The Washington Post

The threat of drones ushering in ‘invisible wars’

Obama’s end to the war in Iraq and promises to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan have prevented him from seeming war-hungry. But the increased use of drone strikes during his presidency raises the question among critics that Obama has sidestepped congressional approval for declaration of war.

This criticism also points to what some see as an overreliance on technology, which Obama has admitted is tempting. “There’s a remoteness to it that makes it tempting to think that somehow we can, without any mess on our hands, solve vexing security problems,” Obama has stated.

The NY Times recently reported that over 300 drone strikes have taken place since he first took office, leading to 2,500 deaths, the creation of “kill lists” and mass displacement of civilians in targeted regions. But the administration is not backing off. Its goal is to “institutionalize” the drone program to ensure that there is protocol in place for future successors.

A U.S. Predator unmanned drone armed with a missile sets off from its hangar at Bagram air base in 2009. (Bonny Schoonakker/AFP/Getty Images)

No American wants to return to the fear that Sept. 11th instilled in us all. But as we set rules that govern our use of drones, we must also consider other factors.

Is this administration’s increased use of drones unique to Obama’s outlook on how to best fight “the War on Terror”? Do these unmanned strikes reflect growing ethical dilemmas posed by technological advancement? Is it time that we reevaluate the price that is being paid globally for keeping Americans safe? What happens when the technology is adopted by other nations? And is it ethical to use overwhelming force without engaging in combat?

Vijay Prashad, a professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., argues that this type of technology is likely to produce outrage, fuel retaliation and increase terrorist operations. “You can’t bomb a country into giving up certain ideas,” he said in an interview. “Internal struggles have to take place to marginalize certain ideas. You harden ideas this way. Why does the U.S. feel the need to enter other people’s conflicts versus allowing them to sort through it on their own?”

It’s highly unlikely that any other president would have made radically different decisions given our country’s experiences with warfare and loss of human casualties in the last decade. But that doesn’t mean that we should stop holding this government accountable to transparency – even in relation to what may be deemed “a work in progress.” 

We must be cautious about being enthusiastic about the establishment of protocol, Prashad argues. He believes that who gets to set the rules is as important as what the rules are — challenging the idea that internal regulations by agencies such as the C.I.A. will offer the level of accountability and due process that the American public needs.

Prashad rightfully believes that we can’t ignore who is using the technology and who is being victimized by it. According to the NY Times article, “In Yemen, some strikes apparently launched by the United States killed militants who were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces.” 

What’s the implication if these strikes are being used to serve the U.S. government’s special interests in foreign conflicts rather than responding to an imminent threat to this country?

“The history of industrial advantage is that the West will always use this advantage against the rest,” Prashad said. “They will use the fruits of industry in military fashion. The history of colonialism coincides with the history of modern industrial warfare.”

A leading argument in support of drone strikes is that they diminish the weight that American families have to personally carry for warfare. The unmanned strikes eliminate the fear of a loved one returning home in a flag-draped casket. They remove the element of psychological trauma experienced by soldiers on the ground. In the words of our president, drone strikes allow us to be engaged in never-ending wars “without any mess on our hands.” But war is always messy.

Although Americans protested militarism during the Bush years, that hasn’t been as common during Obama’s presidency. Perhaps Occupy Wall Street’s heavy emphasis on economic justice turned the attention of progressives primarily to domestic affairs. Public outcry doesn’t seem as strong on foreign matters, such as U.S. drone strikes and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

No matter how good-intentioned a Commander-in-Chief may be, the onus is still on Americans to know the trail of death, displacement and hopelessness that our government is leaving behind in other parts of the world. 

Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT.

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