Obama’s Drone War Meets Homeland Resistance

First published on ZNet on March 30, 2013.

“This is Not Dick Cheney We’re Talking About”

Questioned by a handful of Senate Democrats on his secret killer drone program earlier this month, Barack Obama said “This is not Dick Cheney we’re talking about here.”

“No Mr. President,” one of those Senators should have retorted (none did), “it is not. It is worse, actually, in three ways. First, Cheney was Vice President and you, sir, are President. Second, you have gone very far beyond George W. Bush and Dick Cheney when it comes to the cowardly and indiscriminate murder of thousands of people with drones. Third, you have done this under the cloak of liberalism, progressivism, peace, and multiculturalism whereas Bush and Cheney were openly reactionary white-nationalist messianic-militarists, which made their evil easier to identify and oppose.”

Of 366 U.S. drone attacks that have killed 3,581 people in Pakistan since 2002, 316 have been launched by the Obama administration. Less than 2 percent of those killed have been high-profile Taliban militants, the avowed targets. Many of those blasted out of earthly existence by America’s airborne remote-control killing machines have been innocent bystanders, including women and children.

Along with his proclaimed right to order the targeted killing of even U.S. citizens on executive choice alone (with no judicial or congressional review), Obama’s drone war “breaks new ground in criminality and in enlarging the scope of acceptable war crimes” (Edward S. Herman, “Support Our Troops, Our War, and Our War Crimes,” Z Magazine, April 2013, 7).


Unworthy Victims of Indeterminate Number

How many people has the U.S, killed via drones since 9/11 in the richly ironic name of a “war on terrorism”? 4000? 5000? 10,000? U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) recently pegged the toll at precisely 4,700. Graham’s total sounds low. Perhaps he was revealing privileged information from a high-level briefing, perhaps not. Who knows? The real number is mysterious, thanks to the drone program’s secrecy (which will survive the transfer of its management from the CIA to the Defense Department) and to the officially unworthy nature of the predominantly Muslim and nonwhite victims of drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.

A sign of that official unworthiness is found in the curious fact that many of those in Washington who have advocated judicial review of Obama’s decisions to order the targeted killings of terrorists would limit that review to the murder of American citizens. As Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu asked in a letter to the New York Times last February, “Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours? That President Obama can sign off on a decision to kill us with less worry about judicial scrutiny than if the target is American?  Would your Supreme Court really want to tell humankind that we, like the slave Dred Scott in the 19th century, are not as human as you are?” (NYT, February 13, 2013, A26).

 Why Obama Loves Drones

There’s no mystery about the drone war’s appeal to Barack “the Empire’s New Clothes” Obama and to the military empire he was selected/elected to re-brand. Like the Vietnam War, the U.S. ground invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan proved to be bloody fiascos that were launched on dubious grounds and created a steady flow of dead and damaged U.S. military veterans. This has tried the citizenry’s patience with the recurrent overseas conflicts required by the nation’s costly “permanent war political economy” (Herman’s excellent phrase), which accounts for more than half of the nation’s discretionary federal spending and nearly half the world’s military spending. Call it “the Iraq syndrome,” if you like.

Drone warfare keeps deep-pockets “defense” (empire) contractors happy while offering quick and “efficient” kills of distant Evil Others without the unseemly sight and cost of “our boys” in body bags, wheelchairs, and psych-wards. Drone kills let Obama look like a righteous, blood-spilling Commander-in-Chief to his more militaristic supporters (and opponents) while he gets to pacify his more peace-oriented “progressive base” by overseeing the removal of defeated ground forces from their supposedly benevolent missions[1] in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Launched without an effort to seek congressional approval (unlike Bush and Cheney’s invasion of Iraq), the Libyan War (remember that?) also let Obama reign death and destruction from the sky on devilish Muslim enemies without risking U.S. casualties. But drones go beyond bombs in reducing the spread of politically uncomfortable “collateral damage.”

The U.S. currently possesses roughly 7,500 drones in its military inventory, purchased at a price of $28 million each – no small taxpayer-funded profit stream for the leading drone war manufacturers Boeing, ITT Corp, Honeywell, L-3 Communications, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon, and General Atomics Corp. ( “Drone – FAQ,” KNOWDRONES at http://www.knowdrones.com/FAQ.pdf)

 Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex

On a much happier note, a series of public protests against the domestic infrastructure that supports Washington’s overseas drone campaign are planned for April of 2013. According to The Guardian’s Paul Harris:

“The protests will begin on April 3 with a rally in New York, followed by three days of protest outside the facilities of companies that make drones, including at San Diego-based General Atomics which makes Predator and Reaper drones….Later in the month, protests will take place at universities and other institutions that conduct research into drones or help train drone pilots and operators. At the end of the month, rallies and demonstrations will target military bases in the US from where drones operate, including Hancock air base near Syracuse, New York.”

The group behind the effort, the Network to Stop Drone Surveillance and Warfare, says that its April Days of Action are intended to forge a popular movement for an end to U.S. drone warfare.

This is a very welcome development, one I strongly encourage Americans and others to join. The activists behind the protests are correct to take the fight beyond government to the “defense” corporations and also to the universities that develop Superpower’s drone technologies. For what its worth, killer drone research and development is just one of the many ways in which American universities have been “pulled into the machinations of the national security state” (see Henry A. Giroux, The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex [Paradigm, 2007]). The universities, which long ago resumed their normal historical pattern of supine self-subordination to the corporate and military state, have escaped serious public scrutiny of their cozy relationship with the imperial “defense” establishment for far too long.

It’s a protest plan that might even raise a smile from Dwight Eisenhower. It is not widely known that he originally meant to call the “military-industrial complex” he so presciently warned Americans about “the military-industrial-academic complex.”  The second phrase was dropped from his famous 1961 farewell address but got picked up again in the later 1960s by the Vietnam War critic and U.S. Senator William Fulbright (Giroux, University in Chains, 14-15) – a rare Senator who might have actually responded to Obama in the terms suggested at the beginning of this essay.

 Politicians or Citizens?

Such individuals are nowhere to be found in the contemporary Democratic Party. As Herman notes, “increasing numbers of liberal Democrats have gotten on board [Obama’s] war-oriented ship of state and also find his warrior actions and rhetoric agreeable” (Herman, “Support Our Troops,” 7). It is left to a clownish arch-reactionary Teapublican named Rand Paul to make any significant protest against Obama’s drone war policy – and against the related problem of domestically deployed drones – in the U.S. Congress.

But then, if the Age of Obama has taught us anything on progressive change and how it happens, it should be that it’s not about politicians and their calculations. As Howard Zinn noted in an early 2007 commentary on the Democratic Party’s continuing willingness to fund the invasion of Iraq:

“We who protest the war are not politicians. We are citizens. Whatever politicians may do, let them first feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not for what is winnable…It is not easy, in the corrupting atmosphere of Washington, D.C., to hold on firmly to the truth, to resist the temptation of capitulation that presents itself as compromise. Except for the rare few, our representatives are politicians, and will surrender their integrity, claiming to be ‘realistic.’ We are not politicians, but citizens. We have no office to hold on to, only our consciences, which insist on telling the truth. That, history suggests, is the most realistic thing a citizen can do” (H. Zinn, “Are We Politicians or Citizens?” The Progressive. May 2007).

Paul Street is the author of The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real of Power (Paradigm, 2010), Crashing the Tea Party (Paradigm, 2011, co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio), and numerous other books. His next book, They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2013) will be out this fall.

[1]Bipartisan imperial doctrine insists that Uncle Sam always acts out of the best of intentions even if he occasionally makes “mistakes” and “strategic blunders” in his zeal to do good

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By | 2013-05-14T11:46:12+00:00 March 31st, 2013|Articles|