Concluding his article (Part 1 was in the March issue) on foreign military and political intervention in West Africa, and how the USA has deployed drones in the region, Cameron Duodu says it is sad that the man who was supposed to represent the whole of humanity at the top of American politics, President Barack Obama, should, today, be portrayed as the enemy of humankind – because of his excessive use of drones to kill alleged enemies abroad, an action which is likely to encourage other countries to develop and use drones themselves. And what a world that will be?
Imagine that by some quirk of fate, the president of the United States is a hawkish figure of the Dick Cheney type… “ ‘Potuscheney’ – as the American leader is known to his staff. And he wants to ‘whup the arse’ of some ‘rogue state’ that threatens the interests of the United States in the Middle East’.” When I wrote these words in the March 2013 edition of New African, I was poking fun at Dick Cheney, the former US vice-president. But apparently, such notions are not a joke in Washington DC, where Cheney held sway between 2001 and 2009. I don’t, of course, flatter myself that either (a) the current “Potus” (President of the United States) Barack Obama reads my articles, or (b) that I have, unknown to me, been wired into Obama’s brain-box. No, I joke not! For on 14 March 2013 – a fortnight after the March issue of New African had been on the streets, the authoritative Washington publication, Politico, carried this headline: President Obama: I’m no Dick Cheney on drones! What?
Yes, according to the paper, Obama’s “defence to Democratic senators complaining about how little his administration has told Congress about the legal justifications for his drone policy [was]: Dick Cheney was worse. That’s part of what two senators in the room recounted of Obama’s response when, near the outset of his closed-door session with the Senate Democratic conference … Senator Jay Rockefeller … confronted the President over the administration’s refusal, for two years, to show congressional intelligence committees, Justice Department … memos justifying the use of lethal force against American terror suspects abroad. “In response to Rockefeller’s critique… the senators told Politico [that Obama] also tried to assure his former colleagues that his administration is more open to oversight than that of President George W. Bush, whom many Democratic senators attacked for secrecy and for expanding executive power in the national security realm. “This is not Dick Cheney we’re talking about here,’ [Obama] said…”
So Obama realises that a “Dick Cheney” type of ruler could use drones carelessly and kill people “by heart” (as we in West Africa would put it). That makes the president’s excessive use of drones even more reprehensible.
For, many people the world over see him as a moral superior of both Bush and Cheney, and what Obama is doing withdrones around the globe is preparing a moral justification for a more murderous president (after him) to expand the “murder-by-drone” programme that he is pursuing. It is called the art of “setting a precedent”.
Rand Paul to the rescue?
In fact, irony of ironies: the most serious attack on Obama’s drone programme so far in the US Congress has come, not from a liberal Democrat but from a conservative Republican – which partly illustrates the dilemma in which Obama is placing Democrats both in and out of Congress. The anti-drone conservative is Senator Rand Paul, and what he did recently was to stand up and attack the Obama drone programme continuously on the floor of the Senate for thirteen hours! The opportunity he used to carry out his filibuster was the confirmation hearings of the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), John Brennan.
Rand Paul’s antidrone strictures have endeared him to the Conservative Political Action Conference and he could well ride on it to become the Republican presidential candidate in 2016. This is why some liberals have begun to cry out: “Oh Obama, what legacy will you leave in Washington DC? Are you providing the platform for someone who is, essentially, as right-wing as Dick Cheney, to run for president by pretending to be morally superior to you and your supporters with regard to your drone programme? If American voters buy Rand Paul’s argument on drones, can you imagine what he will use his power to do to health care, education and welfare programmes generally?” In allowing himself to be attacked on drones by the right, Obama is in fact, legitimising the hypocrisy of the conservatives. They have just simply discovered that Obama is vulnerable on his drones policy, and that it is hard for even his strongest supporters to defend it.
To those of us who are outside the USA, this debate in Washington about drones is of even greater significance than it is to the Americans. The reason is that by legitimising the use of drones around the world, the US government is giving the green light, albeit inadvertently, to far more unscrupulous regimes to acquire and use drones. Suppose Hosni Mubarak’s options, in January-February 2011, had included the ability to send drones at night to Tahir Square – instead of soldiers made of flesh and blood – to disperse the thousands of people who had camped there? The Egyptian soldiers, being human, would not shoot at the people. But drones would have mowed them down.
Again, imagine that the government of Syria had drones. I am certain that by now, the Syrian rebellion would have been crushed. For drones could be directed by remote control to hit them wherever they might be hiding in Syria and also in neighbouring Turkey, and other places where the Assad government believes they are getting support from.
The question then arises: is it easy to obtain drones? The answer is not at the moment. But the time when drones will become as common as land mines, rocket launchers, and other hideous weapons is not far off. The Iranians, for instance, are believed to have shot down a drone sent by the Americans to spy on them, some time ago. Who knows that Iranian technicians – with the immense oil wealth of the country behind them – have not tried to construct a drone of their own by imitating the technology they have found within the American drone?
What about Russia and other technologically advanced countries? What drones are they constructing and whom will they sell them to? Could drones become a political weapon for the Chinese, as they gallivant around Africa building infrastructural projects in their search for raw materials? Suppose the option had been open to Captain Amadou Sanogo of Mali to use drones against the Tuaregs and their allies in northern Mali?
These are not idle questions. It must be remembered that Osama bin Laden and his warriors were trained by the CIA to fight against the Russians in Afghanistan. But when the Russians left Afghanistan, the Osama group discovered that the Americans were now their new enemy. Which was par for the course: “in international politics, there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests”.
So they directed their hostility towards America. And unimaginable as it seemed, they managed to pull off 9/11, using techniques in which they had been trained by the Americans.
Even worse, the proliferation of drones in the world could come from the USA itself. Already, pressure is building up within the aeronautical industry in the US for American skies to be opened up to drones for weather-spotting duties, detection of potential damage on oil rigs, and other installations that humans find it difficult to police, and even tasks determined by US Immigration and Customs.
It does not take too much imagination to conclude that in the very near future, even the US government might be tempted to export drone technology and proliferate the world with drones, in much the same way as armaments of all types have ended up in the hands of people who are not supposed to have them.
Professor John Kaag, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and co-author of a forthcoming book entitled Drone Warfare, writes that 10 years ago, he watched the Iraq invasion unfold on TV. “It was for me, like most Americans, a remote-control event, the type that you tuned into occasionally to see how it was going before changing the channel, like the Olympics. And, as often happens in the Olympics, we crushed the opposition.
“But we Americans at home were not the only ones with remote controls. Many of our soldiers also had them, and used them to direct one of the most devastating military assaults in the history of modern warfare.
“The technological superiority of the United States – its ability to strike with precision from a distance – produced something like the ‘shock and awe’ the media had relentlessly advertised. And it inspired a similar reaction in moral and legal theorists who were concerned about the relationship between advanced military technologies and the legitimation of warfare.” Nowadays, Prof Kaag continues, he worries about drone warfare. “Some of my colleagues”, he writes, “would like me to provide decision procedures for military planners and soldiers, the type that could guide them, automatically, unthinkingly, mechanically, to the right decision about drone use.
“I try to tell them that this is not how ethics, or philosophy, or humans, work. I try to tell them that the difference between humans and robots is precisely the ability to think and reflect, in Immanuel Kant’s words, to set and pursue ends for themselves.
“And these ends cannot be set beforehand in some hard and fast way… What disturbs me is the idea that a book about the moral hazard of military technologies should be written as if it was going to be read by robots: input decision procedure, output decision and correlated action. “I know that effective military operations have traditionally been based on the chain of command and that this looks a little like the command and control structure of robots. When someone is shooting at you, I can only imagine that you need to follow orders mechanically. The heat of battle is neither the time nor the place for cool ethical reflection.”
Prof Kaag goes on: “Warfare, unlike philosophy, could never be conducted from an armchair. Until now. For the first time in history, some soldiers have this in common with philosophers: they can do their jobs sitting down. They now have what I have always enjoyed, namely ‘leisure’ … meaning they are not constantly afraid of being killed [themselves].
“My point here is not that these new armchair soldiers are to be criticised for failing in their moral responsibilities. My point is rather that while drones are to be applauded for keeping these soldiers out of harm’s way physically, we would do well to remember that they do not keep them out of harm’s way morally or psychologically. The high rates of ‘burnout’ should drive this home.”
And then comes the rub: “Just as was the case in the invasion of Iraq 10 years ago,” Prof Kaag says, “the most important questions we should be asking should not be directed to armchair soldiers but to those of us in armchairs at home: What wars are being fought in our name? On what grounds are they being fought?” That is a question I, too, would like to ask those West African countries that have so readily sent troops to Mali. They are fighting alongside France to preserve the “unity” of Mali – fine. They are using intelligence supplied by American surveillance aircraft. Again, fine.
But, in the meantime, “what Mali” are we talking about? Are they closely watching what is going on inside what passes for a “central government” in Bamako? Are they aware that Capt Amadou Sanogo has received an appointment from “President” Dioncounda Traoré as “chairman” of a socalled “military reform committee” that reportedly fetches him $6,000 per month? And that Sanogo’s hand-picked associates are also being very handsomely remunerated? Are they aware that Boukary Daou, editor of a newspaper that published a protest letter from a Malian soldier who criticised the granting of such high emoluments to a few people, while the generality of Malian soldiers – including those at the warfront –are receiving niggardly salaries and supplies – has been arrested and charged with the serious offence of trying to incite mutiny in the Malian army?
Is such an authoritarian self-serving administration that exhibits all the signs of cronyism, worth fighting for? In whose name is it being propped up? More importantly, what does the puppetry in Mali – as conducted and directed by France and the US – portend for the independence of West Africa as a whole?
But back to President Obama. I suggest that he reads very carefully, an open letter written to him entitled The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama that was published in the August 2012 issue of Esquire magazine.
“You are a good man,” the letter began. “You are an honourable man … You love two things, your family and the law … Unlike George W. Bush, you have never held yourself above the law by virtue of being commander in chief; indeed, you have spent part of your political capital trying to prove civilian justice adequate to our security needs… It is out of these unlikely ingredients that you have created the lethal presidency.
“You are a historic figure, Mr President. You are not only the first African-American president; you are the first who has made use of your power to target and kill individuals identified as a threat to the United States throughout your entire term. You are the first president to make the killing of targeted individuals the focus of our military operations, of our intelligence, of our national-security strategy, and, some argue, of our foreign policy.
“More than any other president, you have made the killing rather than the capture, of individuals the option of first resort, and have killed them both from the sky, with drones, and on the ground, with ‘night-time’ raids not dissimilar to the one that killed Osama bin Laden. “You have killed individuals in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, and are making provisions to expand the presence of American Special Forces in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In Pakistan and other places where the United States has not committed troops, you are estimated to have killed at least two thousand by drone.
“Your lethality is expansive in both practice and principle; you are fighting terrorism with a policy of pre-emptive execution, and claiming not just the legal right to do so but the legal right to do so in secret. The American people, for the most part, have no idea who has been killed, and why…” These are charges which will stain the name of Obama for ever. And they would, in all probability be supported by most of the people of the world, if the question were to be put to them.
So sad that a man who was supposed to represent the whole of humanity at the top of American politics, should, today, be portrayed by some in his own country as the enemy of humankind. He has about three years in which to change his ways and redeem his reputation. But whether he is inclined to do so is another matter.