The undeclared drone war

The U.S. escalation is part of a larger imperialist strategy, explains Eric Ruder.

Demonstrators in Pakistan march against U.S. drone strikesDemonstrators in Pakistan march against U.S. drone strikes

BARACK OBAMA has overseen a massive escalation in the use of drone warfare during his presidency, so when he took to the podium in late April to apologize for killing an American and an Italian hostage in Pakistan in a January drone strike, his words rang hollow.

"We all bleed when we lose an American life," Obama said. "We all grieve when any innocent life is taken. We don't take this work lightly."

The January death of Warren Weinstein, an American doing aid work in Pakistan, brings to eight the number of Americans killed by U.S. drone strikes, only one of whom was intentionally targeted. This stands in stark contrast to the Obama administration's reassurances that drone strikes are only undertaken when there is "near-certainty" that no civilians will be harmed and that a specific named individual is being targeted.

"The only people that we fire a drone at are confirmed terrorist targets at the highest level after a great deal of vetting that takes a long period of time," said Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013. "We don't just fire a drone at somebody and think they're a terrorist."

Days after Obama's public contrition at the loss of American life, however, the Wall Street Journal reported that in 2013 when rules were tightened to stipulate that individuals targeted by drone strikes must pose an "imminent threat to the U.S.," it was Obama himself who issued a secret waiver exempting the CIA from abiding by this requirement in Pakistan.

Obama's ruthless waging of drone warfare is in fact a crucial component of the larger strategy being pursued by the U.S. in the Middle East, namely to shed the costly and unpopular deployment of massive numbers of boots on the ground while preserving a certain degree of lethality carried out by air strikes, drones and U.S. special forces. This lethality gives the U.S. the capacity to intervene with the aim of balancing the influence of a growing tangle of regional powers vying for greater influence.

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EVEN AS Obama promised to bring transparency to the use of drone strikes, he has fought to keep secret the various legal opinions that serve as the underlying justifications for the U.S. program of targeted killings from Pakistan to Yemen, Somalia and beyond.

Investigative journalists and human-rights groups have had to rely on piecing together publicly available information from various sources to pierce the veil of secrecy surrounding the U.S. assassination-by-drone program--and to demonstrate the horrific scale of collateral damage that U.S. officials apparently find acceptable.

Relying on statistics provided by the human-rights group Reprieve and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Britain's Guardian newspaper reported last fall that the targeting of 41 men in Pakistan and Yemen had led to the deaths of 1,147 people, as of November 24, 2014.

"Drone strikes have been sold to the American public on the claim that they're 'precise,'" said Reprieve's Jennifer Gibson, who was the lead researcher for the group's study. "But they are only as precise as the intelligence that feeds them. There is nothing precise about intelligence that results in the deaths of 28 unknown people, including women and children, for every 'bad guy' the U.S. goes after."

Such wanton use of violence--including the killing of women and children--explains the growing anger at the U.S. across the Middle East, despite the fact that Obama has personally invested significant effort in rehabilitating the image of the U.S. in the Arab world. Nevertheless, according to U.S. security experts, the use of drone strikes will almost certainly continue to increase for the simple reason that it provides the White House and the CIA with the means to wage war without officially declaring one.

Congress has traditionally offered at least rhetorical opposition when presidents attempt to circumvent its authority to declare wars, but in the case of America's expanding drone war, some of the most powerful figures in Congress are completely on board, in particular California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D). In fact, the CIA is inviting members of Congress to grisly private screenings of drone strikes as part of cultivating the only "public opinion" they care about.

According to the New York Times:

The screenings have provided a veneer of congressional oversight and have led lawmakers to claim that the targeted killing program is subject to rigorous review, to defend it vigorously in public and to authorize its sizable budget each year…

[Yet] interviews with administration and congressional officials show that Congress holds the program to less careful scrutiny than many members assert. Top CIA officials, who learned the importance of cultivating Congress after the resistance they ran into on the [secret torture and] detention program, have dug in to protect the agency's drone operations.

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THE EXPONENTIAL growth in the use of drones is just one facet of evolving U.S. strategy in the Middle East. In the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. relied on military superiority, alliances with a rogue's gallery of Arab dictators and generous spending on foreign aid projects to maintain its hegemony over the region.

But the disastrous imperial overreach of George W. Bush and his neoconservative hawks combined with the growing wealth of the Gulf monarchies has compelled a reengineering of U.S. strategy. Unable to dictate terms in the ways it could formerly, the U.S. is now seeking to balance between its allies and rivals, such as Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran. This explains why the U.S. backed Saudi Arabia's vicious bombing campaign in Yemen, only to rein in the Saudi air campaign when it seemed to be doing more harm than good.

The Saudi intervention has killed at least 944 people and injured nearly 3,500, according to the World Health Organization, and Obama's dispatch of a U.S. aircraft carrier group was credited in late April with turning back an Iranian ship allegedly carrying arms to Houthi rebels, but the blockade has exacerbated food and fuel scarcities. Such a naval blockade, like drone strikes, is an act of war, but has been imposed without declaring war.

The growing instability has also spurred a massive arms race, which U.S. arms manufacturers are cashing in on. The militaries of Gulf monarchies have until recently been fictions, "a combination of something between symbols of deterrence and national flying clubs," according to Richard Aboulafia, a defense analyst at the Teal Group. "Now they're suddenly being used."

Last year, Saudi Arabia spent $80 billion on advanced weaponry, surpassing Britain and France to become the world's fourth-largest military spender. The United Arab Emirates spent roughly $23 billion last year, more than three times what they spent in 2006.

Obama now must strive to ensure that these countries direct their violence at targets that the U.S. approves of--which is by no means guaranteed.