US will be trapped in its own drown game
Earlier this week, a US Senate subcommittee held hearings on the use of drones. Most of those who testified were constitutional law professors or terrorism experts. In what was an emotional high-point of the proceedings, the committee also heard from a young US-educated Yemeni, Farea Al Muslimi, whose village had been hit by a drone attack just one week earlier (an attack similar to one he recounted in this space in February). With his powerful and personal testimony, Mr Al Muslimi put his finger squarely on the problem drones pose for American policymakers.
After recounting his time in America, and how he came to love the US and its people, Mr Al Muslimi told the committee how he returned to Yemen committed to serving as an ambassador for America to ordinary Yemenis. It was only then that he learnt first-hand of the impact drones would have on his self-proclaimed mission.
Mr Al Muslimi said:
“Late last year, I was with an American colleague from an international media outlet on a tour of Abyan [a region in southern Yemen]. Suddenly, locals started to become paranoid. They were moving erratically and frantically pointing towards the sky. Based on their past experiences with drone strikes, they told us that the thing hovering above us – out of sight and making a strange humming noise – was an American drone. My heart sank. I was helpless … I was standing there at the mercy of a drone …
“That feeling, multiplied by the highest number mathematicians have, gripped me when my village was droned just days ago.”
Mr Al Muslimi went on in his testimony to note how he was “devastated” by the attack fearing that the use of drones “would empower the militants” while putting his life at risk by making him “look like someone who had betrayed his country by supporting America”.
Constitutional lawyers can argue until they are blue in the face whether there are legal justifications for using drones, and tacticians can similarly make the case for the relative ease with which this new technology can help the Pentagon or the CIA target and eliminate “bad guys” without putting American lives at risk. But the consequences of using this technology are real, as are the dangers.
First and foremost is the feeling of helplessness drones create not only among the targets but among entire populations in the countries where they have been used. As we have seen too many times in history, air power creates enemies. People aren’t cowed by unseen overwhelming force. And when the calm of their daily lives can be shattered by destructive force beyond their control, they hate the source of that disruptive power.
Western governments can marvel at the technology involved in a process by which one man thousands of miles away can spot, identify, target and destroy an alleged enemy. But at the other end of the line, there is fear, a loss of control, helplessness and hatred – precisely because that unseen hand has made them afraid, has the power to bring instant death and destruction, and has rendered them helpless.
The experts can boast of the drone’s efficiency and speak casually of “limited collateral damage”, but for the populations at the point of impact, every innocent killed is a victim with family and friends, and even the successful strikes create a widespread sense of terror and resentment.
There are, of course, other reasons to be deeply concerned about the use of drones – especially when used in areas where the US is not in a declared state of war. No matter what fancy terms are used to describe these attacks, in using drones the US is engaged in assassinations, plain and simple. American policymakers can try to make the case for their actions when, for instance, the targets have been major figures in Al Qaeda. But when these strikes “take out” lower level, lesser known figures, the justifications ring hollow. Making the case after the fact is a weak case indeed.
And finally, all Americans should be concerned that in the not too distant future other nations and non-state actors will also deploy drone technology. In operating as it has, the US is writing new “rules of the road” that others will claim the right to apply in their own conflicts. I fear we will live to rue the day we threw out the rule of law.
Back in October 2003, as it became clear that the Iraq War would not be short, then-secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld wrote a memo to his staff, in which he famously asked, “are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrasas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” As we now know, he may have asked the right question but, in the end, he came up with the wrong answers.
At the close of his testimony, Mr Al Muslimi observed that “the American and Yemeni governments are losing the war against AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula]. Even when drone strikes kill the right people, it is at the expense of creating … more strategic problems”. American drone strikes, he said, create hatred of America, undoing all the positives generated by its remarkably effective aid programmes.
My advice? Throw out the legal treatises and the writings of the experts and read Mr Al Muslimi’s testimony. In light of that, then try to answer Mr Rumsfeld’s question.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute