Predator: The Slippery Slope

We are still fighting wars with tactics better suited to World War II than Afghanistan. We use tanks even though we are not in the desert fighting Rommel. We use gunships even though this may take out a whole village to take down one insurgent, and we call that “collateral damage.” We send our boys overseas for three, four, even five tours, asking them to go into those villages and figure out which handful of Afghans are combatant Taliban. In Afghanistan, our enemy are in the villages because they live there.

In Bill Cosby’s 1963 “Toss of the Coin” take on the Minutemen vs. the Redcoats, the British lose the coin toss. They’re told “you guys have to wear red coats and march in a straight line” while “we get to hide behind trees and shoot at you.” We lost the coin toss in the Mideast.

In Bill Moyers’ recent in-depth interview “Moving Beyond War”, he has a series of interesting conversations with Andrew Bacevich, “a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran-turned-scholar who’s become one of the most perceptive observers of America’s changing role in the world.”

The following excerpt tracks that portion of their discussion in which they covered our increasing and controversial use of the Predator unmanned drone. Many Americans are asking if this tactic is moral. Does it divorce accountability from the military-political process? Perhaps, but does it save American lives? Here is the excerpt from the transcript:

ANDREW BACEVICH: I don’t think anybody today thinks that counterinsurgency is going to pacify Afghanistan.

BILL MOYERS: Why didn’t it work?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Again, one would refer to Afghan history here, that this is simply not a place that accommodates foreign invaders who think they know how to run the place better than the local population. But what I would want to emphasize, I think, is that by last year, I think Obama himself had given up on the notion that counterinsurgency provided a basis for U.S. strategy and had, indeed, begun to implement Plan C. And Plan C is targeted assassination.

Plan C is relying on drones, unmanned aerial vehicles with missiles, and also commandos, special operation forces, in order to conduct military operations, in essence on a global basis, identifying those who could pose a threat to us. And without regard to congressional authority, without regard to considerations of national sovereignty, to go kill the people we think need to be killed. Plan C is already being implemented.

BILL MOYERS: Most people seem to accept it as an alternative to failure in Afghanistan, and as a way of keeping American soldiers out of harm’s way.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, and also they accept it because of course, it doesn’t cost us anything. We are not, the people are not engaged in any serious way. The people are not asked to sacrifice. The people are asked only to applaud when we are told after the fact that an attack has succeeded.

I don’t have any easy answers to the Predator problem. I favor keeping our boys out of harm’s way. That’s why I’m also for an accelerated withdrawal from a hopeless quagmire. I do not see Afghanistan as a unified country in need of defense or capable of benefiting from it, even if they asked us to stay, which doubtless they now will not.

But we all recognize that targeted robot assassinations are a slippery slope. Yet we never resolved our differences on CIA assassinations several decades ago. At what point do assassinations become immoral?

My take on Predator’s slippery slope is that “assassination” launches should be accountable to, and only authorized by, our country’s highest elected civilian leaders, never by military field commanders – however reputable and trustworthy. This kind of target must be a high-ranking military or paramilitary individual or unit, actively engaged in military hostilities against the United States or its armed forces, or poised to do so when it is too late to stop them by conventional means. The high-profile target must be non-containable by means of timely kill-or-capture. And the target may not be a civilian head of state unless the President determines an extraordinary and imminent threat to national or global security, such as a Hitler.

I draw a sharp line between targeted assassinations and calling in a drone strike in a combat situation. If no noncombatants are killed, and American lives are saved, I’m for tactical strikes. But I still resist the idea of uncontrolled field-level deployment. I believe Congress and the Defense Department should get involved in creating light-speed control and monitoring mechanisms, and high-level field commanders should have the responsibility for approving tactical strikes and reviewing results.

Remember, the United States will not long be the only nation deploying smart unmanned aircraft systems. It would be in our own self-interest for the United States to take the lead in defining clear-cut boundaries.

Bin Laden obviously would have been an eligible Predator target (though we took him out with our miraculous Navy Seal team). But Assad most probably would not be. For that, we need the United Nations. It is perhaps too soon to tell if Russia and China have committed to cooperative global efforts to reduce global atrocities, but their new-found willingness to go along with the UN’s Mr. Annan in pressuring Syria is encouraging. And, China has greatly facilitated efforts to pressure North Korea on its nuclear weapons program.

Concerted world cooperation and containment is the anti-terrorist weapon of the future.

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