Readers with memories that extend beyond the current headlines will recall the criticism that was levelled at the George W. Bush Administration for its utilisation of a variety of platforms and initiatives in its Global War on Terror. Whatever it did, whatever it tried, was a transgression too far and a violation of American principles in the eyes of organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Practises such as enhanced interrogation, rendition and the use of drones all came under attack by civil liberties groups eager to highlight the apparent disregard for the Constitution and international law by the supposed rogue regime between 2001- 2009.
And then, oh happy day, the Bush Administration was gone and America could return to its previous path of virtue and light, as embodied by the soothing tones and humble liberalism of Barack Obama, who promised ‘change we can believe in.’ No more would the United States be on the side of darkness and ill-virtue; it would revert to its earlier incarnation and adhere to the better angels of its nature.
However, as Secretary of State John Kerry flies into Europe at the start of Obama’s second term in office, certain facts have become inescapable regarding the use of practices, techniques and technologies in America’s continuing war with political violence. The most glaring of these deals with the use of unmanned aerial technology; commonly referred to as drones. In Obama’s second term, they will continue to be the weapon of choice for hunting down and eliminating those deemed to be incompatible with the common good.
This technology is not the creation of the Obama Administration. Neither, intriguingly, was it devised by the Bush Administration. Drone technology was widely utilised by the Clinton Administration, and indeed, it was hoped that bin Laden’s demise would be witnessed in real time, using drones, long before George W. Bush ever took office. Their previous use by previous administrations, however, pales into insignificance compared to their utilisation by the supposedly ‘liberal’ Obama White House.
Like an addict that has suddenly become aware of a new way to score an easy fix, the Obama White House has exploded the use of drone warfare to an extent beyond the wildest imagination of the George W. Bush Administration. In its four years in office, drones have become the weapon of choice in the continuing battle against the forces of political violence. Outgoing Defence Secretary Leon Panetta made this clear in his recent address to King’s College, London and when one considers the benefits to the United States, it is easy to see why this is the case.
Firstly, there is the financial element to consider. Drones are cheap, especially compared to the alternative. A Tomahawk Cruise missile could cost approximately $1 million to launch. A state of the art aircraft could cost tens of millions of dollars in hardware alone, in addition to which is the cost of training a pilot and compensation in the event of his or her death in action. Drones have no such overheads. Likewise, if a drone is shot down, all that is lost is the hardware, which could be programmed to self-destruct. There is no risk of providing the enemy with potential prisoners of war, or any repetition of the events that surrounded the downing of the Black Hawks in Somalia; no bodies to mutilate, desecrate and humiliate.
There is also the degree of separation from reality, as the drones are ‘piloted’ remotely with no opportunity for a last minute moral rendering by the crew, ensuring that missions are more likely to result in the delivery of their payload to its planned destination.
Like the president who has overseen their expansion, drone technology is cool and detached. Now, there is even an African connection, as it has been announced that the U.S. has secured access to a series of bases from which to operate this technology across North Africa. This comes at a time when the Congress has been particularly critical of the administration’s inability to address a rising tide of anti-American sentiment that was best expressed in the incidents in Benghazi that resulted in the deaths of 4 Americans, including Ambassador Stevens. The backlash from this event caused the administration to jettison its first choice as Secretary of State. However, the eventual office holder, John Kerry, will inherit substantial plans for the expansion of drone warfare into Africa, as the administration takes the continuing battle against the forces of political violence to a whole new region. Having withdrawn from Iraq, having announced a timetable for the end of hostilities in Afghanistan, the Obama Administration has decided upon the new theatre of operations. From Senegal in the West, to Ethiopia in the East, a new front is quietly being opened in the on-going battle that exploded above the skies of Manhattan in 2001. Quite where it will end up is anyone’s guess, but the use of drone warfare is at present, Obama’s true presidential legacy. For now, the only guarantee is the further expansion of this technology as the weapon of choice in Obama’s ongoing war with an apparently growing number of dissident groups, and on the continuing silence on the issue from those organisation who where previously lamenting such actions under the Bush Administrations. How they must give thanks for having a good, old fashioned liberal in the White House to reveal the Bush Administration for the travesty that it was….