"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, December 10, 2012

Drones And Targeted Killings–Bombs Away!

George Will has written in the Washington Post (12.10.12) about government-sponsored targeted killings and has raised the question of whether they are legally and/or morally justified.  Of course they are, Will writes, war is war.

There has been much stumbling over this issue.  There have been those who say that it is morally reprehensible for government leaders to put individuals in their sights and political or military assassination is no less a crime than murder.  Others have said that in this age of asymmetrical war, the ‘neutralization of priority assets’ is perfectly justified.  Why should the life of one high-ranking enemy be treated any differently than the millions who died in Dresden, Hiroshima, Berlin, or Nagasaki? In the late Seventies and early Eighties, it was politically expedient to claim that there was indeed a difference:

Executive Order 12333, issued by Reagan in 1981, extended one promulgated by Gerald Ford in 1976 — in response to revelations about CIA attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro — and affirmed by Jimmy Carter. Order 12333 says: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”

Of course no President has paid any attention to those Executive Orders.  Ronald Reagan’s attack on the residential headquarters of Muammar Kaddafi was nothing else than an assassination attempt.  There can be no doubt that George H.W. Bush was looking to eliminate Noriega during the Panama invasion. Bill Clinton had avowed to kill Osama bin Laden and ‘capture or kill’ was part of his foreign policy. George W. Bush had avowed to hunt him down and kill him; and President Obama finally completed the job.

No one questions America’s desire to neutralize individual enemies.  It would have been far easier and less costly if CIA operatives or Navy SEALS had taken out Saddam Hussein or could have eliminated Kim Jung Il, or Ayatollah Khomeini; and the fact that these despots remained in power or had to be removed through violent conflict is a testimony to the protective shields around them and to political realities, not to the moral fiber of American leaders.

The decision to eliminate individual high-value targets does have an important political dimension.  Even if the United States were to assassinate Ahmadinejad, the Muslim world would know who did it and violent reprisals would occur.  The same would be true for North Korean leaders.  So American leaders pick carefully.  Kennedy was brashly confident that if he was successful in eliminating Castro, the Russians would not retaliate; and so under his short reign, even the most ridiculous schemes to get rid of the Latin dictator were cooked up. 

• Aerosol attack on radio station Discussion was held on a scheme to contaminate the air of the radio station in Havana where Castro broadcast his speeches with a chemical that produces reactions similar to LSD.

Contaminated cigars A vague scheme involving a box of cigars treated with a chemical intended to produce temporary personality disorientation or, perhaps, cause his beard to fall out.

Depilatory A scheme involving thallium salt, a chemical used by women as a depilatory, placed in his shoes. The idea was to cause Castro's beard to fall out, thus damaging his image. (CNN.com 11.2009)

Osama bin Laden was acceptable prey because the US was already demonstrating its military might in two countries, and obviously would not stop at killing the guy who started it all.  Noriega and Allende were equally soft targets.  Who would really complain if the US eliminated them?

In this age of risk-avoidance – i.e. American casualties must be reduced to a minimum – the killing of an enemy leader which might lessen the duration of an armed conflict would of course be justified.

In other words, despite the Executive Orders and Jimmy Carter’s idealistic view to create a new world moral order, assassinations have been and will always be an instrument of war.

If anything, international terrorism has made it easier to avoid any moral compunctions (either sincerely held or politically expedient) about assassinations.  In the chaotic world of Islamist suicide bombers, civilian massacres, and a take-no-prisoners ethos based on a religious world vision, who could object to any type of American intervention?  Drone attacks are often criticized for their immorality (collateral damage), but the fact that they have been successful at eliminating important targets with no loss of American lives trumps those moral considerations every time. 

Anyone with the slightest understanding of history knows that Rolling Thunder, Nixon’s campaign to bomb North Vietnam into submission was indiscriminate in its killing of both militants and civilians.  Napalm was no less generalized mass killing.  The calculus has fortunately become more precise.  Yes, we do unfortunately kill civilians in our drone attacks, but they are very few, and we have done everything in our power to minimize them. The fact that we have tried to reduce civilian casualties is thought to be moral progress.  In WWII and Vietnam we tried to obliterate everything.  Now we are more careful and less morally suspect.

John Yoo of California’s Berkeley School of Law has written a lucid guide to the legal and moral calculus of combating terrorism by targeting significant enemy individuals. In “Assassination or Targeted Killings After 9/11” (New York Law School Law Review, 2011-12), Yoo correctly notes that “precise attacks against individuals” have many precedents and “further the goals of the laws of war by eliminating the enemy and reducing harm to innocent civilians.” And he clarifies the compelling logic of using drones for targeted killings — attacking a specific person rather than a military unit or asset — in today’s “undefined war with a limitless battlefield.”

Drones are the ideal instrument for assassinations not only because they are so precise, thereby suppressing any moral guilt about collateral damage, but because there are no pilots.  No one is doing the killing.  Well, of course someone has to be twiddling the joystick back at the Pentagon, but that really doesn’t count.

Although given the indifference to the moral implications of assassinations by American leaders one would think the case closed, academics continue to perform legalistic gymnastics to justify the obvious. 

[Professor Yoo concludes that] drones enable the U.S. military — which, regarding drones, includes the CIA; an important distinction has been blurred — to wield a technology especially potent against al-Qaeda’s organization and tactics. All its leaders are, effectively, military, not civilian.[Italics mine] Killing them serves the military purposes of demoralizing the enemy, preventing planning, sowing confusion and draining the reservoir of experience.

Sound familiar? The Vietnam War was all about the military-civilian Halloween Party.  You never knew who was a Viet Cong, a VC sympathizer, or just a villager.  In what seems a very naïve and innocent age, we were horrified at My Lai and hoped against hope that it was a unique experience. Of course it was not; but why did no one link the indiscriminate fiery destruction wreaked from above by Lord Shiva the Destroyer with the destruction of a Vietnamese village, home to VC and VC sympathizers – the enemy – alike?

It is obvious that any remaining moral considerations about acts of war are dissipating and will soon disappear.  Nixon espoused what he called ‘The Madman Theory’.  He was quite pleased that the Russians thought him unbalanced and quite capable of pulling the nuclear trigger. The Viet Cong were masters of intimidation, threat, and execrable acts of torture and punishment designed to show Americans that they would stop at nothing to win the war. Genghis Khan marched down from the Steppes and marauded his way from sea to see, leaving the heads of anyone who stood in his way impaled on stakes.  Truman threatened a nuclear holocaust if Japan did not capitulate and then followed through on the threat. 

In other words, if the enemy thinks us capable of the most intolerable of human actions, he might think twice about continuing his opposition to us. We have come full circle. We had few qualms about reducing Hiroshima and Nagasaki to ashes.  We fretted over My Lai and have tried to reduce civilian casualties and our own in our Afghanistan and Iraq incursions.  Now, with the use of drones we are finally shedding our innocence.  We are coming to realize that war is about winning; that the ends justify the means; and that war is hell – get it over with as quickly as possible and don’t worry too much about how. 

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