US Politics and Drones: An Analysis
On February 4, 2003, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States of America (US) used an unmanned predator drone for the first time. It was a targeted killing in the Paktia province of Afghanistan. The person killed was supposed to be Osama Bin Laden, the leader of the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group, Al-Qaeda. However, it was later admitted by the CIA, that the man killed was actually just a civilian gathering scrap metal. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the US has since conducted a minimum of 6,786 strikes with the civilian death count ranging from approximately 769 to 1,725 people. These were innocent lives, which have now been quantified as mere ‘casualties’ of a global threat. The US has justified the violence by citing a rather orientalist argument. “In Washington’s eyes, its aerial violence is doubly law-full: not only legal, but also a means of bringing law to the lawless. The strikes are supposed to bring from the outside an ‘order’ that is lacking on the inside, and they become instruments of an aggressively modern reason that cloaks its violence in the velvet glove of the law” (Gregory, 2017, p. 39). In this context, a critical issue emerges: drone technology permits the USA to practice a new kind of warfare characterized by increased surveillance and individuation of targets. This has failed to bring law the lawless, and has instead, ironically, reduced human beings to bare lives, which renders the justification of the US for conducting this warfare invalid.
In this essay, I aim to explore the complex ambiguities in the relationship between US politics and drones. I argue that drone warfare conducted by the US isn’t rooted in instilling peace in lawless territories, but is instead a violent way to show the world its military and political supremacy. Drones are a means for the USA to ensure its status as the sole superpower in this unipolar world.
The 9/11 terror attacks marked the beginning of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom. President George W. Bush declared a ‘global war against terror’. However, the global war could not be more unilateral. Since the declaration, the US has launched two separate drone programs: the Pentagon approved special operations command in places where there is armed conflict, such as Afghanistan and Iraq and also, the CIA led secret ‘counterterrorism’ missions in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen (Sterio, 2012). The subsequent Obama administration drastically increased the power and authority of the CIA, and the number of these covert drone missions. Although they claim to be combating global terrorist organizations, these missions are entirely led by the US Executive, and the global community has neither any information nor any say in the ways they are conducted. Rohde writes in his journal article, ‘The Obama Doctrine’ (2012), “Under Obama, drone strikes have become too frequent, too unilateral, and too much associated with the heavy-handed use of American power”.
US military drone technology is the world’s most advanced one. This is intentional: the US has taken actions to limit the sharing of drone technology with other nation states. It changed its drone export policy in May 2015 which added many new restrictions on drone importing nations (Stohl, 2015). More recently, it has also imposed restrictions on importing drone technology from Chinese manufacturers fearing it will be sharing information with China (Seligman, 2019). This reveals that the US is desperately trying to restrict military drone technologies being used by other nation states, as it wants to remain the military hegemon of the world. Its self-appointed role as the leader in the global war against terror reinforces its status as the sole superpower in international politics.
US drones are constantly surveilling and striking different geographic locations across the globe. This illustrates the global battlefield of US drone warfare: there is no fixed geographical terrain which is exposed to this war, but instead, the whole world is vulnerable. This brings about questions regarding the sovereign status of the states where US is conducting its drone missions. The argument put forward by the US is that it can conduct drone warfare in any country that harbors enemies and at the same time is unwilling and unable to control where enemies are located (Sterio, 2012). This reasoning is deeply flawed for it gives the US the power to determine which countries meet the above-mentioned criteria, thereby making the entire argument redundant. This is a blatant demonstration of how US is able to manipulate international politics to suit its interests.
Additionally, drone warfare has led to the creation of a ‘targeted class’ (Parks, 2018). The ordinary citizens living in areas where there are terror suspects are constantly in the presence of drones – they are surveilled, monitored and often attacked. This is a very controversial aspect of drone warfare, not only because it is barely legal, but also because it puts forward a moral dilemma: why are the citizens of these regions reduced to a life without the most basic human freedoms and rights? When George W. Bush declared the global war on terror, he said, “On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known surprise attacks – but never before on thousands of civilians. All of this was brought upon us in a single day – and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack” (quoted from the Joint Session of the Congress, 15 September 2001). For every ‘militant’ killed by a drone, the world has sacrificed ten innocent civilians (Parks, 2018). The irony is so obvious, it’s amusing: the world compromised on the freedoms and liberties of some civilians, to give another set of civilians the same freedoms.
The US’s enthusiasm to conduct drone strikes, wherever and on whoever it wants, showcases its absolute political power. In the absence of global government, the US exercises complete control over international order. However, the strongest indication of the hegemonic power of the US is not in its military and political power, but rather the growing cultural acceptance of drone warfare. This cultural acceptance means that slowly fewer people are opposing US’s drone warfare (Fair, Kaltenthaler, Miller, 2016). This is due to two main reasons. Primarily, information on drone strikes is barely ever circulated to the public. Excusing itself for the sake of intelligence strategy, the US has never truly revealed to the public the exact amount of drone strikes and the number of casualties (Rohde, 2012). Hence, most of the gruesome acts of violence owing to drone warfare are never known to the public. Moreover, both the public and the military have been alienated from correctly analyzing the impacts of the drone strikes (Parks, 2018). Military officials sit thousands of miles away, and end lives at the press of a button. The vertical viewpoint makes these fatal death machines seem like a video game. Additionally, drones are increasingly integrating into ordinary people’s daily life as consumer goods. This normalizes their use, reducing their threat significantly. This skewed interpretation of drones makes it easier for people to accept drone warfare. As drones receive greater cultural acceptance, the US appears somewhat like a hero, noble and strong, ensuring global peace and security, when the reality is starkly different.
The objectives of drone usage in alleged lawless territories cited by the US can be summarized in two main claims: 1) they are bringing law and order in these states, 2) they attack terror organizations so as to instill world peace (Cronin, 2013). The 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden, or the more recent killing of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi has helped the US gain victories in its endless war on terror. However, these counter terrorist missions have not been overly successful: the targeted killing campaigns have resulted in the rise of new leaders and the terrorist groups have strengthened their resolve to spread their propaganda (Cronin, 2013).
The hidden objective that the US, that it has achieved in this war, is validation of its position as the sole superpower in this unipolar world. Whether it is by showcasing its military prowess, political dominance or cultural acceptance, drones are definitely being used as tools to help states and their citizens internalize the international world order and imbalanced distribution of power.
This paves the path for new critical issues to rise: since the US Executive and the CIA take most of the action when it comes to drone strikes, and do not share any information with the public or even the Congress, what impact do drones leave on the status of US democracy? This dictatorial power exercised by the US Executive is worrisome – it undermines the power of upcoming international agencies and forums for global governance, and installs a regime in which one man has control over the world. As we continue to integrate drones in our daily lives, we become blind villagers of this global village, which is governed by a tall and powerful village headmaster.
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