Barack Obama was seen by many of the liberals of the world as the only hope for a just and ethical American government. He was seen as the archetypal liberal; educated, young, and more importantly, not a Republican. Not long after his election however, we quickly came to learn that it would be business as usual for the White House, and more. Under the Obama administration we have seen a disastrous foreign policy in which any person deemed a terrorist or a threat to the national security of the United States, or their interests, can be summarily and extrajudically assassinated. One of the predominant methods of carrying out these assassinations is via drone strike. With what has been essentially an onslaught of drone strikes, especially in Pakistan and Yemen, the UN has begun to investigate the legality of these strikes. This investigation has thus far been part of the basis of two reports which were issued in September of last year.
The first report, Extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, dealt with the issue of drone strikes within the framework of international law. The Special Rapporteur noted that, “drones are here to stay”, and that they are not necessarily illegal weapons. However, the Rapporteur also took note of the fact that drones make it far easier to kill a suspect as opposed to trying to capture them. He also noted that the sheer proliferation of the use of armed drones “may lower social barriers in society against the deployment of lethal force and result in attempts to weaken the relevant legal standards”. Added to this is the lack of transparency regarding the legal framework being used by the White House to target suspects for assassination. When combined with the relative safety with which a drone can be operated, the report states that domestic or political constraints on their use can easily be “reduce[d] or eliminated”. This is precisely how the Obama administration has promoted the use of drones; that they are surgical in their precision, clean, and more importantly, keep American lives out of harm’s way. When we dig a little deeper, the truth is much more frightful and perilous.
The exact determination of the criteria needed to target someone for assassination is not shared with the public. Nonetheless, certain details are known. According to Jeremy Scahill, in the closing days of the Bush administration, the CIA began targeting suspects for assassination on the basis of “patterns of life rather than specific intelligence”. If a person adhered to a certain list of “signatures” that the agency had devised, this was enough to make them a target. One of these “signatures” could be as little as being a military aged male in a particular region of the globe. Being an imminent threat or being involved in plotting against the United States was also not a prerequisite for being targeted. The mere potential to commit acts of terrorism against the United States or its interests became enough to warrant death. The Obama administration embraced this method of warmongering with gusto. In the first 10 months of taking office, Obama launched more drone strikes than Bush Jr. had in the previous 8 years. Obama personally signs off on each assassination on what is called “Terror Tuesdays”, where he and his advisors go over a list of suspects and decide who is to live and who is to die.
In spite of what the White House and the Pentagon may think about the effectiveness of drone strikes, it is clear that they do two things: They violate international law and they encourage terrorism. That both of these statements are truisms is unimportant. It is important though to examine them in greater detail. As to the latter, in an interview with the journal Foreign Affairs early last year, General Stanley McChrystal made the same point that is made above; that drones strikes seem to carry little risk with maximum benefits. But this does not give the wider view of the larger consequences of such actions, pointing out that, “at the receiving end, it feels like war”. He further stated that if drones were “used carelessly”, which he believes isn’t the case, “then we should not be upset when someone responds with their equivalent, which is a suicide bomb in Central Park, because that’s what they can respond with”. Similarly, in an appearance in front of a United States Senate committee in April of last year, Yemeni native Farea Al-Muslimi related the story of how six days previous to his appearance in front of the committee, his village had been the victim of a drone strike. Ominously, but not unsurprisingly, he stated that, “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America”. The UN report already mentioned also makes this point. The Special Rapporteur writes that, “drones come from the sky, but leave the heavy footprint of war on the communities that they target”.