In spite of the fact that the United States faces no enemy anywhere in the world capable of opposing it on a battlefield, the Defense budget for 2011 will go up 7.1 percent from current levels. A lot of the new spending will be on drones, America’s latest contribution to western civilization, capable of surveilling large areas on the ground and delivering death from the skies. It is a peculiarly American vision of warfare, with a "pilot" sitting at a desk half a world away and pressing a button that can kill a target far below. Hygienic and mechanical, it is a bit like a video game with no messy cleanup afterwards. The recently released United States Quadrennial Defense Review reports how the Pentagon will be developing a new generation of super drones that can stay airborne for long periods of time and can strike anywhere in the world and at any time to kill America’s enemies. The super drones will include some that can fly at supersonic speeds and others that will be large enough to carry nuclear weapons. Some of the new drones will be designed for the navy, able to take off from aircraft carriers and project US power to even more distant hot spots. Drones are particularly esteemed by policymakers because as they are unmanned and can fly low to the ground they can violate someone’s airspace "accidentally" without necessarily resulting in a diplomatic incident.
Washington’s embrace of drones as the weapon of choice for international assassination is one major reason why the United States has become the evil empire. Drones are the extended fist of what used to be referred to as the Bush Doctrine. Under the Bush Doctrine Washington asserted that it had a right to use its military force preemptively against anyone in the world at any time if the White House were to determine that such action might be construed as defending the United States. Vice President Dick Cheney defined the policy in percentage terms, asserting that if there was a 1% chance that any development anywhere in the world could endanger Americans, the United States government was obligated to act. It should be noted that President Barack Obama has not repudiated either the Bush doctrine or the 1% solution of Dick Cheney and has actually gone so far as to assert that America is fighting Christianity-approved "just wars," a position disputed by Pope Benedict XVI among others. Far from eschewing war and killing, the number and intensity of drone attacks has increased under Obama, as has the number of civilian casualties, referred to by the splendid bloodless euphemism "collateral damage."
Drones are currently killing people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. It should be noted that the United States is not at war with any of those countries, which should mean in a sane world that the killing is illegal under both international law and the US Constitution. America’s Founding Fathers used constitutional restraints to make it difficult for Americans to go to war, requiring an act of war by Congress. Unfortunately it has not worked out that way. The US has been involved in almost constant warfare since the Second World War but the most recent actual declaration of war was on December 8, 1941. And then there are the special and clandestine operations that span the globe. Apart from Israel, no other country in the world has an openly declared policy of going around and killing people. One would think that the international community would consequently regard both Tel Aviv and Washington as pariahs, but fear of offending the world’s only super power and its principal client state has aborted most criticism. Most nations are resigned to letting assassination teams and hellfire armed drones operate as they please. If Iran were operating the drones and bumping off its enemies in places like Dubai you can be sure the reaction would be quite different.
And it doesn’t stop there. Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder has effectively blocked any inquiry into the use of torture by US government officials, mostly from the CIA. The Administration claims to have stopped the practice but has declared that no one will be punished for obeying orders to waterboard prisoners, an argument that was not acceptable at the Nuremberg trials in 1946 and should not be acceptable now. The United States is a signatory to the international agreement on torture and there are also both federal and state laws that prohibit either carrying out or enabling the practice, so the ruling by Holder is essentially a decision to ignore serious crimes that were committed against individuals who, in many cases, were both helpless and completely innocent. It also ignores the participation of Justice Department lawyers and CIA doctors in the process, involvement that most would consider both immoral and unethical. Worst of all, it lets off the hook the real war criminals, people like George Tenet and those in the White House who approved the practice. Tenet, one recalls, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a $4 million book deal. He still teaches at Georgetown University. Justice Department lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee, who made the legal arguments for torture are now respectively a tenured professor at Berkeley and a federal appeals court justice. One assumes that the actual CIA torturers continue to be employed by the federal government or are enjoying a comfortable retirement. So much for accountability for war crimes under President Obama.
Finally there is assassination. On February 3rd Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair commented during a congressional briefing that the United States reserves the right to kill American citizens overseas who are actively "involved" with groups regarded as terrorist. Involvement is, of course, a very slippery expression providing maximum latitude for those seeking to make a case for summary execution. The death list involves a due process of sorts in that a government official makes the decision who shall be on it based on guidelines but it does not allow the accused to challenge or dispute evidence. It should also be noted that no one in Congress objected to the Blair statement and the media hardly reported the story, suggesting that tolerance of illegal and immoral activity now pervades the system. As former Reagan Deputy Attorney General Bruce Fein has commented, the claimed authority to suspend one’s constitutional rights overseas can be extended to anyone in the United States by declaring one an enemy combatant under the terms of the Military Commissions Act. Jose Padilla was denied his constitutional rights to a fair trial even though he was an American citizen and was arrested in Chicago, not overseas. Can we anticipate extrajudicial killing of American citizens in America as part of the war on terror? Of course we can.
Three strikes and you’re out, Mr. Obama. Your government stands for preemptive killing and missile strikes on people living in countries with which America is not at war, lets torturers and torture enablers go free, and has asserted the right to assassinate its own citizens anywhere in the world based on secret evidence. Ronald Reagan once described his vision of America as a shining city on a hill. Over the past ten years the shining city has become the ultimate rogue nation, pumped up with power and hubris in spite of the clearly visible signs of decline and moving inexorably towards a catastrophic fall.