The Obama revolution in military affairs

President Barack Obama’s commitment to warfare by means of flying killer drones and secret special forces may have accomplished what Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld failed to achieve in the Bush administration.

Rumsfeld sought to overcome the “Vietnam syndrome”—the reluctance of the American people, based on sad experience, to commit to long-term wars on the continent of Asia.   The replacement of the military draft by an all-volunteer army was supposed to accomplish this, but, unfortunately from the standpoint of the administration, even members of a volunteer army have families, friends and neighbors who don’t want to see them go into harm’s way for no understandable purpose.

droneattackobamaUnder President Obama and probably under his successors, the United States is unlikely to become involved in long-term struggles in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.  Instead the prime tool of the U.S. military will be the flying killer drone.   Nobody ever held a funeral for a flying drone, or wondered whether the drone was sacrificed in vain.

What can’t be accomplished by drones will be done by the Joint Special Operations Command, the elite force tasked with carrying out the execution of President Obama’s kill lists.

What JSOC can’t accomplish will be done by U.S.-armed local insurgents, as in Libya and Syria.  While the latter have their own agendas, which aren’t necessarily the same as the U.S. government’s, this is offset by the fact that the bodies of dead insurgents won’t come home to the United States in flag-draped caskets.

Years ago I was a member of a prisoner adoption group for Amnesty International.  We conducted letter-writing campaigns on behalf of prisoners of conscience, which were highly embarrassing to dictators around the world.  One of the successes of my group was Jacobo Timmerman, a brave Argentine editor.

The response of the Agentine and other Latin American dictatorships was not to create death squads and arrange for their opponents to be “disappeared”, so there no longer were any prisoners to protest.  As Stalin once said, “No person, no problem.”

Obama’s flying killer robots accomplish the same goal.  Instead of grabbing someone and bringing them to Guantanamo Bay, his forces simply reduce the person to a bug splat with the killer drone.  There are no embarrassing prisoners conducting hunger strikes.  No person, no problem.

The problem with drone warfare is not the technology.  If you have to fight a war, the drones are good weapons to have.  They are not more lethal than the technologies they replace, certainly no worse than the bombing of “suspected Viet Cong strongholds” I was always reading about in the newspapers in the 1960s.

The problem with drone warfare is that it removes the constraints on waging war.  In fact, drone warfare isn’t really like waging war as most people think of it.  It is more like hunting prey, like Sarah Palin’s family shooting wolves from helicopters.

President Obama has recommitted the United States to a “war on terror” that will go on so long as there are people plotting to do harm to Americans.  But there will be people plotting to do harm to Americans so long as children, old people and other bystanders are killed by American killer drones.

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wayoftheknifeThis post was inspired by an book review in the London Review of Books that explores this question more deeply than I do.  Click on Stephen Holmes reviews ‘The CIA, a Secret Army and War at the Ends of the Earth’ by Mark Mazzetti to read it.

Click on Obama’s secret kill list – the disposition matrix by Ian Cobain for The Guardian and How the Pentagon’s Top Killers Became (Unaccountable) Spies by Spencer Ackerman for Wired for more.

Drones are a constitutional, not a technological issue.  The President has the authority to commit acts of war on his own authority, to draw up death warrants on his own authority, to do these things in secret and to prosecute anybody to reveals his secrets.  No individual should have such power without accountability.  It is the duty of Congress to make the President accountable while it still has the power to do so.

Winding down from the “war on terror” will not be easy.  What to you do, for example, with former JSOC troops, who are highly trained in the use of lethal force but may have no other marketable skills?  There will be only so many openings for security consultants and bodygurads.

 

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