Monthly Archives: May 2013

Proxy Variables and Drone Effectiveness

This is the third part of my discussion of President Obama’s speech defending the use of drone attacks, given last Thursday (a transcript of the whole speech is here).  I was interrupted by other interesting posts that I wanted to write.  Having discussed the moral and legal dimensions of the argument in favor of drones, now I would like to raise an issue regarding the evaluation of drone strikes’ effectiveness.

President Obama highlighted the effectiveness of the US drone attacks on al-Qa’ida and insurgents in Afghanistan as a strong argument in favor of using them (although he himself noted, “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance”).  His summary of their effectiveness is worth quoting in full:

To begin with, our actions are effective. Don’t take my word for it. In the intelligence gathered at bin Laden’s compound, we found that he wrote, “we could lose the reserves to the enemy’s air strikes. We cannot fight air strikes with explosives.” Other communications from al Qaeda operatives confirm this as well. Dozens of highly skilled al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers, and operatives have been taken off the battlefield. Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.

That last sentence is worth repeating: “Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.”  Earlier he had put it, “In sum, we are safer because of our efforts.”

On one level, it would be foolish to dispute the efficacy of drone strikes.  Just today Pakistani sources reported that a US drone strike killed the Taliban’s #2 commander.  As President Obama euphemistically put it, “Dozens of [al-Qa’ida terrorists] have been taken off the battlefield.”  President Obama argued that sending in soldiers (“putting boots on the ground”) would kill more civilians and make more enemies, so on this logic the drones are positively effective with less risk than conventional military means.  They were designed to enable “targeted killing” and they were designed well for that goal.

But on another level, the effects of drone strikes after the initial death are not so clear.  The effects of the strike do not end there, but play out among the people (both terrorists and non-terrorists) who knew the people killed.  The effects continue to play out among the people who live near the spot of the attack, or among people who could imagine a drone flying over their own heads.  Even when the person(s) killed were the intended targets (usually the case), is it true that “these strikes have saved lives” and “we are safer” because of drone strikes?

The short answer is that we cannot know for sure.  Safety in the abstract is not measurable, and the number of lives that would have been lost if another choice had been taken is not knowable.  When social scientists and policy analysts want to measure something that is not conveniently quantifiable or not accessible to measurement, they often identify a “proxy variable” that they can measure, and use the proxy variable as a stand-in for the unmeasurable end.  This is the best way it is done, but it is important to remember that the proxy variable is only a proxy, decided by fiat to be related to some unmeasurable or inaccessible quantity.  Failing to remember the distinction between the proxy and the real leads to bad reasoning and blind spots in the analysis.

In this case, President Obama seems to reason implicitly that since al-Qa’ida forces are trying to kill civilians, killing them first before they get to where they can kill civilians results in fewer civilian deaths.  Thus the number of al-Qa’ida operatives killed by drones becomes a proxy variable for increased safety and saved lives achieved by drones.  It sounds plausible, it makes sense, but is it true?

One can think of other proxy variables which are a bit closer to the desired goal of “safety.”  The number of terrorist attacks attempted and/or committed in a given time frame within the US, for example.  Has this gone down?  I’m not so sure.  (Someone with more patience or more time than I have could comb through Wikipedia’s List of Terrorist Incidents and count incidents per year in any given geography.)  Other factors, less accessible or less quantifiable, certainly come into an assessment of increased or decreased safety.  More accurate than the number of al-Qa’ida operatives killed might be the total number of al-Qa’ida operatives at a given time, although this is inaccessible because they are unlikely to tell us if we called them up to ask.  But drone strikes do not necessarily result in a decrease of al-Qa’ida membership, as the retired Air Force general acknowledged in saying that drone strikes can contribute to “creating a recruiting poster for Al Qaeda.”  There are also the intangibles such as the level of cultural repugnance against terrorist violence among societies from which al-Qa’ida operatives are recruited and the level of anti-American sentiment which al-Qa’ida, can leverage for recruiting or material support.

And the uniqueness of the US drone strikes program has put the US in a vulnerable position to erroneous reports of drone attacks.  For example, yesterday in Somalia al-Shabab, the local branch of al-Qa’ida, claimed to have shot down a US drone.  This is no doubt a tactic to recruit additional forces, and regardless of the veracity of the claim, it will work.  As a potential example, since Iran has drones, all Tehran would need to do in order to stoke anti-American sentiment in Pakistan or Afghanistan would be to send a few drones and a few rockets over its borders eastward, and the US would be blamed for any resulting deaths.  This is a vulnerability resulting from the US use of drone attacks.

Have drone strikes and “targeted killing” saved lives and increased safety?  I’m not saying they have not.  But the proxy variable needs to be recognized for what it is.  All the evidence cited by President Obama for the effectiveness of drones demonstrates their military effectiveness.  I’m just not sure that military effectiveness is a useful proxy for the goal of internal peace and civil safety.  Rather more complex questions need to be asked before the affirmation of drone strikes’ effectiveness in attain those goals is justified.

Found: Syria’s Other Secularist Opposition

First let me say that I know there is bigger news about Syria today, such as US Senator John McCain‘s surprise visit to the Free Syrian Army and the European Union’s decision to end the arms embargo against Syria.  I am not yet commenting on those, as I wait to learn more about what each development will mean.  I also have yet to post regarding the effectiveness of drone attacks, as I still intend to do.

But what caught my eye earlier today was a small article from the Chinese government news agency Xinhua, which reported that Hasan ‘Abd al-‘Azim, the leader of the Syrian secularist opposition group the National Coordinating Body, promised to participate “positively” in the US-Russia backed “Geneva 2” negotiations to seek a political end to the bloodshed in Syria, widely expected to occur some time in June.

Wait a sec, you say?  The Syrian opposition is divided between jihadis (such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian Islamic Front, Ghuraba al-Sham, and the Muhajireen Brigade) on the one hand, and the secularists in the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army on the other, right?

Well, yes, I mean, well, sort of.  The Syrian National Council brings together secularists like George Sabra and non-jihadi but distinctly non-secularist politicians such as past president Burhan Ghalioun, who was criticized for being “too close to the Muslim Brotherhood.”  The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (هيئة التنسيق الوطنية لقوى التغيير الديمقراطي, often known as the “National Coordination Committee” or NCC), on the other hand, is a coalition of secularist opposition parties which is not recognized by the Syrian National Coalition, many of whose members suspect that they are a front for regime sympathizers or double agents working for the Assad regime.  It is true that the Assad government is secularist as well, and the NCC did not formally call for Assad’s removal until September 2012.  On the other hand, the NCC is now calling for Assad’s removal, which puts them more squarely with the rest of the opposition, despite the suspicions of other opposition groups.  They have rarely been noticed by Western media outlets, which have tended to focus on the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition, perhaps viewing them by analogy with Libya’s National Transition Council.

Why is China picking up on the NCC?  While the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition are calling for foreign military aid, the NCC rejects external military intervention.  This accords very well with China’s (and Russia’s) repudiation of “foreign meddling” in Syria, seen in their repeated UN Security Council veto of any UN military action in Syria, and this mutual interest in “non-interference” explains why the NCC has received diplomatic support from both China and Russia.  If China and Russia cannot have the Assad regime, the NCC is their opposition of choice.

The NCC also used to have a number of Kurdish member parties, but those parties have withdrawn to form the Kurdish National Council, which is separatist as well as secularist and leftist.  The KNC is arguing that the part of Syria where Kurds form the majority (in the northeast of the country) should be given full Kurdish autonomy, while the SNC and NCC both are pushing for maintaining Syria’s current borders.

With so many opposition groups to choose from, the Geneva 2 meeting may end up with every foreign country having its preferred Syrian opposition coalition.

Who is George Sabra? (part 4)

The final installment of the series on George Sabra in Qatar’s al-Watan newspaper was published on Saturday, 17 November, 2012 (Arabic text here).  As acting president of the Syrian National Coalition he recently called upon the Free Syrian Army to save Qusayr from being recaptured by the Assad regime and its Hezbollah allies.  Meanwhile, the Syrian National Coalition is meeting in Istanbul to decide on its response to the US-Russian-backed call for peace talks with the regime, which it has previously rejected in calling for the ousting of the regime as a precondition for talks, and to choose the next president to succeed Mu’adh al-Khatib, since Sabra’s position is only acting (temporary) president of the Coalition.

Here is my English translation of the al-Watan article:

Tales of George Sabra (4)

by Ahmad Mansur

George Sabra continues his tales, saying, “During the period when I was arrested after the outbreak of the revolution in Syria – and I have been arrested twice, once for a month and once for two months, as I have already indicated – the prison was full of all parts of Syrian society, accused of participating in the revolution, and the majority of them were ordinary people.  And because we do not mingle with the ordinary people in normal life, we are ignorant of the valuable metal in them, and I was taken by surprise with the level of morality, humanity, and courage, and the bravery and valor which belonged to these ordinary people among the uneducated.  And I was taken by surprise with their humane character when they find someone to lead and direct them.

“Our number in the ward was three hundred and fifty prisoners, and we had one bathroom.  You can imagine that with this number of prisoners using one bathroom, they were standing in a long line and registering their names so that they could get a turn simply to wash their faces or to go to the bathroom.  And the ward’s capacity was only a few dozen people, so we were stuck together and could hardly move from the force of the overcrowding.  And I was like them when I wanted to go to the bathroom, I would completely surprise those who were ahead of me, and one of them would shout, ‘Make way for the professor, you guys!”  Then they all with generosity and agreement and preference were allowing me to bypass the queue, and all of them offer me respect and appreciation.  And I still remember that in my life I never thought that three hundred and fifty people could exist in this narrow space and use one bathroom.  And despite this they were accommodating one another.

“I remember that when I was convicted this past September, 2011, on the charge of trying to found an Islamic emirate in Qatana, and I am actually a Christian from the Communist Party, my family was attending the trial from the beginning of the day until its end, and they observed the presence of three people who were attending the court in a continual manner.  At first they believed they were from the security forces belonging to the regime.  Then my brother asked them after one of the sessions, ‘Do you have someone inside being tried?’  They said to him, ‘Yes, Mr. George Sabra.’  Then he said to them, ‘Do you know Mr. George?’  They said to him, ‘We know him, but he does not know us.’  So he said to them, ‘I am his brother.’  So they insisted on taking my brother with them to their homes, and they were from a nearby village named Kanakir, and all of them were Sunni Muslims.

“I remember that when I came out of prison, there came women all wearing the veil and with them were men all bearded, and they insisted to me that they should take me to their homes.  This revolution has embodied the national unity in Syria in a deep and unprecedented way.  It is true that the ‘Alawites have made a deep and large problem between them and Syrian society, but the rest of the sectors of the people and specifically the Muslims and the Christians have held together in what they share in an unprecedented way.  Just as the churches have been a target for bombing and destruction from the ‘Alawite regime, so the mosques have likewise been a target.  It has demolished dozens of mosques and churches which reflect the historical, cultural, religious, and social identity of Syrian society for thousands of years, and it is as if the regime is not only killing people and terrifying them, but it is also wiping out the historical and social identity of Syria and its people.  This is one of the greatest crimes in history.”

I asked George Sabra about the strangest thing which happened to him during his time in prison, and he said, “The prison was full of ordinary young men, and I had discovered the inherent metal of these people.  When one of them learned that my charge was the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Qatana although I am a Christian, he was in a state of confusion.  And when he had been around me in the prison he frequently approached me and his astonishment was continual that I was not a Muslim.  And twenty days into our knowing each other, he came with the simplicity and boldness and good-heartedness of ordinary people, and he said to me, ‘Sir, I am amazed.  How I could have been with you twenty days and not been able to bring you into Islam, so that you would become a Muslim?’  So I laughed and said to him, ‘You remain Muslim and I will remain Christian so that this national revolution may continue in which the whole people has risen up.’  Our relationship remained good and we did not stop laughing.  And when they summoned me to release me after international and internal pressure, the young man came up to me in a hurry and said, ‘Reasonable master George, you are about to leave prison before our Lord should guide you to arise and pray two rak’as!’  [Ed. note: a rak’a is a ritual prostration in Islamic prayer.]

“These are the hearts of the Syrians, whom everyone used to believe that the injustice which has been inflicted upon them for decades had killed in them courage, valor, self-sacrifice, and the fight for freedom.

The End.

In this final installment, there are some very important details.  He paints a picture of the naturally noble Syrian people which has, one and all, risen up against the tyrant.  It is certainly true that the Syrian Civil War is the greatest uprising in Syria against the Assad regime.  Sabra is at pains to present a Syrian people united in virtue, and specifically united across the sectarian lines which are being emphasized by jihadi rebel groups and Syrian state media.  This non-sectarian paradise is no doubt conjured for the benefit of potential Western backers, for whom a sectarian civil war is a grim specter.  The reference to the destruction of historical monuments, even before the minaret of Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque fell late last month, is also probably intended to evoke Western outrage against the regime.

Nevertheless, these accounts do not necessary reflect well on Sabra himself, as they reveal his classism and lack of prior connection with “ordinary uneducated people.”  Sabra also engages in his own sectarianism, blaming the ‘Alawites as a whole rather than the Assad regime (indeed, labeling it “the ‘Alawite regime”) for any sectarian tensions.  It is true that most ‘Alawites have sided with Bashar al-Assad, but a pre-revolution fear of post-revolution sectarian reprisals from other sectors of Syrian society is no doubt part of the calculus for many of them.  Rather than attempting to woo the ‘Alawites away from Assad, Sabra here seems content to emphasize the ‘Alawite-Sunni Muslim sectarian divide in order to downplay the Muslim-Christian divide which is rather more dangerous to him personally.

Nor does he quite succeed in dispelling all fears of Muslim-Christian sectarian hostility.  There is no reason to doubt the stories he tells of being the recipient of kindness and hospitality from Sunni Muslims, but his final anecdote about the “confused” Muslim in prison with him was probably a relatively tense moment, despite or perhaps indicated by the report of laughter.  Sabra as a non-Muslim could not respond with any negative statement about Islam in order to explain his allegiance to a different religion without jeopardizing his politics and perhaps his physical safety, depending on the views of the other people in the room.  Notice that he entirely dodges the issue by postponing any changes of religion until after the revolution is successful.  He was probably not as entirely at ease as his narration presents it.

I hope this series of articles on George Sabra has supplemented the scant data available in English online with additional information, in his own words, indicating his character, some of his background, and his contentions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.  This additional information will, I hope, allow non-Arabic readers to form a more accurate and nuanced picture of the Syrian Christian who is currently president of two of the more important rebel organizations in the Syrian Civil War, both the Syrian National Council and the Syrian National Coalition.

Found Again: Rumor of Abducted Bishops’ Good Health

Yesterday the Lebanese newspaper al-Nahar reported that, according to ‘Abd al-Ahad Steifo of the Syrian National Coalition, the Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji and Metropolitan Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim are in good health after being abducted a month ago.  The original Arabic article is here, and an English translation was posted here.  The Lebanese Daily Star reported the same: Syria opposition says kidnapped bishops ‘in good health’.

Evidently ‘Abd al-Ahad Steifo and the Syrian National Coalition have not had any direct contact with either the bishops or their kidnappers, so it is unclear on what basis Steifo made the announcement of the bishops’ health.  He was even uncertain when the doctor reputedly saw them, indicating that his informant was not the doctor himself.  Steifo was, however, quoted as acknowledging that abductions have occurred on all sides in the civil war: “These kidnappings are sometimes carried out by criminal gangs… other times by the regime (of President Bashar al-Assad) and sometimes by the brigades of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army, who use kidnappings as a way to exchange prisoners.”  At the time of the kidnapping Steifo had ruled out any opposition group according to CNN, but according to the Daily Star two weeks ago, George Sabra told Amin Gemayel of the Lebanese Kataeb (or Phalange) Party the bishops were being held by “a rebel group” without specifying which.  A month after the kidnappings, it is still the case that nothing is clear.

I very much hope that this report his correct, and that the abducted bishops of Aleppo will be released safely and soon.  But in the absence of additional details, the reports of “good health” sound like bland reassurances.

Are Drone Attacks Legal?

Yesterday I responded to President Obama’s speech defending the use of drone attacks and targeted killing (full transcript of the speech here) by giving some moral objections to the use of killer drones away from a battlefield.  (As I indicated in that post, the notion that the whole world is a constant battlefield in the War on Terror, as it is sometimes claimed, is patent nonsense.)  In this post I will consider the legality of the use of drone strikes away from a battlefield scenario.

Three caveats first, however.  One, I am not a lawyer (although my parents always said I should be), and am very aware that my ideas in this domain are only suggestions to be taken up or discarded by those who have the training.  Second, I do presume that actions are legal unless proven otherwise, so the burden of proof is on the claim of illegality.  Third, although we would like laws to be good and just, legality and morality are in fact logically independent: something can be illegal and yet morally neutral (driving one mile over a very low speed limit, for example), and something can be legal and yet morally wrong (at least until a law is passed to prohibit, for example, the widespread abuse of workers in nineteenth-century factories).

Legal Reasoning

President Obama explicitly asserted the legality of drone attacks, even drone attacks upon US citizens who are plotting to attack the US (although not upon US soil, interestingly).  The main argument for the legality of drone attacks is that they are part of a defensive war between the United States and al-Qa’ida:

We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.

By contrast, critics of the legality of “targeted killing” liken it to assassination, which is prohibited under Reagan’s Executive Order 12333 (thanks to Jurist for this detail).  That is why the Wikipedia article “Assassination” contains a section entitled “Targeted Killing,” although at the time of this writing a little over half of that section consists of a rehearsal of which legal scholars have asserted the distinction between “assassination” and “targeted killing.”  (The discussion in the “Legality” section of Wikipedia’s “Targeted Killing” article is a bit fuller.)  The article by Jeffrey Addicott on Jurist (cited above) lays out an argument for the distinction between assassination and targeted killing, noting that EO 12333 did not define “assassination” (so we are evidently free to define it circularly as illegal murder, and thus the prohibition in EO 12333 is merely tautological), that the US is at war with “the virtual-State al-Qa’eda,” and that the “law of armed conflict describes lawful targets.”  According to Addicott’s interpretation of this “law of armed conflict,” “An enemy combatant – whether part of an organized military or a civilian who undertakes military activities – is a legitimate target at all times and may be lawfully killed, even if by surprise.”

Now, I’m not going to lay out an argument why “targeted killing” is a form of assassination.  I think it is, but I suspect the use of those words is sufficiently slippery that such a case will be mired in meaningless assertions regarding rival uses of language.  Instead, I have two considerations which lead me to suggest that “targeted killing” and drone attacks away from an active battlefield are probably illegal.

The first consideration is to ask whether the laws of war apply.  President Obama’s legal defense of “targeted killing” relies upon the “War on Terror” being a defensive war.  He explicitly states, “at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces,” and this war is just because it is “a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”  I do not in any way deny that al-Qa’ida has attacked US people and property illegally and unjustifiably.  I merely question whether one can be “at war with an organization,” as President Obama puts it, in a way that the “laws of armed conflict” apply.  It is revealing that in Professor Addicott’s version of this argument, he refers to “the virtual-State al-Qa’eda.”  Does the invocation of the laws of war require that al-Qa’ida be considered a state?

Of course, the rhetoric of the “War on Terror” built off earlier American public campaigns designed to rally popular sentiment behind some unpopular measures, such as the “War on Poverty,” the “War on Cancer,” and the “War on Drugs.”  But in the first two cases (and in the domestic policies attached to the third) we recognize a metaphor, namely that the opposing threat to be battled is not to be fought militarily according to the laws of warfare.  The “War on Drugs” is more ambiguous, because it has been used as a motivation for foreign military intervention, although the rhetoric has fallen on hard times.  But it seems to me that, rhetoric aside, the applicability of the rules of war requires there to be a recognizable war, which I would characterize as requiring hostility between two countries/states.  The Oxford English Dictionary similarly defines “war” as armed conflict “between nations, states, or rulers, or between parties in the same nation or state,” although Wikipedia includes “non-state actors” as potential combatants.

It is obvious that al-Qa’ida, whatever else it might be, is not a state.  It has no legitimate sovereignty, it has no constituent population which it serves, it has no territory it governs or could govern justly.  As President Obama’s speech acknowledged, it is an organization.  And organizations can be illegal and violent (think “organized crime”), but the response to organizations is not warfare.  The declaration of war requires a state upon which war is declared.  Without a state which can be held accountable to the Geneva Conventions, the laws of warfare simply do not apply to the “War on Terror.”

The inapplicability of war-time legal reasoning is also apparent from the evident domestic peace in the US.  Certainly terrorist attacks shake us, and for those killed and maimed there is no recovery, but compared to the continuing violence in the civil war in Syria, or the sectarian violence in Iraq, terrorist attacks are one-off events.  This is not to minimize the horror of them, but to indicate the different timelines of violence between warfare and terrorism.

But challenging the “War on Terror” as a vehicle for legal reasoning does not necessarily demonstrate the illegality of drone strikes.  Perhaps “targeted killing” is legal in peace-time, and as I indicated above, all actions are presumed legal unless demonstrated otherwise.  It is here that my second consideration comes in, by analogy.

Apart from times of war and active battlefields, civil society depends for its continued operation on certain legal norms which restrict (for example) vigilantism and blood feuds.  Among these legal norms are due process, which mandate that when a crime has been committed, a person accused cannot be punished before being tried and found guilty in a court of law.  To take an interpersonal example, most legal systems justify violence in self-defense: if you are being attacked, you can fight back.  But this justification ceases to be relevant when the attack ceases: if you have been attacked and your assailant is walking away, attacking your assailant is not justified.  Instead you must seek redress through the criminal or civil legal systems.  The self-defense justification is also not applicable to pre-emptive strikes: just because you suspect that someone is planning to harm you, attacking them before they make an aggressive move is not self-defense.  Plotting to commit a violent crime is indeed itself a crime and punishable as such, but does not give rise to a justification of violence against the person so plotting, until the attack is initiated.  Even if people have previously committed violent crimes and are suspected of plotting further violent crimes, if my understanding is correct, nevertheless the self-defense justification cannot be invoked simply because they are the sorts of people who commit violent crimes (although greater than normal police caution is certainly called for).  The self-defense justification must be based on an actual ongoing attack initiated by them as aggressors.

If the “War on Terror” is not in legal terms a war to which the Geneva Conventions apply, then the rules of peace-time due process must be upheld.  A government therefore cannot invoke the self-defense justification for violence except where there is an open confrontation initiated by a hostile outside force.  Thus shooting terrorists attempting to detonate a bomb clearly falls under the self-defense justification, but tracking down people who have attacked you and killing them there falls outside self-defense justification.  The key component of Professor Addicott’s argument that an “enemy combatant” is a “legitimate target at all times” (emphasis his) requires there to be a state of war.  In the absence of a state of war, a violent assailant is not “a legitimate target at all times” but only when actively prosecuting an attack.  Apart from an initiated terrorist operation, a terrorist is a criminal who must be treated with due process.

It is particularly important for the US to recognize that the “War on Terror” is a rhetorical turn of phrase and does not give rise to a state of warfare in light of the disparity of suffering.  Americans know we are not living in a warzone.  Pakistanis, especially those living in Waziristan, might be more inclined to consider themselves as living in a state of warfare.  But for the many non-al-Qa’ida aligned Pakistanis in Waziristan (almost a million), if there is a state of warfare, then the US is clearly the aggressor, because those non-al-Qa’ida aligned Pakistanis have done nothing against the US.  I would suggest that the US government should weigh carefully whether it wants to assert that the drone strikes are part of a state of warfare, a state in which the claims of self-defense may be found unconvincing.

Again, let me repeat that I am not a lawyer.  But it seems to me that the legal justification of targeted killing and lethal drone strikes depending on America’s defensive war against al-Qa’ida, invokes obviously inapplicable “rules of war”.  The “War on Terror” is a rhetorically savvy American public relations push, but it is not a war to which the “rules of war” could possibly apply.  In the absence of a state of warfare, the due process requirements of the rule of law in civil society outweigh the national interests in the targeting killing of known or suspected criminals by surprise when they are not actively carrying out criminal operations.  President Obama indicated his “strong preference for the detention and prosecution of terrorists,” but a strong preference is not enough.  “Self-defense” should never be a legal cloak for violent counter-aggression which bypasses due process.

Lost: Moral Reasoning on Drone Attacks

Yesterday President Obama gave a speech defending drone strikes and “targeted killing” as part of a comprehensive defense strategy against terrorism (a full transcript of his speech is provided here).  Now, on political matters I’m not usually dogmatic, but here I must forcefully disagree with the President’s defense of “targeted killing” as presented in the speech.  I would not normally use this blog to advertise a disagreement over American policy, but since almost all drone strikes occur in the Middle East, policy decisions on that subject are immediately relevant to Middle East affairs and the perception of the US in the Middle East.

But let me first say that I applaud much of this speech.  President Obama rightly highlights the impact of ideas and the importance of doing what is right, both as an instrumental means of achieving national security and as a matter of consistency with the democratic and constitutional values of American governance.  Thus he said, “In an age in which ideas and images can travel the globe in an instant, our response to terrorism cannot depend on military or law enforcement alone. We need all elements of national power to win a battle of wills and ideas.”  Even more directly, “Force alone cannot make us safe.”  And he highlighted the greater cost-effectiveness of foreign aid to give the lie to the notion that America is against Islam: the defense budget for foreign wars far exceeds the value of foreign aid, and yet foreign aid more effectively persuades real people that America is not evil, thus reducing the effectiveness of jihadi recruiting.  These are good things.

Nevertheless I do disagree with President Obama’s reasoning about drone strikes, even as some news sources present the President as seeming to argue with himself.  I will summarize my thoughts under three headings, moral arguments, legal arguments, and effectiveness arguments.  Although I recognize that there is widespread disagreement on the nature of moral reasoning, I do regard the moral arguments as both the most straightforward and the most important, and so today’s post will focus on the moral arguments, while the arguments from law and from effectiveness will await another day.  I also realize that in condemning all drone attacks outside of active battlefields, I am parting company with the majority of political voices in the US (whether red or blue) and the majority of legal experts.  That fact does not make me doubt the positions I argue for here.

Moral Arguments

It is conspicuous that President Obama raises the question of morality but does not adduce any moral reasoning in his speech.  He indicated that new technologies of warfare raise questions of morality, and later he said, “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”  Thereafter he avoided all reference to morality except in two instances.  He asserted the moral obligation to carry out “targeted killings” through his statement, “I would have been derelict in my duty had I not authorized the strike that took out Awlaki,” referring to Anwar al-Awlaki, the US citizen and Yemeni terrorist.  In the context he does not indicate which presidential duty he has in mind.  Finally, he asserted the dubious morality of alternatives to drone attacks: “So neither conventional military action, nor waiting for attacks to occur, offers moral safe-harbor.”  In the immediate context he was indicating that more civilians were killed by conventional military action than by drones, and that conventional military action exposes more American lives to danger.  It is conspicuous that this sentence is the only place where he alludes to “waiting for attacks to occur,” and he probably included it here only to give the illusion of considering all alternatives.  The reasoning seems to be that the alternatives to drone attacks are just as morally questionable as “targeted killing” itself, so get over the moral qualms.  This exhaustive summary of President Obama’s appeals to morality are why I must disagree with the Christian Science Monitor reporter who referred to “Obama’s moral arguments“; there were none.

Now, some people will argue that moral reasoning is impossible, either because (1) everyone knows deep down in their heart what is right and wrong, or (2) morality is merely a pious Victorian smokescreen for who you like and who you dislike (although it was that most affable and least sententious Victorian Oscar Wilde who put in the mouth of one of his villains, “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.  You dislike me.  I am quite aware of that.  And I have always detested you.” — Mrs. Cheveley, An Ideal Husband, Act 2).  Yet the branch of philosophy identified as “ethics” challenges the presumption of inability to reason about moral matters (even if the divergence of opinions expressed will not give us much confidence in sophistic arguments, so I will keep my arguments simple).

Governments very rarely seem to appeal to the nearly universally recognized moral principle that it is obligatory to treat others as you would wish to be treated.  In the Christian tradition (which of course has no monopoly on the sentiment) the “golden rule” was expressed as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Most governments seem to operate by the modification in the style of Richard Rorty, “Do unto others what you can get away with,” and some have even adopted the dangerous principle, “Do unto others before they can do unto you!”

Now I do not believe that the golden rule is absolute in every instance, so I am not arguing that we should treat criminals and terrorists as we would want them to treat us (although I do think due process is morally obligatory).  But what about the many innocent people in the countries where drone strikes take place?  Raining death from the skies with impunity necessarily creates an environment of fear under which the people have no choice but to live.  This is a form of widespread psychological harm for which they are receiving no recompense.  The argument may be that these attacks only target terrorists, and their home countries are better off without them.  That may be so, but the attacks sometimes miss (and the so-called “signature strikes” target anyone who “acts like a terrorist,” which in the minds of many Americans would include direct religious profiling to target any Muslim who prays too often in a mosque!).  President Obama’s assertion that “Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces” provides scant comfort to the people of areas where drone strikes occur.

Turning the tables can reveal the moral lapse beyond all of our clever self-justifications: how many Americans would appreciate it if a Russian drone flew in and killed an American while he was at home, even if it was a widely acknowledged extremist such as David Koresh?  Can you imagine the uproar if a Cuban fighter jet, without violating US airspace, destroyed a warehouse at Houston airport while flying over Mexico?  The fact that either of these scenarios is presently unlikely does not change the sense of outrage and personal affront which the American people would feel at the violation of our national sovereignty and domestic security.  These scenarios, and the real-life scenarios on which they are modeled, reveal the emptiness of appeals to “legitimate defense of national interests” when one country’s “national interests” conflict with another country’s “national interests.”  The moral discourse of rights can sound dangerously like it is might which makes them.

Obama asserted in his speech that drone strikes “are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty” (emphasis added), yet he acknowledged that “Any U.S. military action [including drone strikes] in foreign lands risks creating more enemies, and impacts public opinion overseas.”  Speaking of the Special Forces raid which killed Osama bin Laden, he acknowledged that “the cost to our relationship with Pakistan [of the raid that killed bin Laden] – and the backlash among the Pakistani public over encroachment on their territory – was so severe that we are just now beginning to rebuild this important partnership.”  This acknowledgment also highlights the boldest lie uttered in the same speech: “Our alliances are strong, and so is our standing in the world.”  Pakistan in particular has repeatedly and publicly objected to US drone strikes, even if the same government occasionally admits it has authorized strikes, and US-Pakistani relations have been very strained in the last few years.

The Pakistani people hear the government’s protests which seem to be ignored by the ruthless overseas aggressor, the US, and thus the drone strikes contribute, as one retired Air Force general put it, to “creating a recruiting poster for Al Qaeda.”  The point here is not about the effectiveness of the strikes (that issue will be addressed later), but that the Pakistani public clearly feels wronged by the drone campaign.  The fact that it is hard to imagine the US public not feeling even more violated and outraged if the tables were turned, including vocal demands for immediate military response against the country which sent the drone, reveals that this is a moral issue, and drones are on the wrong side of the moral calculus.  (The irony, of course, is that some of the most vocal supporters of the drone program in Washington today would be, if the tables were turned, some of the most strident voices calling for military response to a drone strike on US soil, but politicians have very rarely been noted for a strong moral compass.)

The US government, CIA, and military seem to feel that at present they can act with impunity in the drone program, because no one else has the capacity to send a drone to the US.  But this may change at any time.  The inability to be forcefully brought to account for an action does not mean it is morally legitimate, as Obama himself noted by his remark that “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”

A sharp distinction must of course be drawn between the use of unmanned aircraft in a battle situation and their use off the battle situation.  The use of unmanned aircraft in an active battle situation is clearly no more objectionable than the use of tanks (and although I am almost a pacifist, I am not convinced that war is the worst possible evil, and so I believe there are situations in which tanks and battles on one side can be justified).  As several commentators have remarked, the use of targeted killings in the “War on Terror” treat the entire world as a constant battlefield, and various voices have called upon the President of the United States to repudiate the “global battlefield” doctrine.

I think ridicule might be a more effective approach: everyone knows that the whole world is not a battlefield all of the time.  Although the locations of battles of the “War on Terror” are difficult to predict, they are not everywhere all the time, and it is sheer idiocy or willful neglect of reality to believe otherwise.  Any particular place may become a battlefield, but it does so precisely when some party initiates violence there, as happened at the finish line of the Boston Marathon last month, and happens every time a drone strike attacks someone who is not actively committing violence.  Note that it is the drone strike which transforms a place into a battlefield which was not a battlefield before.  Plans to commit violence do not make a battlefield (as all army generals know, as they usually wish to avoid seeing direct combat), and surprise attacks as often as not will catch terrorists thinking about the weather and their worries about their social standing (provided the drone strike is actually targeting terrorists and not merely people having a social gathering).

My conclusion is therefore that drone strikes are always immoral when not used in a context of active combat between opposing armies.  This seems to be readily apparent to everyone who has been nearby a drone strike, or where a drone strike is thought a real possibility.  The obfuscation of this moral point to those who defend the “targeted killing” approach is merely a result of humans’ universal ability to fully exonerate themselves in their pursuit of their desires, whatever they happen to be.  On the moral scale, yesterday’s speech by President Obama (although admirable at many other points) was simply bankrupt.

Who is George Sabra? (part 3)

The third installment of the Qatari al-Watan‘s series on George Sabra, president of the Syrian National Council and acting president of the Syrian National Coalition, was published on November 15, 2012 (Arabic here).  Here is my translation:

Tales of George Sabra (3)

by Ahmad Mansur

George Sabra finishes his stories by saying, “Here let me say that Qatana in the month of May, 2011, departed from the control of the authority and came into the control of the rebels, and there no longer remained in it police or guard or party men or the army.  The regime wanted its people at that time to commit stupid errors so that the army would come in and level it upon the heads of whoever was in it, but the people had sufficient awareness of the administration of the city.  When I said to the youths, ‘We are the owners of the revolution, and our language is the language of the Qur’an, and not the language of abuse and insults, therefore you must clean the walls of the city from abuses and insults to the Alawites.’  The next day the city’s youths got up and cleaned the walls of the city from the insults.”

George Sabra asked me while he was speaking, “Do you know, Ahmad, what is the thing that amazes me with this revolution?”  I said, “What is it?”  He said, “For nearly forty years, the generations have been raised on the view of the Avant-Garde (a newspaper linked to the ruling Ba’ath Party), one view and one organization, namely the Ba’ath Party, and one man who was sanctified, namely Hafez al-Assad.  And despite all that we have found before our eyes an astonishing generation which takes their lives in their hands and goes out to destroy the idol whose worship they tried to impose upon the people throughout forty years. 

“Indeed, I have not forgotten my Muslim neighbor who had four children, and in the demonstrations at the beginning of the revolution I heard her say to her four children when they were wanting to go out together to one demonstration, ‘I hope you will not all go out to one demonstration.  Let each pair of you go out with someone, so that all four of you won’t die in one day.’  The greatness of that woman makes me cry, for she certainly knew that her four children would die, but she desired that the fall of the blow upon her would be light.

“And there is another story which a young man named Muhammad al-Hariri from Dar’a recounted to me.  He told me that he was at work when the first demonstration broke out against the regime in the city of Dar’a.  She said to him, ‘Where are you?’  He said to her, ‘I am at work.’  She replied to him saying, ‘What work do you have that you must return to immediately?  All of your brothers have gone out to the demonstration and you have to catch up with them and participate with them.’

“People have witnessed perhaps dozens of demonstrations in which children participated with their fathers and mothers.  All went out bare-chested before tanks and guns and aircraft, seeking freedom and the fall of this corrupt regime which has brought down woes upon Syria and the Syrians.  The metal intrinsic to this people has appeared out of this revolution, so that the solidarity and compassion between people in this revolution has no limit.

“And here I will mention that at the beginning of the revolution one of the Christian clergy met me and said to me, ‘The Christians are afraid.’  I said to him, ‘What will remove the fear from the souls of the Christians, joining the revolution and society and union with the people, or joining a failing regime?  We Christians must join the revolution and the people.’ 

“And I remember that when I came out of prison on May 10, 2011, after they arrested me the first time, Easter had been in the middle of April, after which I found that the priest had ordered a guard of youths for the church to protect it from attack against it.  So I went and said to him, ‘From whom are you protecting it?  It is the Muslims who built this church!’  And that’s a fact, for at the building of the church of Qatana in 1998, a delegation of the church went to ‘Awad ‘Amura, the owner of one of the largest aluminum companies, to purchase aluminum for the doors and windows of the Church.  The bill was huge, so the company employees asked the delegation, ‘Is this quantity of aluminum for a housing project?’  They said, ‘No, it’s for the church.’  And the owner of the company vowed, and he was a Muslim, that he would not take a single penny and that all of the aluminum would be a donation to the church.  As for the contractors and builders, they were all from the Muslims. 

“Indeed, Syria has lived according to pluralism and religious toleration for many centuries, and I remember when I came out of prison the last time and went back to my house, I found young men standing around my house.  So I went out and asked them if they wanted something.  They said, ‘Master George, we are from the youths of the revolution and we are responsible for guarding your house around the clock.  We take turns in guarding without your knowing.’  I said to them, ‘Who made you responsible for this?’  They said, ‘We made ourselves responsible, and no one else assigned us.'”

He will finish on Saturday.

Whether I finish translating the last installment of al-Watan’s series on George Sabra from last November by Saturday remains to be seen.  In the meantime, it is interesting here how Sabra presents himself as reigning in sectarianism against the Alawites and answering the concerns of his fellow Christians as voiced by a priest.  It is especially interesting that he rejected sectarianism by saying, as a Christian, “our language is that of the Qur’an.”  Also interesting is the presentation of the pre-revolution days as, on the one hand, a period of intense Ba’athist brainwashing through periodicals like the Avant-Garde (الطلائع) in support of Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, and on the other, a haven of diversity and religious toleration.  Undoubtedly, Sabra blames all that is wrong with Syria before 2011 on the Ba’ath party and the al-Assad regime, while the Muslim-Christian cooperation is presented as “how Syria has lived for many centuries”.

In the paragraph about Muhammad al-Hariri from Dar’a, either the identity of his female interlocutor is omitted through an accidental omission, or the feminine pronouns are being used of “demonstration” (تظاهرة), surprisingly understood to be a collective noun for the protesters.  I have not come across this latter usage, so I have presumed the former, but it could be interpreted otherwise.