October 24, 2012
Obama’s Drones

The photo above is from an interactive map from Slate showing the number of casualties from drone strikes during both the Bush and Obama administrations.  As you can see, the number of drone attacks being used by the Obama administration has significantly increased.  Red indicates a Bush-era drone attack; Blue indicates an Obama-era drone attack.  Circles which have grey borders indicate civilian deaths acknowledged by the military.

According to data from the New America Foundation, the number of official reported civilian drone deaths has plummeted dramatically.  This despite the fact that the number of drone attacks has increased substantially since Obama took office.  From 2004-2007, militants only comprised 35-44% of the reported casualties in drone strikes.  As of 2012, militants supposedly now comprise 98-99% of reported casualties from all drone strikes to date.  According to this data, in a time span of only four years, our drones have more than doubled their accuracy rate.  Amazing, right?

Or did they?  Unfortunately, the real story is more unsettling: what more likely accounts for the change in accuracy rates is that the Obama administration simply changed its definition of who counts as a militant when it was counting casualties from drone strikes.  Jo Becker and Scott Shane covered this extensively for the New York Times earlier this year.  The article is worth quoting at length (h/t Greenwald):

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

Former CIA officials, however, have questioned the low official civilian death tolls:

But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

“It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”

This is what anti-war Progressives and Libertarians are concerned about.  The Obama administration is currently rubber stamping a foreign policy strategy that involves indiscriminately killing people in Middle Eastern countries that do no more than look like “they’re up to no good.”  The Administration then defines the lives of the victims out of existence by changing the definition of “militant” to include anyone standing in the vicinity of someone that looks like a terrorist.  Under this rubric, a dozen ordinary citizens standing next to a radical militant, knowingly or not, are counted as “militants” when the body count is calculated.  

I don’t think that members of the U.S. military that control drones in the Middle East are actively trying to kill civilians.  Nor am I suggesting that our drone strikes aren’t at least intended to kill “militants.”  What I am suggesting is that a lot of innocent people, including men, women, and children alike, are being slaughtered by drone strikes in the Middle East.  Obama, as Commander in Chief of the U.S. military, has the power to stop it.  He has not only refused to do so, but continues to oversee and approve its execution.  It’s inhumane and morally wrong.  And to make things worse, the Administration has found it necessary to tell blatant falsehoods in defense of this policy.  

Would Mitt Romney be any better?  I think it’s safe to say that, not only would he not be better, but probably much worse.  Yet choosing the lesser of two evils out of fear for the greater of the two is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  A Democracy in which we choose our leaders based on fear is not a Democracy we should be proud of.  For my own part, I think that knowingly killing innocent people then lying about it should be a deal-breaker.  This is the sort of arrogant, inhumane foreign policy that got so many of us riled up when George W. Bush was using America’s military to spread Democracy at the point of a gun.  Yet a depressing number of those voices are strangely silent when a man who appears to share some Progressive values nonetheless commits many of the same offenses as his predecessor.

Pursuing real political reform in the U.S. requires people who are willing to question not only those they disagree with, but those they agree with.  The tribal mentality of American politics undermines honest discourse and prevents us from addressing our most pressing policy issues in a timely fashion.  It seduces people into defending conduct which was indefensible when the “other guy” was doing it.  To wit: these drone strikes are a moral disaster.  Yet there is not a Democratic nor Republican candidate for President this year who has so much as suggested that America’s drone policy be reviewed for effectiveness, much less discontinued.  

And so this is what we’re stuck with; unless people do something crazy and vote these mountebanks out of office.  But that won’t happen until people stop voting according to their fear, and start voting according to their actual convictions.  I think if this were to happen, we’d all be surprised to learn how little support the two main parties actually have.

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