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Monday, Feb. 27, 2012

THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

American safety tab in terms of drone deaths


NEW YORK — Sometimes people make a startlingly mindless argument. One recent example is "Drones for Human Rights" (New York Times, Jan. 31).

"Drones are not just for firing missiles in Pakistan," began Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Mark Hanis, who co-wrote the op-ed. "In Iraq, the State Department is using them to watch for threats to Americans. It's time we used the revolution in military affairs to serve human rights advocacy."

The syllogism Sniderman and Hanis, who describe themselves as cofounders of the Genocide Intervention Network, employ in this opening paragraph is unsettling enough. But what they advocate in the rest of their argument is even worse.

Yes, their major premise is utterly true, but not in the way the two writers may have intended. The U.S. also carries out missile firings by drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen, according to Greg Miller in "Under Obama, an Emerging Global Apparatus for Drone Killing" (Washington Post, Dec. 27, 2011).

Their minor premise is equally true, but it leaves out a fact as unsavory. Just two days before the Sniderman and Hanis piece appeared, the same daily had carried a dispatch from Baghdad headlined "U.S. Drones Patrolling Its Skies Provoke Outrage in Iraq" (N.Y. Times. Jan. 29, 2012).

Yes, the U.S. State Department uses drones over Iraq, but it didn't bother to clear the matter with the Iraqi government. Eric Schmitt and Michael Schmidt who filed the report revealed that Iraqis learned about the deployment of UAVs over their sky from the State Department's "online prospectus for companies that might bid on a contract to manage the program."

For all the outrages it has perpetrated on Iraq, invading and destroying it on false pretense, the U.S. has no sense of guilt or remorse. Instead, it regards the Middle Eastern country as a third-rate vassal state where it can behave as it pleases. The U.S. probably committed a number of similarly contemptuous acts in Japan during the Occupation, but that was different. The U.S. denies it is the Occupying power of Iraq. But is that true?

Schmitt and Schmidt quote Iraqi Acting Minister of Interior Adnan al-Asadi, who opposed the UAV program, as saying, "Our sky is our sky, not the U.S.A.'s sky."

The 45-year teacher whom the two reporters quote to conclude their dispatch, Ghanem Owaid Nizar Qaisi, knows better: "I believe that Iraqi politicians will accept it because they are weak."

After all, Iraq is a country where the U.S. has built the largest embassy in the world, to be staffed by 11,000 people — no digital error here — by creating a compound like a luxury resort.

Since the Schmitt and Schmidt dispatch, the Obama administration announced the staff size of the embassy would be halved, obviously for budgetary reasons. But its attitude toward the country it trampled upon is unlikely to change.

A horde of "private security contractors" move about in "heavily armored military vehicles." When embassy staffers go out of the city, "small helicopters buzz over the convoys to provide support," with "two contractors armed with machine guns ... tethered to the outside of the helicopters."

Talk of "threats to Americans." Does the syllogism of Sniderman and Hanis lead properly to their conclusion? Unlikely.

Their major and minor premises are too skewed. They speak of using drones to protect "human rights," but they do so after ignoring the killings that the drones have done, and are still doing, and the U.S. disregard of sovereign rights, let alone the other "human rights abuses" inflicted.

Still, what do these advocates of "genocide intervention" propose to do with drones?

Their focus for now is Syria. Forget about cellphones, whose footage is "shaky and the images grainy," or human observers whose movements are restricted by the host government and prone to decamp at the sign of danger. Drones will work wonders.

"A drone would let us count demonstrators, gun barrels and pools of blood," Sniderman and Hanis tell us, enabling us to "watch in high definition with a bird's-eye view." If they sound almost gleeful, that may be because the enjoyment of mayhem on the ground Star Wars-style is what Americans did during the Persian Gulf War and during the "shock and awe" phase of America's assaults on Baghdad.

No, the image-centered "evidence could be broadcast for a global audience," they say, "including diplomats at the United Nations and prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC)."

Are they kidding? What can the U.N. do? It is still hamstrung by the Five Great Powers arrangement made at the end of the war that ended seven decades ago.

It was only last month that U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay "expressed deep disappointment" that the U.S. government "has failed to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and has instead entrenched a system of arbitrary detention." By entrenching the system, the commissioner meant the new National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law last December, that "effectively codifies such indefinite military detention without charge or trial."

Will her protest do any good? Don't bet on it.

How about the ICC, "the world's most ambitious war crimes tribunal," as Deutsche Welle puts it? The U.S., "the only military superpower," has maintained "years of open hostility" to it. And no wonder: It has committed countless war crimes since the Nuremberg Trials.

Terms such as "genocide," "crimes against humanity" and "human rights abuses" are as arbitrary as their applications. No one has demanded, with any discernible effect, that President George W. Bush be brought to the ICC on his actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

At the end of January, President Barack Obama officially acknowledged the existence of drone attacks, but said these missile strikes "have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties."

London's Bureau of Investigative Journalism earlier this month estimated that U.S. drones killed somewhere between 2,413 and 3,058 people. A Brookings Institution analysis suggests that the ratio of civilians versus "militants" killed by drone missiles is 10 to 1. By that estimate, anywhere from 2,170 to 2,750 civilians have already been killed.

Will President Obama decide the number is "huge" when it reaches 3,000 — the number of people killed in the September 11 attacks that prompted the U.S. to attack Afghanistan, then Iraq?

Hiroaki Sato is an essayist and translator in New York.


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