The predator drone resembles a modified miniature passenger jet more than the aggressive looking F-15 or B-1 manned fighter jets and bombers that we are used to. But the remote-operated predator and its peers, with their surveillance equipment and payload of Hell Fire missiles, represent a new age of aggression that appears to require less of US citizens and US allies when even more is at stake.
Like the predator drone, President Barack Obama doesn’t bear the outward militarism of his predecessor. On paper he has withdrawn from one bloody war in the Middle East, is in the process of withdrawing from another, and claims to have greatly decreased the number of civilian casualties in ongoing conflicts. Of course Obama hasn’t turned away from America’s militarist tradition in its entirety, as his reelection ads are quick to point out that America’s worst enemy, Osama Bin Laden, was killed on his watch. But, he has ended the rhetoric of “good versus evil” which was already on the way out at the end of George W. Bush’s second term.
On the flip side, Obama is presiding over stepped-up CIA operations in Afghanistan with forays into neighboring countries and secretive wars and assassinations on both sides of the Gulf of Aden. The current administration has increased funding toward cyber warfare that would put the US on the offensive, and there is building rhetoric and geopolitical maneuvering around a “turn to the Pacific” intended to combat China’s growing influence. Add this to the rash of antidemocratic legislation at home and moves to extend definitions of criminal threats to the state, undermine due process and gag protests and you get a very different perspective on the current administration.
A recent New York Times article reports on Obama’s hands-on approach to personally signing-off on individual drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. The article quotes one of the Bush administration’s top national security lawyers John B. Bellinger III, who attributes the lack of global scrutiny over “hundreds of drone strikes in several different countries, including killing at least some civilians” to Obama’s “liberal reputation” and “softer packaging.” The drone campaign has also avoided criticism at home as it reduces the possibility of US casualties while maintaining a “tough on terrorism” image.
The New York Times article sheds light on the current administration’s controversial method of counting civilian casualties. The method “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.” In effect the counting method is based on guilt by association: “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.” And the method is likely contributing to low collateral deaths in official accounts.
The drone campaign has set a number of worrying precedents. There have been 14 strikes in Yemen, and 6 in Pakistan just since April and the Department of Defense and CIA are staying tight lipped about strikes in Somalia flown out of a base in the neighboring country of Djibouti. Make no mistake; China and Russia are watching the US strategy of crossing national borders and killing foreign nationals with impunity.
In terms of American civil liberties, the September 2011 execution of the American citizen and radical cleric-propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen indicated that the administration could secretively order the execution of American citizens overseas without trial. Attorney General Eric Holder met complaints that the administration had violated the Fifth Amendment guarantee to due process by asserting that “due process and judicial process are not one and the same.” This can be added to the policies that Obama has retained from the Bush years including rendition, military commissions and indefinite detention. Not to be outdone, Obama has also helped push through the National Defense Authorization Act which enables indefinite detention of US citizens at home and bills like HR-347 to increasingly limit and criminalize domestic rights to protests.
Keeping the US’s recent history and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East in mind, it is surprising that Obama’s proclaimed pivot to the Asia-Pacific region is being heralded with optimism. Asia has seen its share of proxy wars (i.e. the Korean and Vietnam wars) and the Pacific has been the theater for war between military powers in the past. At the heart of this pivot are US-China relations and US interests in maintaining access to sea channels and trading partners in the Asia-Pacific. On the one hand, the US is getting ready to engage China on a cyber battlefield, as the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has recently secured a half billion dollars to fund research on cyber weapons and the US and China have already engaged in cyber war games. On the other hand, the US has posted troops in Darwin, Australia, and is working on military technology better equipped for operations in Asia and the Pacific.
We shouldn’t be lured into complacency by Obama’s liberal legal background. The ACLU is steadily building a list of civil rights claims against this administration and foreign administrations should be weary of US moves into the Asia-Pacific region with new tensions building between the US and China. US military strategy under Obama is best represented by the innocuous drones which have become the centerpiece of a take-no-prisoners campaign in the Middle East.
Tai Neilson is a PhD student in Cultural Studies at George Mason University.