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And then came drones.
Any comparison of President Obama’s war-fighting with that of his predecessors would quickly establish his preference for unseen death from the sky rather than boots on the ground. Given the technical bankruptcy of the United States (16-30 trillion in debt on 2 trillion in annual tax revenues), drones are also a whole lot cheaper way to run a war.
The only hitch is, they are illegal.
Not that being illegal should stop a president. US presidents always keep whole stables of lawyers busy telling them, essentially, that if a president does it, it is legal. The Attorney General, whom the US Constitution empowers to serve as a check on the President, has been emasculated. Eric Holder is just an updated version of Alberto Gonzales, the President’s yes-sir, no-sir, whatever-you-say, sir guy.
One might hope that international law might deter a president, but seeing how the Nuremberg obligation of a soldier to disobey any and all illegal orders to participate in war crimes has been stripped from the defense of Bradley Manning, that hope must also be seen as forlorn.
Just for the record, drone warfare is illegal. In every technical sense, it is “terrorism.” That it is used by an almighty sovereign government through a military chain of command does not make it less terroristic legally, or as a weapon. Eventually, it will likely fall under a specific treaty banning its use. That does not make it any less illegal now.
Imagine, for a moment, how a typical Miami resident might feel if one of their neighbors was, say, Luis Posada Carriles. Posada Carriles is an international fugitive who blew up a commercial airliner, Cubana Flight 455 from Barbados to Jamaica, killing all 73 passengers and 5 crew, including 11 Guyanese medical students and 5 North Korean government officials, in 1976. He was the Director of Counterintelligence at Venezuela's FBI equivalent, the DISIP, from 1967 to 1974, but at the time of the bombing he was in the employ of the CIA. Although sought for extradition to Barbados, Venezuela and Cuba, he is currently living in Miami as a free man, under the protection of the US Justice Department. The Cuban-5, undercover intelligence officers for the Cuban government now serving life sentences, often in solitary confinement, in US prisons for spying on Posada’s Miami terror ring (they were rounded up by the FBI when Cuba shared intelligence on the Miami terror ring with the Bush administration as a gesture of mutual interest after 9-11) were viewed as a threat to Posada’s security by Gonzales.
But, imagine if North Korea decided to stop wasting time in court, or wanted to avoid the risk of sending secret assassins, and just sent a drone.
Under the Obama Doctrine of Drone Warfare, North Korea is entirely within its rights to identify Posada Carriles as a potential and imminent threat. Anyone associating with Posada or in close proximity would be, by the Doctrine’s definition, a “militant.” Any unfortunate children nearby who might be caught in the missile strike would be “collateral damage,” the same as the more than 175 Pakistani children now known to have been killed by CIA drones between 2004 and 2012.
Imagine, then, the outrage felt on the Miami street outside that café where Posada was caught having a double expresso. Imagine the horror at all the carnage. Maybe North Korea gets Posada, maybe it doesn’t. Surely there would be calls for revenge strikes on North Korea, and one can only speculate where that might lead, now that Korea has the ability to hit California with nuclear-tipped warheads.
Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings and Summary or Arbitrary Executions, told a conference in Geneva last year that President Obama's drone attacks constitute war crimes, as China and Russia had alleged in their formal filing with the UN Human Rights Commission.
Specifically, Heyns said, many targeted killings take place far from areas in armed conflict and the Obama Doctrine includes secondary strikes on rescuers who are helping the injured after an initial drone attack. Both of those kinds of attacks are by legal definition war crimes.
Notably, it is the second type mentioned by the UN Rapporteur for which Bradley Manning stands accused of treason for refusing to cover up the crimes he witnessed as a military intelligence analyst.
This thing that is being debated in UN hallways and Geneva press conferences cannot be talked about in US courtrooms. The US Supreme Court has now ruled it outside the scope of judicial review. Whether the CIA is involved in targeted assassinations is still classified, even though it is widely reported that 98% of drone victims, about 4000 civilians by ACLU estimates, are non-targeted individuals as can be seen in this vivid graphic.
Ian Seiderman, director of the International Commission of Jurists, told an ACLU conference that "immense damage was being done to the fabric of international law." But the best rule of law that the President might be want to think about to is probably not the UN Convention on Human Rights or the Geneva Convention, but the Golden Rule.
Firing missiles from unmanned robots from an altitude of 20,000 feet, controlled electronically from 7,000 miles away is an act of cowardice. Obama kills helpless victims seemingly without incurring any personal risk at all. It is exactly like torture, and it serves little purpose other than to terrorize a population. More significantly for all USAnians, it degrades and dehumanizes the perpetrator more than it does the victim. And in the end, what is destroyed is the fabric of law, something built over centuries, and without which, we are all at greater risk.