but the strategic ambiguity of the laws surrounding their usage, and how policymakers have framed the use of drones to justify their use to us emotionally. Speeches on drones by President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and CIA Director John Brennan reference national security, 9/11, or the evils of whichever terror group we are targeting. Our leaders hide behind rhetoric designed to make us fear, and laws designed to obscure.
A Department of Justice white paper leaked to the press presents a set of vague conditions under which the President can order not only so-called “signature strikes” — attacks on unidentified, yet suspicious targets — but also the extrajudicial killing of American citizens such as the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011.
The conditions are as follows: 1) An informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; 2) Capture is infeasible, and the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible; 3) The operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles. According to the same memo, the “imminent threat of violent attack” does not require intelligence officials to have “evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”
Though successful in eliminating many high-ranking al-Qaeda and Taliban officers, the unintended consequences of our use of drones are too problematic to gloss over in this election. The use of drones has been shown to inspire virulent anti-Americanism in the lands they are routinely flown over. As The Brookings Institution has reported, many times, the only thing being struck by drones is a fear of clear blue sky, right into the hearts and minds of those we have poured billions of dollars into winning over. Also, civilian casualties are much higher than government estimates according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, The New America Foundation, and The Foundation for Defending Democracy. Furthermore, critics in Congress say we should be capturing and questioning suspects instead of executing them.
Neither candidate has been questioned about their position on our use of drones in the nationally televised debates, and neither is likely to address the issue before they assume office. The culture of secrecy will live on, and we will be left with an inevitable war.