After reading Medea Benjamin’s Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, I can only wish she will invest more time in writing and less time getting arrested, because there are so few activists with her gifts of research, analysis and communication. But she wouldn’t be Medea without being arrested and pepper-sprayed on one front or another, because she is a true witness in both the Quaker moral sense and as a seeing journalist in the thick of things.
Her new book should be in every activist’s backpack and handed to every member of Congress and military affairs reporter. Besides having a direct impact, it will increase the legitimacy of, and broaden the impact of CODEPINK for having policy acumen.
Of particular interest is Benjamin’s assessment of the prospects for an anti-drone movement, based on interviews in several countries, including veterans of the anti-land mine campaign of the late 1990s, and recent efforts to create oppositional networks, especially in Europe. Here in the US she describes two efforts at building loose umbrella coalitions since 2009. These are the seedlings from which strong trees grow.
Unlike the view of many who think Predators and Reapers are harbingers of a Brave New World, I think they are better analyzed as weapons chosen for their lethality, invisibility, and low-taxpayer costs by governments in retreat, like ours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Wars simply not won by platforms in the sky.
As was proven during the Central American wars, thousands of Americans can be mobilized for peace or solidarity even when US casualties are low and taxpayer costs hidden. Some are mobilized for moral or religious reasons, others out of rage at our government’s secret killings, still others from a sense that there will be blowback. We already see dedicated American networks of activists protesting and being arrested at the remote locations where the drone strategy is carried out. Millions of Pakistanis regularly take to the streets, their energy fueling the potential presidential campaign of Imran Khan, which Benjamin mentions. (p. 185) And of course, mainstream journalists inevitably are drawn to uncover state secrets.
And while Benjamin does not describe them as allies, her cause has powerful supporters in the ranks of Long War counterinsurgency strategists like David Kilcullen. They see drones as antagonizing local civilian populations in places like Pakistan, and steering Pentagon policy and funds away from their preferred alternative, counterinsurgency. As a result they continue to blow the whistle on drones and civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan, through their outlets like the Long War Journal and New America Foundation.
As military strategies, both counterterrorism and counterinsurgency are headed for gradual defeat in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As most of the Western troops leave, drones will cover their tracks in blood, keeping insurgents from suddenly seizing power, and serving to protect military and political reputations.
As Leon Panetta famously said, drones “are the only game in town,” but the White House, Justice Department and Pentagon already “acknowledge that they worry about public perception.” (New York Times, May 29, 2012). And Benjamin has only just begun.
Barack Obama, the current villain in her narrative, is doing a favor by beginning to open a “public conversation” about this hitherto taboo subject. Now there is no excuse whatsoever for Congressional silence, which Benjamin scathingly condemns. One of her keenest revelations is about the fifty-member “Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus,” that influences key defense committees to ensure the flow of drone contracts to their home districts. Apparently these politicians are trying to avoid branding as The Predators Caucus. But it seems only a matter of time before Congressional liberals open their eyes to citizen pressure for transparency and accountability concerning drone warfare.
Benjamin is encouraging a vital discussion about strategies and tactics, not defining a single correct demand for the rising anti-drone movement. But there is one option she leaves out, which might be unifying across a broad range of ideologies and parties. The new drone warfare should be subject to an expanded version of the existing 1973 War Powers Act.
Once the issue is open to conversation, no one can make the case for secret Executive Branch warfare with any credibility. This is not like the early Cold War period when the secret government, mainly the CIA, carried out coups, assassinations and secret wars with impunity. Or, if you like, it actually might be very much like the opening rounds of the Cold War. In either perspective, that Cold War rash of bloody conspiracies eventually crashed because of resistance, awakenings, exposes, scandals and whistleblowers. We are still living with the toxic debris, in Guatemala, Cuba, and of course Iran. In time, however, cumulative public opinion caused the Congress to pass the War Powers Act, imposing for the first-time limits on the Executive’s war-making prerogatives. It was a flawed and compromised War Powers Act, but it gave rise to a new Congressional willingness to exert an oversight, approval and funding role for the legislative branch of government. Nixon and Kissinger were infuriated at the rebuffing of their imperial presidency.
But now the Obama administration is narrowly interpreting the War Powers Act as applying only to something it calls “sustained fighting,” which it defines as the “active exchange of fire with hostile forces,” and/or the direct deployment of ground troops. In Libya, the Pentagon claimed the right to “occasional strikes by unmanned Predator UAVs against a specific set of targets.” The Pentagon’s budget language for Libya even asserted the right to “find, fix, track, target and destroy regime forces.”
None of these presumed rights are protected by the language of the War Powers Act, which apparently never was designed for prolonged counterterrorism strategies, certainly not ones involving drones. If I am wrong, let the White House release the legal briefs in which the constitutionality of their Libya campaign was debated.
The point is that this new age of warfare is altogether lacking new rules, which is where activists, Congress members, national security intellectuals and journalists could be engaged to have an impact.
Benjamin might start the discussion by drafting her own proposal for amending the War Powers Act. Then, time allowing, she can go back to jail.