flying death robots and the goblet of fire, part deux

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:

  1. What should America’s foreign policy be, generally?
  2. What should this particular president be doing?
  3. 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.


Eric writes:

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 dysfunctionalcountries.” 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.

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5 Responses to flying death robots and the goblet of fire, part deux

  1. Eric says:

    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.

    I hate that your post yesterday, and my response, were the first things that came to mind when I heard NPR’s version of this story as soon as the clock radio’s alarm went off: ” Taliban kill at least nine hotel guests, take 50 hostage in Kabul attack”. The reason the party of the former government of Afghanistan, whose platform, as I recall, includes throwing acid on girls who want an education (and American Democrats think there’s a “war on women” over here!), gave for the attack was not the number of drones the hotel resort was firing at civilians, but rather had something to do with guests at a lake resort wanting alcohol and sex. Well. I guess that’s been taken care of.

    I don’t disagree with your premises, except, perhaps, your rosy picture of postwar American domestic politics (the party of isolationism and draft-dodging has successfully been painting the party of war heroes that won WWII as pansies since McCarthy because it works; they’ve had plenty of chances to quit if it wasn’t a successful evolutionary adaptation to this country’s pathological politics). I even agree with some of your conclusions in a perfect-world kind of way (I’m the idiot went to law school planning on applying to the State Department when I got out, who stumbled into a career trying to help poor people accused of crimes, instead, remember?). I don’t like our foreign policy in this area: I just don’t think we can do better right now, and indeed that this is probably the best we can do.

    • thehandsomecamel says:

      I hear you. If it makes you feel any better, I went to law school to help poor people accused of crimes and, after a month at my first summer job, am seriously considering whether I wouldn’t like to do land use policy or something instead….

      • Eric says:

        Someone warned me before I went to law school: “You’ll never end up doing what you think you will.” I laughed. Three years later–yeah. Weird, how that works out.

    • Eric says:

      I agree that one of our big problems is that we can’t have a rational dialogue about Israel any more than we were able to have a rational dialogue about international communism back in the day when that was still a thing.

      I think I should be clear that the bulk of our foreign terrorist problems (as opposed to the homegrown terrorists we can’t even acknowledge the existence of because their supporters make up sizable parts of the Republican base these days) involve our birds coming home to roost. It doesn’t help that we’re bombing civilians from a distance; it doesn’t help that we have bases throughout the Middle East that are of dubious relevance in the post-Cold War era; it doesn’t help that we have a long and ongoing history of propping up (as I think I put it earlier) totalitarians and fascists (apt and technically-accurate descriptions of the theocratic and military governments peppering the Middle East and Islamic South Asia, and not just hyperbole or loose language); it doesn’t help that we support Israel for a whole sloppy bird’s nest of reasons (some of them no longer relevant in the post-Cold War era) and Israel is basically a cluster fuck of geopolitical history (currently featuring a vicious cycle of Israel taking hard lines against people who, generally speaking, don’t want the country to exist, which gives those people new reasons to be pissed off, which leads Israel to take hard lines, which–you know the story; and, of course, some of the people who are pissed with Israel’s existence aren’t merely anti-Semitic, but indeed have legitimate grievances about displaced populations and the postwar, postcolonial allocation of real estate and creation of nations, and that doesn’t help). Et cetera.

      But I acknowledge all of that for two reasons that may, ironically, cut against the grain of it all. One being that there’s not a simple way to extricate ourselves from some of that, and maybe there hasn’t been since sometime in the 1950s. I’m not sure that just withdrawing from a huge chunk of the world would be desirable even if it was doable, and I don’t think it could be done overnight even if that was desirable. And it might not be desirable: e.g. as pear-shaped as things have gotten in Afghanistan, liberating the country from the Taliban (or at least trying to) served humanitarian and liberal goals that were justifiable long before 9/11 gave us selfish and maybe irrational reasons to engage (my Dad likes to point out that a problem with the rationale for our Afghanistan War is we gave the Taliban an ultimatum–turn over al Qaeda–they almost certainly couldn’t satisfy, which is true enough; but I still felt good listening to NPR reports about girls going to school for the first time and movie theatres reopening for the first time in decades). And, second, because I don’t know if any of that would change anything at this point anyway. I think–and this goes back to what I wrote earlier–that there will never be a shortage of reasons for people to hate the United States. Some of that is inevitable, because ultimately one has to pick sides and thereby alienate somebody; some of that is just because history is long and, as someone once said, while it’s true that history is written by the victors, it’s remembered by the losers.

      A thought on that last point: in the wake of 9/11, there were all sorts of crackpot theories about the possible significance of the date. Things like, was it a reference to America’s emergency phone number, things that were all very Americentric and didn’t bother much with what a radical Islamic point-of-view might entail. And it’s possible that the date was just more-or-less random, was just a date when al Qaeda had the operational capacity and an open window. But if there is a significance, the most likely is that September 11, 1922 is a date associated with the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine, evidently with the swearing-in of British colonial governors (n.b. the actual date of the establishment of the Mandate is a bit complicated, and the Mandate was essentially the product of several years of war and peace during WWI, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the postwar aftermath). And if that’s the case–that the date was chosen for a real or folkloric significance in the history of Britain, The Ottoman Empire, the colonial Middle East, and the international Zionist movement of the early 20th Century, a history that the United States belatedly stumbled into in 1945-46–well, that’s what we’re, for want of a better expression, up against: we are guilty of being late accessories to the supposed crimes of other Western, Judeo-Christian English speakers, and thus, by extension, complicit (in the eyes of some disenfranchised, ultra-religious, angry radicals) in the entire ugly history of Islamic-Christian relations. In which case, and this is the point, we’re just completely fucked, and damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

      I hope I articulated that adequately and didn’t lose my point.

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