Eric comments thoughtfully on the previous post, asking, I think, what the hell rational people are supposed to do about terrorists, given their apparent intractability and the realities of American politics, if not shoot Hellfires at them from drones. (Not an exact quote.) I thought I’d try to answer that by breaking it down into some smaller questions.
First, I think when the public interrogates the president on foreign policy, it’s probably always implicit that there are at least three questions on the table:
- What should America’s foreign policy be, generally?
- What should this particular president be doing?
- Would the other guy be doing any better?
I think it’s generally clear, given my positions, that I think the answer to the last question is “no.” I don’t think John McCain or Mitt Romney would be more of a peace president than Obama, and although Ron Paul might, he’d also attempt to dismantle the federal government, which strikes me as counterproductive for a number of reasons. (And Dennis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders aren’t running.)
But that still leaves us with the first two questions.
Unfortunately, the deeper problem is that there will always be a reason for 9/11s–if it isn’t drone attacks; it’s the presence of American airbases in the Middle East; or it’s support of Israel; or it’s the predominance of our global influence; or it’s our ugly history of supporting, empowering and installing totalitarians and fascists as anti-Soviet proxies and/or to benefit Western oil companies; or it’ll be something else….
If there’s any hope of deferring another 9/11 (preventing may be too much to expect), it isn’t by denying a casus belli to those for whom it is ultimately sufficient that we exist and the former caliphates are therefore eclipsed. The hope is that the organizational structure can be fractured to the point that operational abilities are limited, local, relatively impotent.
I disagree with this analysis. I don’t believe that there need “always be a reason” — that is, I think it’s perfectly possible for us to have a foreign policy that’s not nearly so provocative, a foreign policy that would make us the object of envy and admiration, rather than resentment. If we want that, we can have it. Sure, there will always be a few fringe folk who hate us for their own screwball reason — the point is to make them the fringe.
And I emphatically reject the idea that running around chopping off the hydra-heads of “Al-Qaeda” “leadership” is anything more than a fool’s errand. (Eric notes that it’s “Sisyphean,” so together we are offering a smorgasboard of Greek-myth metaphor options, here.) When 9/11 happened, there was one Al-Qaeda, and it was a parasite living off the carcasses of the world’s most dysfunctional “countries.” Since 9/11, in large part because the U.S. has gone blundering around Southwest Asia killing motherfuckers like a bull killing motherfuckers in a predominantly-Muslim china shop, Al-Qaeda has become a name brand, an indestructible flag ’round which every Muslim with a grievance can rally. Before our adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was no Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, no Al-Qaeda in Palestine, no Al-Qaeda of the Maghreb, and for fuck’s sake no Al-Qaeda in Iraq. All those organizations popped up after, and in response to, the U.S. kindly providing a decade of graphic visual aids to Al-Qaeda’s propaganda campaign.
I now propose a new test for American foreign policy decisions — one that I donate to the public in the spirit of magnanimity and philanthropy, to be used by presidents, Congress, and the voters alike, royalty-free, forever. I call it the “Red Dawn Foreign Policy Test.” It’s very simple. Whenever you’re contemplating taking military action in a foreign country, ask yourself, “What would Patrick Swayze do?” That is, “If I take this action, what would the Yemeni (or Afghani, or Vietnamese, or Iranian) Patrick Swayze do in response?” And if the answer is something like this:
… then, you know… TREAD CAREFULLY.
Of course, per Joan Walsh, Democrats often feel that they have to engage in warfare in order not to look soft in front of the Republicans. How the team that has fielded Mitt Romney, Dick “five deferments” Cheney, George W. Bush, and Ronald “I would have gone” Reagan gets to claim the mantle of military toughness, while the team that has put up actual war heroes Jimmy Carter, John Kerry, and Al Gore somehow feels inadequate about its testicle size, I don’t understand. Ironically, the butchest Republican to hold the White House in the last thirty-five years got tagged a ‘wimp,’ which I think just goes to show you how much horseshit you have to eat to buy into these stereotypes.
But apart from the silliness of it all, there’s a deeper truth: Democrats are wrong about how much the American people want them to engage in warfare in foreign lands to prove their bona fides. Remember how much flak Bill Clinton took from the electorate for not intervening in Rwanda? Right.
Americans can be led to war pretty easily. But they often quickly come to regret it, or want to forget it, or out-and-out hate it. A leader who avoided foreign fighting wherever possible would not, in my opinion, be subject to much blowback — especially if he staked out the moral high ground early on, saying simply and often, “America doesn’t do that.” Call me a blushing idealist, but I think Americans will rise to the level to which they are called, if only someone will do the calling in a convincing and charismatic way.
(And Americans vote much less on foreign policy than on economic indicators. At least, that theory worked for Clinton, who was savaged unmercifully by his opponents for, among other things, being a pansy-ass draft-dodging peacemonger — but who was quite popular both during and after his presidency. When it comes down to it, people like having jobs more than they like national chest-beating.)
Finally, I want to return to the point I made at the end of the previous post: drones are an especially bad tool of foreign policy. They’re not as bad as carpet bombing, of course, but still, they fail for propaganda purposes on at least two fronts. First, they just seem ungentlemanly. They seem like technologically-aided bullying. A superpower that won’t put skin in the game to achieve its military objectives breeds even more resentment than one that is willing to let some infantry blood fall. Drones suggest a rank inequality, an unexamined assumption that our American lives are worth much more than the lives of some hillside villagers. The use of drones suggests a serious alienation from the very act of bloodletting. It’s an ugly spectacle, one that makes us look both weak and callous.
And second, drones may be more accurate than, say, nukes, but they still kill a fuck-ton of civilians. And that’s bad optics. Compare, for example, the generally positive overseas reactions to the SEAL Team Six expedition that took down Bin Laden:
The feeling in much of Pakistan is one of “America, mission accomplished,” says NPR’s Julie McCarthy in Abbottabad, the site of the operation that killed bin Laden. Now, many Pakistanis say the focus needs to be on ending U.S. military operations in Pakistan….
Afghans interviewed in Kabul expressed satisfaction not only that bin Laden was dead, but that he had been found outside Afghanistan….
One person tweeting is Jamal Khashoggi, former editor-in-chief of the Saudi newspaper al-Watan. He knew bin Laden and fought alongside other Arabs in Afghanistan during the Soviet era….
His feelings are mixed about the death.
“I feel relieved for my religion, for the future of the Arab world,” he says. “I feel sad for somebody who was a friend.”
with the decidedly and uniformly more negative reaction to the drone strikes in, e.g., Yemen:
Misleading intelligence has also led to disastrous strikes with major political and economic consequences. An American drone strike in May 2010 killed Jabir al-Shabwani, a prominent sheik and the deputy governor of Marib Province. The strike had dire repercussions for Yemen’s economy. The slain sheik’s tribe attacked the country’s main pipeline in revenge. With 70% of the country’s budget dependent on oil exports, Yemen lost over $1 billion. This strike also erased years of progress and trust-building with tribes who considered it a betrayal given their role in fighting al-Qaeda in their areas.
That’s from a New York Times op-ed by a pro-democracy activist in Yemen. Here’s more from a lawyer who tries to get Pashtun tribal leaders to meet with Western military commanders to bring some peace to the Pakistan/Afghanistan border area:
I told the elders that the only way to convince the American people of their suffering was to accumulate physical proof that civilians had been killed. Three of the men, at considerable personal risk, had collected the detritus of half a dozen missiles; they had taken 100 pictures of the carnage….
At the end of the day, Tariq stepped forward. He volunteered to gather proof if it would help to protect his family from future harm. We told him to think about it some more before moving forward; if he carried a camera he might attract the hostility of the extremists.
But the militants never had the chance to harm him. On Monday, he was killed by a C.I.A. drone strike, along with his 12-year-old cousin, Waheed Khan. The two of them had been dispatched, with Tariq driving, to pick up their aunt and bring her home to the village of Norak, when their short lives were ended by a Hellfire missile.
And then there are the disheartening statistics about the small children we’ve killed with these strikes. (Warning: linked article includes a photo of a dead seven-year-old boy.)
The point is not that SEALs are incapable of killing civilians. But the risk is somewhat lower, and even when they do, the killing looks less callous.
The occasional, careful, targeted bit of violence against people who really deserve it makes America look both strong and just. (See also: Somali pirates.) But repeated attacks that kill civilians while often failing to achieve any meaningful national security objective can’t possibly be in our best interest — never mind the moral cost. At the very least, if this kind of thing is done in our name, I hope a lot less of it is done in this particular way:
The first known drone strike in Yemen to be authorised by Obama, in late 2009, left 14 women and 21 children dead in the southern town of al-Majala, according to a parliamentary report. Only one of the dozens killed was identified as having strong Qaeda connections.