Why Do We Know So Little About the Drone Wars?

by Chad Nelson

How many Americans know the extent of the Obama Administration’s drone wars?  How many, and in which countries, are drone bombings being carried out?  What is the success rate of drone attacks, and how is the Administration defining such success?  The answers to these questions are almost entirely unavailable to the American public for much the same reason that Americans know precious little about all wars in which their government is engaged: because Congress has abdicated its Constitutional obligation to declare wars.

Congress long ago forfeited its responsibility under Article I Section 8 of the Constitution as the sole decision-maker with regard to sending American troops into war. For a time, American presidents at least attempted to skirt around the unconstitutionality of such unilateral war-making, referring to their wars by such clever euphemisms as “police actions” or “humanitarian intervention.” It has become clear, however, that Presidents no longer feel so verbally-restrained.  Presidents, Congress and virtually the whole of the American political establishment now cite the Constitution as giving the President unfettered, king-like authority to launch foreign wars.

One of the tragic results of this Congressional abdication is that the American public is increasingly kept in the dark as to the goings-on of wars, as the elected officials most directly accountable to the citizenry no longer participate in the decision-making process.  And this abdication is all-too convenient.  Meaningful debate about the merits of war never materializes, and when the wars eventually go south, members of Congress are able to point to their after-the-fact speeches in which they criticized the war, never having to fear the political consequences of a vote in favor or against a declaration of war.  In exchange for this politically expedient handover of war-making power, the President is given free-reign as to whom, how and when our military will engage around the world.

Perhaps no other war has been kept so hidden from the American public as Barack Obama’s drone wars.  They have have been kept so secret, in fact, that the President’s former Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, recently revealed that he was instructed not to acknowledge their very existence.  A handful of investigative journalist groups, such as The Long War Journal and The New America Foundation, have been left conducting important but difficult guess work as to the drone wars’ nature and extent, as if putting together a large puzzle one small piece at a time.  All the while, the American public is left clueless as to the activities being conducted in their name. Instead we are told that “a decade of war is over,” despite at least a handful of new ones having been initiated.

As a result of their purposely being kept ignorant of their government’s actions, Americans are all the more astounded when the consequences of such wars come to fruition.  In a recent interview with Economic Policy Journal’s Robert Wenzel, former Ron Paul foreign policy advisor Daniel McAdams explained that the potential for blowback against American citizens is even greater as a result of the government’s illegal drone wars, nevermind its ongoing (and also illegal) ground wars.

The phenomenon of blowback comes as a result of the American government’s actions abroad, whatever they may be, which more often than not cause resentment within local populations.  When retaliation for these actions arrives at our shores or against Americans abroad, as it inevitably does, the American public is shocked and appalled, wondering what could possibly prompt such heinous actions.  Hungry for answers, they are then fed simple explanations by those responsible, such as, “they hate our way of life”, or “their religion commands them to commit such acts”.  Never are we provided the context in which such retaliation occurs.

As McAdams states, the possibility for violent retaliation against Americans is all the more possible as a result of the American government’s drone wars.  Certainly no population, be they Iraqi, Afghan, Canadian or American, wishes to have an armed foreign military building bases on its land, policing its streets and dictating its way of life.  The blowback from these actions is widespread and well-documented.  Combine this with a covert series of air wars in which unmanned military aircraft are constantly surveilling foreign populations and raining missiles down on any locals who appear to be engaged in suspicious, “terrorist” activity, and we have a perfect recipe for blowback on a larger scale than the 9/11 attacks.

Tribal areas of Afghanistan surveyed about the psychological effects of drones reveal an entire population living in terror, unable to sleep, with children often kept home from school for fear of being targeted.  Though generally out of sight, drones can constantly be heard buzzing overhead, creating a constant state of fear.  Despite our being told of the precision of drone strikes, subject populations have detailed the frequent loss of innocent life and widespread destruction of property that results.  Consequently, large swaths of these foreign populations living under drones view the United States in a negative light. One Pew Research Center study conducted in 2012 found that three quarters of Pakistanis now view Americans as the enemy, and one would expect similar numbers from the several other countries across the Middle East and Africa in which America conducts drone operations.  The blowback is not limited to those directly terrorized by drones.  General Stanley McChrystal recently stated that “resentment created by [drones]…is much greater than the average American appreciates.  They are hated on a visceral level by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”

Thus, because of a feckless Congress too interested in the next election cycle, we have enabled an all-powerful Executive to exercise this new form of irresponsible and unconstitutional warfare without the slightest bit of oversight.  Whatever unfortunate consequences ultimately flow from this foolhardy phase of the never-ending War on Terror will undoubtedly be seen only in a vacuum, completely disconnected from the new American foreign policy. 

Lastly, for those concerned about the increasing scope and expense of American military involvement abroad, the drone war presents numerous causes for concern.   One wonders how many new conquests will be undertaken as a result of this “riskless” form of warfare.  How many previously unfeasible foreign adventures will now become possible in light of American boots not initially having to be placed on the ground?  And what will America do as drone technology becomes more widely disseminated?  The war hysteria seems to be in full swing once again as the neoconservatives aim to persuade the world, despite overwhelming intelligence to the contrary, that Iran is in pursuit of, and close to obtaining nuclear weaponry.  Drone technology may soon replace the nuclear scare as the 21st century’s new boogeyman.

Chad Nelson is a practicing attorney based in Providence, RI and is active in the peace and liberty movements, which he considers one and the same.  

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