Euphemisms of Obama’s Wars


At Oxford University, ten days ago, the Pentagon’s top lawyer, Jeb Johnson said that the war against al-Qaeda was almost over, and that what remained were police actions. A “tipping point” has been reached, he noted. Does this mean that the War on Terror, begun in the embers of 9/11, has come to an end?

It is certainly the case that the organization that attacked the US in 2001 is fundamentally degraded. The original al-Qaeda, with its tentacles reaching from Afghanistan into the United States, does not exist any longer. On 16 September, 2001, President George W. Bush said, “This crusade – this war on terrorism – is going to take a while.” By a narrow standard, that “while” has arrived. But then, four days later, Mr. Bush inflated his reach, saying that the war on terror “begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” This is a recipe for endless war, and endless confusion: it has always been a problem to define a terrorist given the casualness with which States tend to label dissident groups or national liberation movements as terrorist. The al-Qaeda that attacked the US is now gone. But its demise has not ended this endless war.

At Oxford and on the BBC, Johnson said that the US would now use “law enforcement and intelligence resources” to go after terrorism. When challenged by BBC’s Zeinab Badawi, Johnson pointed to the use of unmanned drones, which he said “have a good track record.” The US had to withdraw from Iraq when it would not accept Iraq’s new law that required US troops to be under Iraqi jurisdiction, and it will withdraw from Afghanistan after it became clear that the surge strategy was more public relations than counter-insurgency. The shift in Pentagon strategy reflects this reality as much as it does the degraded al-Qaeda. No longer is it easy to fight land wars in theatres that do not welcome substantial troop deployments. It is much easier to use Counterterrorism’s Air Force (the drones) and its Intelligence (spies and Special Operations).


The drone program is the most public secret of the Obama administration. It has expanded this program, now run through the Pentagon and CIA, across North Africa and into Asia, using drones at an exponentially higher rate than in the Bush administration. The United Nations has repeatedly cautioned the use of drones for ethical and international law reasons. In 2010, the UN released a report on targeted assassinations, which worried that the US was “going a long way towards destroying the prohibition on the use of armed force contained in the UN Charter.” The Obama administration dismissed this report, saying that it had the right to self-defense. This is not a credible position. In the Washington Post (October 2, 2011), John R. Bellinger III, who served in Bush national security team, asked “will drone strikes become Obama’s Guantanamo?” Bellinger would know something about Guantanamo, since he provided the defense of it in 2006. Bellinger notes that “even if the Obama administration officials are satisfied that drone strikes comply with international law, they would still be wise to try to build a broader international consensus.” This is why Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech on drones and Johnson gave his speech on the broad policy, despite the fact that this is a secret program.

But none of these defenses has stilled international criticism. Firstly, seventy-six countries now have drone technology. By the US standard of self-defense and its argument that drones are an appropriate delivery vehicle for justice, these countries should have allowance to fly them where they will and attack their enemies. As the UN put it, if the US standard is “invoked by other states in pursuits of those they deem to be terrorists or to have attacked them, it would cause chaos.” So does the US standard then only work for itself? What if Russia decided to use its drones if invited in by the Assad regime in Syria, to kill those whom Assad calls terrorists? What if China sends it drones into Burma to tackle those whom Naypyidaw considers terrorists?

Secondly, the US claims that the drones are only used if there is an “imminent threat” and after a police arrest has been seen to be infeasible. Who is to measure the imminence of a threat? The killing of a US national in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, raises these questions. Secrecy from the US means that there is no way to adjudicate the imminence of the threat posed by al-Awlaki. Other countries would be able to camouflage aggressive motivations behind a similar wall of secrecy. Under US pressure, the Yemeni authorities tried to arrest al-Awlaki once. Would it be acceptable to put out a shoot to kill order against someone who the police have tried to arrest after only once? As Professor David Cole put it, “Capture entails due process, a trial and the like; pushing a button does not.”

Thirdly, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the rate of civilian casualties (including deaths of children) in drone strikes is much greater than being reported in the US media. Reading the Stanford/NYU report Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan (2012) is chilling. There are, of course, the deaths, but then there is the experience of “living under drones,” the anxiety and the stress, the fear and the nightmares. A father of three told the researchers, “drones are always on my mind. It makes it difficult to sleep. They are like a mosquito. Even when you don’t see them, you can hear them, you know they are there.” Saeed Yayha, a day laborer injured by a 2011 strike and now reliant upon charity, said, “I can’t sleep at night because when the drones are there….I hear them making that sound, that noise. The drones are all over my brain. I can’t sleep. When the hear the drones making that drone sound, I just turn on the light and sit there looking at the light. Whenever the drones are hovering over us, it just makes me so scared.” Akhuzada Chitan, a member of Pakistani’s parliament, travels to his home in Waziristan and hears from people who “often complain that they wake up in the middle of the night screaming because they are hallucinating about drones.”

A New America Foundation study (July 2010), cited by the Stanford/NYU study, found that almost six in ten residents of a part of northern Pakistan said that suicide attacks are justified against the military, with the onus for this number on their anger at drone attacks. This June, the Middle East Policy Council showed a correlation between drone and terrorist attacks between 2004 and 2009. It is “probable that drone strikes provide motivation for retaliation,” they wrote in Drone Warfare: Blowback from the New American Way of War, “and that there is a substantive relationship between the increasing number of drone strikes and the increasing number of retaliation attacks.” The day after the US elections on November 6, a US drone struck in the Yemeni city of Radaa. Early reports said that al-Qaeda militants had been killed. It soon came out that eleven civilians were among the dead, including three children and several women. Nasr Abdullah told CNN International, “I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined the lines of al Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake. This part of Yemen takes revenge very seriously.”

To dress up drones as a human rights weapon is an obscenity. Obama’s new technologies of warfare have the planet up in arms. Pandora’s lid wobbles. These are dangerous precedents.

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press). On December 8, in Boston, he will moderate the first ever meeting of Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky. For more info, http://criticalresistance.org/angela-davis-and-noam-chomsky-in-conversation-for-the-first-time-ever/.


A shorter version of this was published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette (December 5).

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