The Subject: Elias Groll observes, “Taken together, the HRW and Amnesty reports paint the U.S. drone war as, at times, deeply counterproductive and possibly illegal. Neither report goes so far as to say the United States has committed outright war crimes; researchers lack the necessary information to fully evaluate U.S. intentions. Yet both reports suggest that the United States has in all likelihood violated international law.” This is an important observation because it reveals a disturbing reality namely that on the far end of the critical spectrum in the US, commentators are unable to acknowledge that bombing another country without UNSC approval is uncontroversially illegal. It’s simply taken for granted that the US has the unilateral right to bomb other countries. What this means is that prominent human rights organizations can’t rise to the level of condemning crimes that led to the execution of the Nazi leadership. To call this a restriction of free thought is an understatement.
LG: So do you find their statement that “researchers lack the necessary information to fully evaluate U.S. intentions” to be a sign of self-censoring? I’m not saying it isn’t, but the Nazi regime was more overt in its intent.
XB: The first point I should make is that States reflexively argue that their actions are carried out with noble intent. Even the Nazis did this. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union they did so under the pretext that they were saving “Mother Russia” from “Soviet tyranny.” When Japanese fascists invaded and occupied China they did so to bring about an “earthly paradise” and to construct a “co-prosperity sphere.” Thomas Jefferson justified the genocidal extermination of North America’s indigenous population by describing them as “merciless Indian savages whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.”
Incidentally, I was a bit surprised that this question of intent even arose in the research, not only because of this long record of imperial gangsterism but because one of the most elementary theories of international law completely disregards as illegitimate the question of intent. One of the two foundational precepts of what’s called just war theory is that “[military] actions are evaluated in terms of the range of likely consequences,” and not intent. Regardless of intent, if there is a likelihood that civilians will be killed in a military action that action must be terminated.
If we accept this elementary principle of international law, the question of whether or not the US intended to kill civilians irrelevant. The question is do drone strikes increase the likelihood of civilian deaths or not. I think it’s pretty clear, just from empirical studies, that it increases the likelihood. In 2009 David Kilcullen of the NYT reported, “Press reports suggest that over the last three years drone strikes have killed about 14 terrorist leaders. But, according to Pakistani sources, they have also killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for every militant killed, a hit rate of 2 percent — hardly ‘precision.'” Then there’s the morally grotesque practice of “double taps”—when drones circle around and murder first responders after an initial strike—which is unambiguously deliberate. Moreover, Fawaz Gerges points out in his book Obama & the Middle East that the Obama administration is well aware of the human carnage drone strikes cause but his administration views the policy as one whose “benefits outweigh any inherent human, political, and legal costs.” Even the former legal adviser to Army Special Operations Jeffrey Addicot warned that drone warfare is “creating more enemies than we are killing or capturing.”
It’s interesting that this question of intent only arises when discussing the crimes of the US or its closest allies. It’s nearly unimaginable that the same standard of analysis would apply to US enemies. For example, I can’t imagine HRW or Amnesty discussing whether or not Bashar Assad intended to kill civilians in Syria. Like the US, I think Assad is a criminal because he ignored or accepted as legitimate the completely predictable consequence that civilians would be killed in his military strikes.
My statement that “human rights organizations can’t rise to the level of condemning crimes that led to the execution of the Nazi leadership,” was not a comment on the researchers’ abilities to understand US intentions. Rather it was a comment on the fact that their analysis completely ignores a much larger question, namely what gives us the right to bomb Pakistan at all, even if the drones only killed terrorists. If we ask this question the frame of reasoning behind the HRW and Amnesty report is much less obscure. We have absolutely no right to bomb Pakistan because the US has not received UNSC approval. It is therefore an act of military aggression, the crime that led to the hanging of the Nazi leadership. Acknowledging this simple fact requires no complex on-the-ground analysis or any effort to decipher US intentions. All it takes is a brief look at the UNSC documentary record.
The same can be said about US drone bombing in Yemen and Somalia, which also did not receive UNSC authorization. It is in this respect that I was drawing the comparison. And I don’t think they are engaging in self-censorship when they say they lack “the necessary information to evaluate US intentions” (they probably do lack this) but I do think it’s a disturbing sign of self-censorship that they can form such a sentence while ignoring the much graver and entirely unambiguous crime of military aggression. It would be as if a report were written on Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait analyzing whether or not he intended to murder civilians. Few would fail to notice that the crime being ignored was the invasion itself, regardless of whether he aimed to kill civilians or not.
Hegemony or Survival by Noam Chomsky
Obama and the Middle East by Fawaz Gerges
LG: Thanks for that epic answer. I didn’t fully understand your comment about “restriction of free thought”—knew it was in reference to what Cook called the rights groups’ “tepid response” but was curious as to whether it was in reference to the specific statement about lacking evidence. It’s very clear now! I too was surprised about their statement about intent—after all it is, or used to be, cliché that someone would try to excuse their crimes by claiming they were “just following orders” a la the Nazis in the Nuremburg trials. I kind of stopped at it and then continued reading, planning to process it later but wondering if human rights orgs for some reason evaluate intent when it comes to designating war crimes? Rather like the US court system does at times (manslaughter vs murder etc) but your statement about international law (which then reminded me of the ‘following orders’ failed defense at Nuremburg) cleared that up.
I hope you put this analysis on your blog, I would share it. It is incisive. Although it should be obvious, it isn’t and needs explaining b/c as you said it is just assumed the US can and will be allowed to bomb countries at will. The sentence “I do think it’s a disturbing sign of self-censorship that they can form such a sentence while ignoring the much graver and entirely unambiguous crime of military aggression” needs repeated and the problem highlighted again and again.
Also thank you for not dismissing my question with snark as many on the left would’ve done. I think its pathetic that the loudest voices for the voiceless (HRW and Amnesty) would limit their pronouncement out of fear of losing their prominence (or whatever reason they might have, I’m curious as to what it is—my understanding is that both, but HRW especially, are rather co-opted by US elite interests). I just wanted to understand your point better. There is still discussion to be had and all to often there’s a groupthink that requires there be no discussion and only pronouncements in an echo chamber. This creates a lot of problems not least that people who ultimately share similar goals and values end up attacking each other rather than simply discussing and aiding understanding.
Also a key point that should be obvious but isn’t and needs constant re-stating: the US’s “long record of imperial gangsterism”.