Yes we can support Obama again?
As the tussle between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination continues apace, it is sometimes hard to remember in all the shrill soap opera about Newt Gingrich’s ex-wife, and Mitt Romney’s tax return, that whoever is elected US President in November will have the power of life and death over various people across the world. I do not agree with the chorus, particularly of leftists, who bewail what a huge disappointment President Obama has been. Or rather, I do agree that he has been a disappointment, but I think that firstly, he has had very limited room for maneuver, due to a recalcitrant Congress and stagnant economy, and secondly, I knew from examining his speeches and policy platform before he was elected that he was never promising to do a lot of the things that I would want him to. I am resigned to accepting that as an atheist who believes in things such as gun control, gay marriage, the redistribution of wealth and an even-handed policy towards Israel, that I am in a small ideological minority in the context of US politics.
So I am not hugely disappointed in the President. I believe that he has been guilty of being too timid and of poor communication skills, but he has also done a series of positive and progressive things which no Republican ever would have, such as health care reform, the fiscal stimulus, repealing the dreadful Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. I went to campaign for President Obama’s election in 2008 and I would like to go and campaign again this year, but one policy of his which I cannot accept is the use of Predator drones to kill suspected terrorists in Pakistan.
I should say that I am broadly supportive of the President’s foreign policy. I am a liberal interventionist hawk and supported the Libya military intervention last year and I was pleased about the killing of Bin Laden. However, the drone attacks are different. It was patently obvious to anyone that Bin Laden was a terrorist who had the blood of many people on his hands, from, inter alia, the videos which he promulgated on the internet. This is different to the situation that pertains with drones.
For those who may be unaware, the current policy is that the CIA send remotely operated ‘drones’, or airborne robots, to drop bombs onto suspected terrorists, mostly in the Waziristan area of Pakistan. The casualty figures are contested, with a New America Foundation Report estimating that over two thousand have died in these attacks, since they started in 2004, with an estimated 277-435 being civilians, and the rest militants. I cannot find any public comment on the subject from President Obama, save for a joke at the White House Correspondents dinner in May 2010, to the effect that he would use a drone to assassinate a boy band who were there if they made romantic advances towards his daughters. Now, I am all for bad taste humour, but it seemed to me at the time that there was something over-the-line about this particular joke. A policy which has and continues to maim and kill innocent people, including children, is not, to me at least, something that should be the material for a joke. If I were living in Waziristan and a friend or a member of my family had been killed by one of these drones, and I then saw the US President making a joke about it on television, I think I would be pretty angry, to say the least. One wonders if President Obama would be laughing so much if President Zardari of Pakistan were to josh around about Pakistani weapons systems that are responsible for extra-judicial assassinations of Americans suspected of terrorism.
The issue is shrouded in secrecy, for obvious reasons, and not very much has been written about it. In essence, my problems with the policy are that from a moral stand point I am not convinced that the killing of innocent people can be excused in this case, without us at least knowing the process that is undertaken in creating the target lists and the burden of evidence used etc. Secondly, from a pragmatic and strategic standpoint I am concerned that drone attacks could be creating more jihadis than they are eliminating, due to the hatred they engender in the Pakistani population.
On the first point- evidence has emerged that these attacks can sometimes be launched on threadbare evidence. Even if they are committed in accordance with the law and with proper safeguards, such as judicial and congressional oversight, we have no idea about this, as the CIA will not divulge information about the processes that are followed. A former CIA officer, who was based in Afghanistan, has said:
“Sometimes you’re dealing with tribal chiefs. Often, they say an enemy of theirs is Al Qaeda because they just want to get rid of somebody. Or they made crap up because they wanted to prove they were valuable, so that they could make money. You couldn’t take their word.”
On the second point, if it were a policy which caused the deaths of a certain amount of people, the vast majority of whom we are led to believe are terrorists, then that would be one thing. However, there are also the wider and graver repercussions to this policy. From what we can gather it has helped to turn parts of Pakistan into seething hotbeds of hatred for America in particular, western nations in general, and the fragile Pakistani government itself, the latter for doing little or nothing to oppose the drones policy of the Americans. Pakistani citizens are some of the people who we need to help prevent anti-western operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries; the people we need to oppose the terrorists in their communities, instead of driving them in to their arms seeking revenge. On top of which, we should not forget that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. The idea of a tide of anti-western sentiment precipitating an extreme Islamist or nationalist government, ascending to power to be in control of nuclear weapons, does not bear thinking about.
As Mehdi Hassan has pointed out in an article in the Guardian last week, there seems to be an odd degree of cognitive dissonance when it comes to western liberal/leftists, who would ordinarily decry the use of the death penalty, but due to cultural and physical distance do not seem interested in protesting the drones policy. As the human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith has said, surely the drones policy is ‘the death penalty without due process.’
Those of us who want to support President Obama in election 2012, even somewhat unenthusiastically, must try to bring pressure to bear on the US administration, or pressure our government to raise the issue with them, to the effect that the current policy is not being conducted in our name. That there are no television cameras or journalists bringing us pictures of carnage from Waziristan, and that this war is being conducted by CIA operatives controlling drones with Nintendo-style joysticks in offices in America, should not be allowed to lull us into sugarcoating the fact that the same intelligence service who brought us the WMD fiasco is now presiding over a policy of extra-judicial assassinations. If President Obama will not suspend this policy, because he believes it is so successful at eliminating what could develop into devastating threats, then he must at least publish some more information on the processes followed in choosing targets to be killed, on the evidence threshold that is used, how reliable sources must be and why these people cannot be arrested and interrogated.