Unbelievable news: bombing another country is not war. Over at Foreign Policy, Thomas E. Ricks writes that he’s convinced by the Obama administration’s justification for use of drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and now Somalia. That is, they are not a form a war or military aggression, but rather a police action in cooperation with sovereign governments.
The drone strikes being conducted in those three countries are not being done to challenge those states, but to supplement the power of those states, to act when they cannot or will not. More importantly, these are precise strikes against certain individuals, making them more like police work than like classic military action. Police work involves small arms used precisely. Drones aren’t pistols, but firing one Hellfire at a Land Rover is more like a police action than it is like a large-scale military offensive with artillery barrages, armored columns, and infantry assaults.
[…] Drones, like cruise missiles before them, have made it much easier to use force internationally. But doing this does not mean we are at war.
The ability of the conductors of state warfare to twist something so far in the wrong direction in order to call it something it is not should leave us in awe. First of all, who says attacks that supplement state power instead of undermine it don’t qualify as war or aggression? Even that question is too charitable because it stipulates that these governments have any legitimate sovereignty over the people of these countries. We know the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan have repeatedly asked the United States government to ease up on drone attacks, especially those that kill large numbers of civilians. Any reticence exhibited by those governments to stand up against American bombing is there essentially because of bribery: both governments continue to exist due to U.S. support. Can it really be said that these drone attacks are supplementing state power? Or that they’re carried out in good faith and cooperation with some legitimate sovereign power? This excuse loses all credibility when it comes to Somalia, a country that barely even has a government.
Ricks also suggests these drone strikes are such concentrated, isolated incidents that they are more like police work than war. This is fallacious. Many operations in traditional warfare can be described as “involv[ing] small arms used precisely.” And anyways, the drone campaign in each of these countries is an extended, systematic policy that repeats itself almost daily (at least in Pakistan). These are not isolated incidents.
We can be sure that if this same gobbledygook explanation of bombing campaigns not qualifying as war or international aggression were employed by another country, no American (even these war hawks currently employing it) would accept it. The rocket attacks coming from Gaza into Israel (which are far rarer than U.S. drone attacks and which are far less effective in killing people) are regarded as international terrorism by the United States. But we’re special. Different standards apply to us. And you can take this thought experiment further:
The idea that the United States can arrogate to itself the right of life and death of people around the world can set off a dangerous precedent. What happens if India decides to do a bit of police action of its own in next door Pakistan. Unlike the CIA, India has actually built up a legal caseagainst the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hafeez Sayeed, for involvement in the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai. Given the lack of action by Pakistani authorities, should India take the law into its hands and target Sayeed and his associates for the assault ?
Or as Greg Scoblete says in the Real World Compass blog, what if Iran develops the capability to fly drones of its own and blows up the suburban Virginia home of a CIA official that is suspects is instigating violence in Iran, how will America react ?
Surely it is not going to say this is police action, but an act of war, or at the very least a terrorist strike on the homeland.
The U.S. leads the world in the use of unmanned aircraft for warfare by a distance, but it can’t be very long before other nations scale up their capabilities in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) as they are also known.
The drone technology may be sophisticated, but it can be reverse-engineered and replicated (the Chinese are reportedly already doing it). Forty countries already have UAVs in their arsenals, as do reportedly non-state actors such as Hezbollah. Today the U.S. is able to fly its drones over Waziristan and Yemen, but it is not inconceivable that in the future others too might be able to fly their drones over New York and Washington.
So there you have it. The Obama administration’s official strategy for conducting war with impunity wherever and whenever they want is to classify war as anything other than…war. That excuse was employed in Libya, and now for drone operations in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Where next?
Update: I hadn’t seen this in yesterday’s Washington Post before I posted this blog, but it provides some more background. Global Race On to Match U.S. Drone Capabilities:
More than 50 countries have purchased surveillance drones, and many have started in-country development programs for armed versions because no nation is exporting weaponized drones beyond a handful of sales between the United States and its closest allies.
But the world’s expanding drone fleets — and the push to weaponize them — have alarmed some academics and peace activists, who argue that robotic warfare raises profound questions about the rules of engagement and the protection of civilians, and could encourage conflicts.
“They could reduce the threshold for going to war,” said Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield in England. “One of the great inhibitors of war is the body bag count, but that is undermined by the idea of riskless war.”