Why the Boosters of US Empire Swoon Over Killer Drones
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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 prescientNoah 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.”