On the recent thread about Anwar al-Awlaki’s killing, the question came up as to whether the US really is at war or not. This is an important issue, and its answer carries much wider significance beyond just the legality of killing Awlaki.
The short answer to the question, of course, is: it is war, because the US chooses to treat it as such. But it’s the dawn of a very different kind of war.
When George Bush declared his Great War on a nebulous noun (which most people understood to mean Islamists, though some construed it as Islam), he still waged it in the conventional manner. Pinning the blame for 9/11 on Afghanistan and Iraq, he invaded both countries. This was not much different from Austria-Hungary declaring war on and invading Serbia in 1914 because of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Serb nationalist.
Even when Obama unleashed his ‘drone war’ on the tribal areas of Pakistan, this too could be construed as a conventional operation, much like the sustained US bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War because it also served as sanctuary and base for the enemy. The widespread knowledge that the Pakistan government, although officially opposed to the drone strikes on its territory in fact approved of them (even allowing them to be launched from an airbase in Pakistan), muted questions about the oddity of bombing a friendly country.
But Awlaki’s execution enables us to see the drone war in a completely new light. If we look beyond the questions of legality and morality, what we are witnessing is the birth of a new kind of war ─ war with machines, and war without national frontiers.
War without frontiers was initiated and developed by Israel. Suffering attacks from Palestinians (and their Arab supporters) based in various countries, it adopted a policy of attacking and killing them, even though this violated those countries’ sovereignty. Other states had resorted to such a tactic occasionally (e.g, in the cases of Georgi Markov, Alexander Litvinenko, Bashir Gemayal), but this was the first time a country had adopted it as military policy. Israel could afford to do so because US backing protected it from any military reprisals from the countries whose sovereignty it thus violated. The US, of course, feels even more immune.
War with machines has become a practical proposition because of the rapid pace of technological development in this field. The extent and direction of US developments in drone technology is laid out in a recent article in the Washington Post as well as in a review of two recent books in the New York Review of Books.
These robotic hunter/killers can increasingly replace humans in the waging of war, not only on the ground but also in the air and on and under the sea. Especially the humans who have hitherto done the fighting and the dying. The reduction in human vulnerability and loss, coupled with greatly increased capability and lethality, will make this new kind of warfare irresistible to generals and policy-makers.
For the United States, determined to exert power globally, and convinced it is engaged in an open-ended war with an amorphous, worldwide enemy, this capability is profoundly attractive, not least because of its comparatively low cost (both human and financial). That is why Peter Finn in his WaPo piece calls it “the future of the American way of war”. With its overwhelming preponderance of power compared to the rest of the world, the US can afford to exercise this new military capability inside most countries, no longer burdened by any need to first invade them. Or even notify.
So far the US has been using this new type of warfare against those it believes represent a danger to its security, i.e, as a counter-terrorism tool. It will become increasingly tempting to its leaders to use this cheap and (for the US) painless power projection to achieve a wider range of international policy goals. NATO’s intervention in Libya (in which the US also used its drones) is a portent of things to come. A foreign president or prime minister presented with a US demand would be hard-pressed to refuse it, knowing that this could invite the swift and silent destruction of some key installation or personage, including him.
While this technology would give the US tremendous capability in the future, it should consider the other side of the ledger. Even with its present limited use, it is paying a price, as poignantly expressed by Dr Brenner in his contribution to the National Journal blog. In a thoughtful recent piece, Tom Engelhardt reviews this issue and points out the pitfalls that could lie ahead. Quite apart from these intangibles, there are purely practical considerations to weigh. Other countries and groups may not be able to achieve the same heights of technical sophistication, but they can certainly duplicate many of these achievements. It would be foolhardy not to expect that potential enemies would also acquire some significant degree of this capability.
If the aim of military power and its exercise is national security, would US security really be enhanced in a world awash with military drones, where sensitivity to their use had been deadened by longstanding US example? If the few minor or failed attacks after 9/11 could push the US well towards becoming a ‘security state’, what kind of a country would it become under the threat of lethal drones flying up from backyards and windows and swooping down from the skies on vital targets?
This is a critical crossroads. If the US yields fully to the seductive promise of these new weapons, and the new kind of war they make possible, it risks not only a radical destabilization of the international structure, frail as it already it is, but also of America itself. What it is, what it stands for, how it sees itself, and, not least, how it’s seen by the world. And all without significantly increasing national security or furthering national goals.