I have received many negative comments for my support of Barack Obama, mostly along the lines of, “how can you support Obama and ignore the Muslim blood on his hands due to drones?” Let me address this.
Barack Obama has indeed increased the use of drone warfare in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the four years of his presidency – far more than did George W. Bush. These drone attacks have systematically decimated the leadership of Al Qaeda, but have also carried a high cost of collateral damage – innocent civilians who have died because they were wrongly targeted or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
By far the most comprehensive study of drone attacks has been a study by Stanford Law School and New York University’s School of Law, which is posted online (PDF) at LivingUnderDrones.org and endorsed by Glenn Greenwald, as well as getting coverage in major news outlets like CNN, the Washington Post, and the LA Times.
Make no mistake about my views – I have not just called for an end to drone strikes, but I have gone further – I have argued that Muslim Americans should adopt as a core issue, the abolition of the very doctrine of collateral damage itself. Not just when it applies to muslims, but to any conflict – for example, settler Jews targeted by militant rockets.
Understand that when you condemn drone policy, you also condemn the bombing of Dresden, and the nuclear strike on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II (as I do). Understand also that in those cases, the only alternative was massive ground invasions that would have resulted in far more deaths, civilian or otherwise. Or, to do nothing, which might well have meant the Nazis and the Japanese remained undefeated and the world today would look very different indeed. The way I personally reconcile this moral quandary – truly, the lesser of two evils – is to argue that it was necessary then, but never again – and I pin my hopes that a true world war of the sort in 1945 can never again occur.
Likewise with Afghanistan, the alternative to drones would be to send teams of special forces to roam the countryside, which is exactly what the anti-terror policy was under GWB in Iraq. By all measures, drone policy has resulted in fewer deaths of civilians and soldiers than the boots-on-the-ground. In fact, the LivingUnderDrones project has some actual hard numbers to that effect:
At the time of this writing, the US is believed to have conducted 344 total strikes in Pakistan, 52 between June 17, 2004 and January 2, 2009 (under President Bush), and 292 strikes between January 23, 2009 and September 2, 2012 (under President Obama).
….The Long War Journal, a project run by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, claims that 138 civilians have been killed between 2006 and the present….New America Foundation’s Year of the Drone project—the most widely cited in the US of the three strike-tracking sources—currently estimates that 152 to 191 civilians have been killed by drones since 2004….TBIJ estimated that between 482 and 849 civilians have been killed by drones in Pakistan since 2004.
Let’s take the maximum of those numbers, and also for simplicity’s and argument’s sake ascribe all civilian deaths to Obama (even though the data dates from 2004 onwards). This means that for 21 terrorist leaders of Al Qaeda killed, 849 civilians have been killed, or a target/collateral ratio of 2.5%. That’s the grim calculus of collateral damage.
Compare to doing things the hard way, without drones:
- Dresden: 25,000 civilians dead.
- Hiroshima and Nagasaki: 250,000 civilians dead.
- Sanctions on Iraq after Persian Gulf War: 350,000 children dead. (reference)
- Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: 115,000 civilians dead (reference)
In each of the above, the number of “leaders” actually killed (troops, military leaders, terrorist leaders, etc) is so much, much lower than 2.5% as it may as well be zero.
The bottom line is that drones are a moral evil, and I don’t believe that we can rationalize away the moral guilt of any act, even if there is a valid rationale for it. We always have the option to accept defeat, or even accept being killed ourselves, rather than fight back. Survival will always carry a moral cost to which we will answer for on the Day of Judgement. Al Qaeda’s ability to attack Americans – our fellow citizens, our family, our loved ones – is decimated due to drones, in a way that all those invasions and boots on the ground and sanctions couldn’t. I think that matters too.