International Affairs — 17 June 2011
Predator Drones and Legitimising Murder

“It is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward; to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There is also one rule that lies at the heart of every religion—that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

President Barack Obama addressed the “Muslim World” from Cairo in June 2009 with these words, part of a speech labeled the “New Beginning.” In the same year, Obama was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy.” These “extraordinary efforts” warrant some scrutiny. In 2009 alone US predator drone attacks killed a reported 708 people in Pakistan —a clear violation of the norms of international sovereignty, given the Pakistani government spoke against them (at least in public). According to the Brooking Institution more than 90 percent of those killed have been civilians. Arbitrary, extrajudicial executions, carried out at the press of a button from CIA locations in California, with no transparency or accountability, are undoubtedly a violation of international law possibly constituting war crimes.

Two years on from the Cairo speech and in light of Obama’s second major address regarding Middle East, this time from the State Department on 19 May, his words ring decidedly hollow and the decision to award him a Nobel award even more ill-conceived. Far from a new beginning, American actions across the “Greater Middle East” point to a continuation of the same approach. May 2011 saw what has been variously described as the execution or assassination of America’s number one enemy and head of al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden. With more drone strikes carried out in Pakistan during his first year in office than were carried out in the whole second term of his predecessor George W. Bush, and the number of attacks in 2010 more than double those in 2009, extra-judicial killing seems to have become the modus operandi of the Obama administration.

The first week alone after the death of Bin Laden witnessed three drone attacks in Pakistan and one in Yemen killing numerous civilians. As such the execution of Bin Laden is a red-herring in more ways than one. The combination of his high profile, the method used and the subsequent explanations given by the American administration about the affair are what have generated international reaction, rather than the global significance of its impact, which has been largely overplayed for domestic consumption.

Already used extensively in Pakistan, the Washington Post has reported how the American’s now intend to significantly extend the use of Predator drones in Yemen as well. That the country is undergoing a revolution which is likely to end with the overthrow of its current incumbent Ali Abdullah Saleh is of no concern. As we now know courtesy of Wikileaks – this was a man whose government told the Americans to kill whom they pleased in Yemen with their drones, and that they would tell the people in Parliament that they were the ones who did so.

You would think that the loss of such a servile client may force a change in American policy. It has. The drone program in Yemen will be shifted to CIA control, since – as mentioned by the Post – “The CIA operates under different legal restrictions, giving the administration a freer hand to carry out strikes even if Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, now receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, reverses his past approval of military strikes or cedes power to a government opposed to them.” What the Post fails to mention, typical of most American media’s shameful silence with respect to most of the transgressions in the so-called “war on terror” – is that this even if the Yemeni’s have given approval for military strikes within their country the use of predator drones is still an illegal extrajudicial killing (irrespective of the target). The fact that a particular government accedes to the US’s criminality is perhaps a clue as to why so many of the region’s dictators are either overthrown or on the way out.

If there was any argument over the legality of the killing of Bin Laden, the large number of innocent civilians killed by remote control is surely indisputably criminal – along with being morally repugnant, even cowardly. The report in the Guardian that the US government has teams of appointed lawyers who decide when the Pentagon has the legal right to murder someone is as ludicrous as it sounds. The United States has form on this – the previous Attorney General legalised torture, doctors work alongside interrogators while the torture was being administered, and so on. This facade of civilised behaviour – groups of lawyers lending legitimacy to what is by any standard murder, doctors giving aid and health-checks to the enemy while they are being to various forms of torture – indicates the further decline of the proclaimed American civilisation, and again highlights the dirty reality that is normally kept under wraps – that it is willing to operate in exactly the same manner as any of the oppressive Arab dictatorships that are currently being overthrown across the Middle East.

The public has consistently been informed by media and politicians that the difference between “us” (the civilized West) and “them” (the barbaric terrorist) is adherence to the rule of law.  What is clear from practice, extending well before the execution of Bin Laden, is that the rule of law is to be applied amongst peers (“us”) while others are left to the arbitrary justice of the powerful. Such organized hypocrisy is not limited to politicians, with polling in the United States taken after the news that information from so-called “harsh interrogation” may have yielded information leading to Bin Laden confirming steady support for torture of terrorist suspects between approximately 50% to 60% over the last year, with another previous survey indicating that about a quarter of Americans believe that intentionally killing civilians can at least sometimes be justifiable. Thus, the leadership of the US government has been responsible for encouraging further moral ambivalence amongst its own citizens. By trying to legitimise murder, torture, and other forms of illegal behaviour through the use of teams of lawyers and judges, they have shown that their actions are driven solely by the logic of consequences, while they dress their discourse and words according to the logic of appropriateness.

The irony is that through its actions America has shown itself to be a reflection of everything that it claimed was evil about Bin Laden. The ‘war of terror’ is a more apt description of their response since 9/11 than the coined ‘war on terror’, and the United States simply appears to be accelerating down a path which surely only leads to self-destruction as the contradiction between their avowed values and apparent actions becomes too heavy to bear.


[This is an abridged and updated version of a guest editorial in the academic journal Political Theology which was entitled “Osama and Obama: Between Predator Drones and the Arab Spring“, which includes full references]

Reza Pankhurst is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, and also blogs at

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