Drones in Yemen: Fear as foreign policy

Reuters photo The Obama administration has authorized stepped up drone attacks in Yemen that have pounded “suspected militants” in that … Continued


Reuters photo

The Obama administration has authorized stepped up drone attacks in Yemen that have pounded “suspected militants” in that country for nearly two weeks.

At the same time, Washington D.C., and President Obama himself, are preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28. Appropriate to the celebration this August, the White House has announced that Bayard Rustin, noted civil rights activist, key advisor to Dr. King, and primary organizer of the 1963 March on Washington will be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

King and Rustin: two American icons of principled leadership, and both committed to non-violence. King’s commitment to non-violence is well-known, but also often overlooked in preference to his achievements on civil rights and economic justice. Non-violence, however, was foundational for his life and work.

Bayard Rustin was a life-long Quaker and pacifist, and his pacifism was an integral part of his commitment and practice in the civil rights movement. Rustin said, “My activism did not spring from my being gay, or, for that matter, from my being black. Rather, it is rooted fundamentally in my Quaker upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my grandparents who reared me.”

What might these visionary leaders, committed to non-violence, have to say about drones and U.S. foreign policy?

Were King alive today, he might draw our attention to the relationship of violence and weakness, and the dangerous spiral these create. In
Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community
, Dr. King wrote, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”

The increased drone attacks in Yemen are in response, along with embassy closings and other precautions, to an “intercepted message among senior al Qaeda operatives [that] raised alarm bells” for the region. In nearly two weeks, eight strikes have killed 36 “suspected militants.”

Thus, stepped up drone attacks in Yemen can look like a response of strength, but if we listen to Dr. King, we can come to suspect that the violence wrought by drones is destined to beget “the very thing it seeks to destroy,” namely terrorism, and instead is rooted in the weakness that comes from letting fear control your actions.

Tragically, our foreign policy seems driven more and more by this kind of reactive violence. The drone strikes in Yemen are part of a pattern of U.S. response to perceived terror threats. It is a dangerous pattern that risks turning over U.S. foreign policy to drones.

Secretary of State John Kerry, on his recent trip to Pakistan, said, in response to demands by Pakistan’s new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, for an immediate halt to the use of drones to target militants along the border with Afghanistan, “I think the president has a very real timeline and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon.” Several hours later, however, a State Department spokesperson “walked back the comments.”

This back and forth between Secretary Kerry and his own State Department is illustrative of the lack of coherence between U.S. foreign policy and drones. It also shows that of the two, drone strikes are a preferred, “first resort” strategy, not a “last resort” when negotiation has failed.

The Obama administration, however, claims its drone policy is morally and legally sound because it is based in Just War theory. In May, President Obama, in a speech at the National Defense University, defended his drones policy as legal and conforming to those principles, saying “this is a just war — a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”

But as the example of Secretary Kerry and Pakistan shows, drones continue to be a first resort, not a last resort only used when all other options of negotiation have been exhausted. In addition, while these Yemeni drones strikes are used to pre-emptively kill suspected militants, they are striking wide-spread fear into civilian populations disproportionate to the gain. Whether or not civilians are being killed, they are being threatened as drones are far from perfect in their targeting, as the President actually acknowledged in his May, 2013 speech.

Drones flying overhead in places like Yemen and Pakistan, as well as killing individuals on the ground, increase resentment and even rage against the United States. Drone use then may serve to actually increase the likelihood that local populations will support or at least tolerate al-Qaeda groups in their midst. Drones may also be creating future terrorist recruits.

Drone war, while it can seem “limited,” i.e proportional, it is actually a very recent form of war where there is very little distinction between combatants and non-combatants. The threat is not immediate and limited, but indirect and general and so attenuated that it cannot be justified as “self-defense” which is acknowledged in the Law of Armed Combat as justified when violence is used to prevent an “immediate” threat, though the Obama administration has sought to redefine that definition.

This new form of war, drone war, is unconventional and the way it is conducted it does not conform to Just War theory as developed over centuries of conventional wars.

“When there is a normal war, people can hide, or they can stay away from the military — they can make choices and be careful,” Yemeni activist Farea al-Muslimi has recently said. “But when drones come, you just don’t know when you’ll be next. The fear is incredible.”

Al-Muslimi gained notice in the West when he live-tweeted residents’ accounts of drone strikes in his home village of Wessab. One of these earlier tweets said, “Since the policy took effect, AQAP [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] has been successful as never before. Those who have lost relatives to drone fire make up a whole new generation of AQAP recruits.”

In April of this year, al-Muslimi testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about being under the threat of drones. In his statement, he talked about the awful turmoil he experienced. “I was torn between the great country that I know and love and the drone above my head that could not differentiate between me and some AQAP militant. It was one of the most divisive and difficult feelings I have ever encountered It is the worst feeling I have ever had. I was devastated for days because I knew that the bombing in my village by the United States would empower militants.”

Americans have an exaggerated, politicized fear of terrorism and it has resulted in their supporting a drone policy that is based in weakness not strength. Americans overwhelmingly support the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists, refusing to see that their own desire to feel we are ‘doing something about terrorism’ is a product of their fear. But, in fact, it is more likely drones wars are actually accelerating the very resentments and desire for revenge that fuel terrorism.

It is profoundly morally corrupting for the people of a nation to buy an illusion of safety at the price of drilling fear into the people of other nations, the vast majority of whom are actually victims or at risk of being victims of terrorists.

Americans desire to be free of fear, but what is happening as a result is that we are becoming weaker and weaker, relying more on remote-controlled robots to kill those whom we think we should fear, instead of relying on our own values. This is profoundly morally corrupting because Americans are living by fear.

As Bayard Rustin said, “To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true.”

Really honoring what King and Rustin stood for would require practicing the non-violence at the core of what they preached and practiced. To honor King and Rustin, the U.S. should immediately stop the drone attacks and work cooperatively with other nations to build the networks of law enforcement, political engagement and respected justice systems that actually work to reduce the threat of terror.

Peace and real security will never be achieved by drones.

About

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
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