In the world of weaponry, they are the sexiest things around. Others countries are desperate to have them. Almost anyone who writes about them becomes a groupie. Reporters exploring their onrushing future swoon at their potentially wondrous techno-talents. They are, of course, the pilotless drones, our grimly named Predators and Reapers.
As CIA Director, Leon Panetta called them “the only game in town.” As Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates pushed hard to up their numbers and increase their funding drastically. The U.S. Air Force is already training more personnel to become drone “pilots” than to pilot actual planes. You don’t need it in skywriting to know that, as icons of American-style war, they are clearly in our future -- and they’re even heading for the homeland as police departments clamor for them.
They are relatively cheap. When they “hunt,” no one dies (at least on our side). They are capable of roaming the world. Someday, they will land on the decks of aircraft carriers or, tiny as hummingbirds, drop onto a windowsill, maybe even yours, or in their hundreds, the size of bees, swarm to targets and, if all goes well, coordinate their actions using the artificial intelligence version of “hive minds.”
“The drone,” writes Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service, “has increasingly become the [Obama] administration's 'weapon of choice' in its efforts to subdue al-Qaeda and its affiliates.” In hundreds of attacks over the last years in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, they have killed thousands, including al-Qaeda figures, Taliban militants, and civilians. They have played a significant and growing role in the skies over Afghanistan. They are now loosing their missiles ever more often over Yemen, sometimes over Libya, and less often over Somalia. Their bases are spreading. No one in Congress will be able to resist them. They are defining the new world of war for the twenty-first century -- and many of the humans who theoretically command and control them can hardly keep up.
Reach for Your Dictionaries
On September 15th, the New York Times front-paged a piece by the estimable Charlie Savage, based on leaks from inside the administration. It was headlined “At White House, Weighing Limits of Terror Fight,” and started this way:
“The Obama administration’s legal team is split over how much latitude the United States has to kill Islamist militants in Yemen and Somalia, a question that could define the limits of the war against al-Qaeda and its allies, according to administration and Congressional officials.”
Lawyers for the Pentagon and the State Department, Savage reported, were debating whether, outside of hot-war zones, the Obama administration could call in the drones (as well as special operations forces) not just to go after top al-Qaeda figures planning attacks on the United States, but al-Qaeda’s foot soldiers (and vaguely allied groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and al-Shabab in Somalia).
That those lawyers are arguing fiercely over such a matter is certainly a curiosity. As presented, the issue behind their disagreement is how to square modern realities with outmoded rules of war written for another age (which also, by the way, had its terrorists). And yet such debates, front-paged or not, fierce or not, will one day undoubtedly be seen as analogous to supposed ancient clerical arguments over just how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. In fact, their import lies mainly in the fascinating pattern they reveal about the way forces that could care less about questions of legality are driving developments in American-style war.
After all, this fierce “argument” about what constraints should be applied to modern robotic war was first played out in the air over Pakistan’s tribal borderlands. There, the CIA’s drone air campaign began with small numbers of missions targeting a few highly placed al-Qaeda leaders (not terribly successfully). Rather than declare its latest wonder weapons a failure, however, the CIA, already deeply invested in drone operations, simply pushed ever harder to expand the targeting to play to the technological strengths of the planes.
In 2007, CIA director Michael Hayden began lobbying the White House for “permission to carry out strikes against houses or cars merely on the basis of behavior that matched a ‘pattern of life’ associated with al-Qaeda or other groups.” And next thing you knew, they were moving from a few attempted targeted assassinations toward a larger air war of annihilation against types and “behaviors.”
Here’s another curiosity. The day after Charlie Savage’s piece appeared in the Times, the president’s top advisor on counterterror operations, John O. Brennan, gave a speech at a conference at Harvard Law School on “Strengthening our Security by Adhering to our Values and Laws,” and seemed to settle the “debate,” part of which he defined this way:
“Others in the international community -- including some of our closest allies and partners -- take a different view of the geographic scope of the conflict, limiting it only to the ‘hot’ battlefields. As such, they argue that, outside of these two active theatres, the United States can only act in self-defense against al-Qaeda when they are planning, engaging in, or threatening an armed attack against U.S. interests if it amounts to an ‘imminent’ threat.”
He then added this little twist: “Practically speaking, then, the question turns principally on how you define ‘imminence.’”
If there’s one thing we should have learned from the Bush years, it was this: when government officials reach for their dictionaries, duck!
Then, the crucial word at stake was “torture,” and faced with it -- and what top administration officials actually wanted done in the world -- Justice Department lawyers quite literally reached for their dictionaries. In their infamous torture memos, they so pretzled, abused, and redefined the word “torture” that, by the time they were through, whether acts of torture even occurred was left to the torturer, to what had he had in mind when he was “interrogating” someone. (“[I]f a defendant [interrogator] has a good faith belief that his actions will not result in prolonged mental harm, he lacks the mental state necessary for his actions to constitute torture.”)
As a result, “torture” was essentially drummed out of the dictionary (except when committed by heinous evil doers in places like Iran) and “enhanced interrogation techniques” welcomed into our world. The Bush administration and the CIA then proceeded to fill the “black sites” they set up from Poland to Thailand and the torture chambers of chummy regimes like Mubarak’s Egypt and Gaddafi’s Libya with “terror suspects,” and then tortured away with impunity.
Now, it seems, the Obama crowd is reaching for its dictionaries, which means that it’s undoubtedly time to duck again. As befits a more intellectual crowd, we’re no longer talking about relatively simple words like “torture” whose meaning everyone knows (or at least once knew). If “imminence” is now the standard for when robotic war is really war, don’t you yearn for the good old days when the White House focused on “what the meaning of the word 'is' is,” and all that was at stake was presidential sex, not presidential killing?
When legalisms take center stage in a situation like this, think of magicians. Their skill is to focus your attention on the space where nothing that matters is happening -- the wrong hand, the wrong face, the wrong part of the stage -- while they perform their “magic” elsewhere. Similarly, pay attention to the law right now and you’re likely to miss the plot line of our world.
It’s true that, at the moment, articles are pouring out focused on how to define the limits of future drone warfare. My advice: skip the law, skip the definitions, skip the arguments, and focus your attention on the drones and the people developing them instead.
Put another way, in the last decade, there was only one definition that truly mattered. From it everything else followed: the almost instantaneous post-9/11 insistence that we were “at war,” and not even in a specific war or set of wars, but in an all-encompassing one that, within two weeks of the collapse of the World Trade Center, President Bush was already calling “the war on terror.” That single demonic definition of our state of existence rose to mind so quickly that no lawyers were needed and no one had to reach for a dictionary.
Addressing a joint session of Congress, the president typically said: "Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there." And that open-endedness was soon codified in an official name that told all: “the Global War on Terror,” or GWOT. (For all we know, the phrase itself was the invention of a speechwriter mainlining into the zeitgeist.) Suddenly, “sovereignty” had next to no meaning (if you weren’t a superpower); the U.S. was ready to take out after terrorists in up to 80 countries; and the planet, by definition, had become a global free-fire zone.
By the end of September 2001, as the invasion of Afghanistan was being prepared, it was already a carte-blanche world and, as it happened, pilotless surveillance drones were there, lurking in the shadows, waiting for a moment like this, yearning (you might say) to be weaponized.
If GWOT preceded much thought of drones, it paved the way for their crash weaponization, development, and deployment. It was no mistake that, a bare two weeks after 9/11, a prescient Noah Shachtman (who would go on to found the Danger Room website at Wired) led off a piece for that magazine this way: “Unmanned, almost disposable spy planes are being groomed for a major role in the coming conflict against terrorism, defense analysts say."
Talk about “imminence” or “constraints” all you want, but as long as we are “at war,” not just in Afghanistan or Iraq, but on a world scale with something known as “terror,” there will never be any limits, other than self-imposed ones.
And it remains so today, even though the Obama administration has long avoided the term “Global War on Terror.” As Brennan made utterly clear in his speech, President Obama considers us “at war” anywhere that al-Qaeda, its minions, wannabes, or simply groups of irregulars we don’t much care for may be located. Given this mentality, there is little reason to believe that, on September 11, 2021, we won’t still be “at war.”
So pay no attention to the legalisms. Put away those dictionaries. Ignore the “debates” between the White House and Congress, or State and Defense. Otherwise you’ll miss the predatory magic.
Within days after the news about the “debate” over the limits on global war was leaked to the Times, unnamed government officials were leaking away to the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal on an allied subject of interest. Both papers broke the news that, as Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller of the Post put it, the U.S. military and the CIA were creating “a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen.”
A new base, it seems, is being constructed in Ethiopia, another somewhere in the vicinity of Yemen (possibly in Saudi Arabia), and a third reopened on the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean -- all clearly intended for the escalating drone wars in Yemen and Somalia, and perhaps drone wars to come elsewhere in eastern or northern Africa.
These preparations are meant to deal not just with Washington’s present preoccupations, but with its future fears and phantasms. In this way, they fit well with the now decade-old war on terror’s campaign against will-o-the-wisps. Julian Barnes of the Wall Street Journal, for example, quotes an unnamed “senior U.S. official” as saying: "We do not know enough about the leaders of the al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa. Is there a guy out there saying, 'I am the future of al-Qaeda'? Who is the next Osama bin Laden?” We don’t yet know, but wherever he is, our drones will be ready for him.
All of this, in turn, fits well with the Pentagon’s “legal” position, mentioned by the Times’ Savage, of “trying to maintain maximum theoretical flexibility.” It’s a kind of Field-of-Dreams argument: if you build them, they will come.
It’s simple enough. The machines (and their creators and supporters in the military-industrial complex) are decades ahead of the government officials who theoretically direct and oversee them. “A Future for Drones: Automated Killing,” an enthusiastic article that appeared in the Post the very same week as that paper’s base-expansion piece, caught the spirit of the moment. In it, Peter Finn reported on the way three pilotless drones over Fort Benning, Georgia, worked together to identify a target without human guidance. It may, he wrote, “presage the future of the American way of war: a day when drones hunt, identify, and kill the enemy based on calculations made by software, not decisions made by humans. Imagine aerial ‘Terminators,’ minus beefcake and time travel.”
In a New York Review of Books piece with a similarly admiring edge (and who wouldn’t admire such staggering technological advances), Christian Caryl writes:
“Researchers are now testing UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] that mimic hummingbirds or seagulls; one model under development can fit on a pencil eraser. There is much speculation about linking small drones or robots together into ‘swarms’ -- clouds or crowds of machines that would share their intelligence, like a hive mind, and have the capability to converge instantly on identified targets. This might seem like science fiction, but it is probably not that far away.”
Admittedly, drones still can’t have sex. Not yet anyway. And they can’t choose which humans they are sent to kill. Not so far. But sex and the single drone aside, all of this and more may, in the coming decades, become -- if you don’t mind my using the word -- imminent. It may be the reality in the skies over all our heads.
It’s true that the machines of war the Obama administration is now rushing headlong to deploy cannot yet operate themselves, but they are already -- in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words -- “in the saddle, and ride mankind.” Their “desire” to be deployed and used is driving policy in Washington -- and increasingly elsewhere as well. Think of this as the Drone Imperative.
If you want to fight over definitions, there’s only one worth fighting over: not the phrase “the Global War on Terror,” which the Obama administration tossed aside to no effect whatsoever, but the concept behind it. Once the idea took hold that the United States was, and had no choice but to be, in a state of permanent global war, the game was afoot. From then on, the planet was -- conceptually speaking -- a free-fire zone, and even before robotic weaponry developed to its present level, it was already a drone-eat-drone world to the horizon.
As long as global war remains the essence of “foreign policy,” the drones -- and the military-industrial companies and lobbying groups behind them, as well as the military and CIA careers being built on them -- will prove expansive. They will go where, and as far as, the technology takes them.
In reality, it’s not the drones, but our leaders who are remarkably constrained. Out of permanent war and terrorism, they have built a house with no doors and no exits. It’s easy enough to imagine them as beleaguered masters of the universe atop the globe’s military superpower, but in terms of what they can actually do, it would be more practical to think of them as so many drones, piloted by others. In truth, our present leaders, or rather managers, are small people operating on autopilot in a big-machine world.
As they definitionally twitch and turn, we can just begin to glimpse -- like an old-fashioned photo developing in a tray of chemicals -- the outlines of a new form of American imperial war emerging before our eyes. It involves guarding the empire on the cheap, as well as on the sly, via the CIA, which has, in recent years, developed into a full-scale, drone-heavy paramilitary outfit, via a growing secret army of special operations forces that has been incubating inside the military these last years, and of course via those missile- and bomb-armed robotic assassins of the sky.
The appeal is obvious: the cost (in U.S. lives) is low; in the case of the drones, nonexistent. There is no need for large counterinsurgency armies of occupation of the sort that have bogged down on the mainland of the Greater Middle East these last years.
In an increasingly cash-strapped and anxious Washington, it must look like a literal godsend. How could it go wrong?
Of course, that’s a thought you can only hang onto as long as you’re looking down on a planet filled with potential targets scurrying below you. The minute you look up, the minute you leave your joystick and screen behind and begin to imagine yourself on the ground, it’s obvious how things could go so very, very wrong -- how, in fact, in Pakistan, to take but one example, they are going so very, very wrong.
Just think about the last time you went to a Terminator film: Who did you identify with? John and Sarah Connor, or the implacable Terminators chasing them? And you don’t need artificial intelligence to grasp why in a nanosecond.
In a country now struggling simply to guarantee help to its own citizens struck by natural disasters, Washington is preparing distinctly unnatural disasters in the imperium. In this way, both at home and abroad, the American dream is turning into the American scream.
So when we build those bases on that global field of screams, when we send our armadas of drones out to kill, don’t be surprised if the rest of the world doesn’t see us as the good guys or the heroes, but as terminators. It’s not the best way to make friends and influence people, but once your mindset is permanent war, that’s no longer a priority. It’s a scream, and there’s nothing funny about it.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), will be published in November.
[Note on further reading: A small bow to four websites I particularly rely on when gathering information for pieces like this one: the invaluable Antiwar.com, the War in Context website with its sharp-eyed editor Paul Woodward, Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog (a daily must-read), and Noah Shachtman’s Danger Room website, which no one interested in military affairs should miss.]