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On the War Over the Drone War

February 08, 2013|Stephen Markley

One has to be able to hold two thoughts in his or her head at once. For instance, you could be a fierce, outspoken opponent of the Iraq war from the moment of its inception, you could think Bush and his crew of neo-conservative magical thinkers exploited a national tragedy to send not-their-sons-and-daughters into a quagmire that killed or wounded many of them and ruined countless more lives. Yet you can also acknowledge that when Uday Hussein turned up dead as a result of this unnecessary war, the world instantaneously became a better place—this being a man who tortured soccer players for poor performances and showed up to random wedding parties to kidnap and rape the bride.

All this to say that threats to peace and human dignity exist everywhere. They are not the fabrications of the military-industrial complex, and they require serious discussion and even introspection about how a free society should deal with them.

Our military will be killing a lot more people in the coming decades. Al-Qaeda is the great chimera, a useless all-purpose buzzword boogeyman to describe a much larger, more amorphous problem. Now that the French have invaded Mali to push back insurgent forces everyone is calling them al-Qaeda or “al-Qaeda-affiliated,” which is like lumping together me and George Clooney as “Hollywood-affiliated.”

Warfare at its most basic is nothing more than a fight over the allocation of resources. Throughout history we’ve attempted to dress it up in religious or nationalistic clothing (and to be sure, that is always helpful in drawing young men to lay down their lives), but it’s always essentially about land or spices or oil or water or opium or trade routes. The modern world has opened up an enormous disparity between the haves and the have-nots, a gulf that is all but unfathomable to most of us who gladly participate in perpetuating it. Western hegemony has created a world of desperate, impoverished, and exploited people, who see many good reasons for fighting back. If you’d grown up in a village with medieval notions of women and sexuality, constant subsistence struggles, and foreign armies shooting your friends and blowing up parts of your town, what would your reaction be? And if there are charismatic characters coming by to tell you that God wants you to help right this wrong?

While it would be preferable to tackle widespread poverty, misogyny, educational deficits, and all the rest rather than attempting to cut the heads off of these ever-renewing threats, we should only expect things to continue this way, if not get worse.

Afghanistan and Pakistan will not be the last cradles of malcontents looking to wage asymmetric warfare on the bright, gleaming target of the United States (or France or the U.K. or Germany, etc.). Climate disruptions alone virtually guarantee that Yemen and Pakistan will run out of water even as floods devastate entire regions. Nigeria, with its endangered agriculture, rural-to-urban migration and endless conflicts over the country’s environmentally disastrous oil extraction, will probably face destabilization in the next decade. Crop failures across the Middle East and North Africa will be endemic, desertification will continue, mass movements of refugees will sow chaos, and those are only the things that we can easily predict. There are numerous regions of the world that are environmental and economic tinderboxes just waiting for a match, and they will produce the next crop of religious fundamentalists who will see the best way of reckoning with these problems as blowing up innocent people in the developed world. Even absent American military intervention that radicalizes population, environmental factors will do the work anyway. We will be involved not in a war on terror or a police action against al-Qaeda but a more or less permanent state of unconventional conflict with disparate non-state actors for the foreseeable future.

[Deep breath] Understanding all that, there will not be an American president in the future who will unilaterally give away the ability to kill people with robots, nor will Congress ever attempt to take away that power, and it seems unlikely voters will ever demand it. The question then becomes can we develop a legal framework that regulates the executive’s use of targeted drone strikes? War will never again work the way it used to with enormous nation-states lining up carefully demarcated forces, and our laws and norms should adapt to acknowledge this new reality. After 9/11 Congress passed an insanely broad authorization for the use of force that gave the president wide-ranging authority to

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