Dec 6, 2013
Posted on May 14, 2012
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch
Sometimes, though, the American version of this does seem… I hate to use the word, but exceptional. If you want to get a taste of just what this means, consider as Exhibit One a recent speech by the president’s counterterrorism “tsar,” John Brennan, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. According to his own account, he was dispatched to the center by President Obama to provide greater openness when it comes to the administration’s secret drone wars, to respond to critics of the drones and their legality, and undoubtedly to put a smiley face on drone operations generally.
Ever since the Puritan minister John Winthrop first used the phrase in a sermon on shipboard on the way to North America, “a city upon a hill” has caught something of at least one American-style dream—a sense that this country’s fate was to be a blessed paragon for the rest of the world, an exception to every norm. In the last century, it became “a shining city upon a hill” and was regularly cited in presidential addresses.
Whatever that “city,” that dream, was once imagined to be, it has undergone a largely unnoticed metamorphosis in the twenty-first century. It has become—even in our dreams—an up-armored garrison encampment, just as Washington itself has become the heavily fortified bureaucratic heartland of a war state. So when Brennan spoke, what he offered was a new version of American exceptionalism: the first “shining drone upon a hill” speech, which also qualifies as an instant classic of self-congratulation.
Never, according to him, has a country with such an advanced weapon system as the drone used it quite so judiciously, quite so—if not peacefully—at least with the sagacity and skill usually reserved for the gods. American drone strikes, he assured his listeners, are “ethical and just,” “wise,” and “surgically precise”—exactly what you’d expect from a country he refers to, quoting the president, as the preeminent “standard bearer in the conduct of war.”
The strikes are never motivated by vengeance, always target someone known to us as the worst of the worst, and almost invariably avoid anyone who is even the most mediocre of the mediocre. (Forget the fact that, as Greg Miller of the Washington Post reported, the CIA has recently received permission from the president to launch drone strikes in Yemen based only on the observed “patterns of suspicious behavior” of groups of unidentified individuals, as was already true in the Pakistani tribal borderlands.)
Yes, in such circumstances innocents do unfortunately die, even if unbelievably rarely—and for that we couldn’t be more regretful. Such deaths, however, are in some sense salutary, since they lead to the most rigorous reviews and reassessments of, and so improvements in, our actions. “This too,” Brennan assured his audience, “is a reflection of our values as Americans.”
“I would note,” he added, “that these standards, for identifying a target and avoiding… the loss of lives of innocent civilians, exceed what is required as a matter of international law on a typical battlefield. That’s another example of the high standards to which we hold ourselves.”
And that’s just a taste of the tone and substance of the speech given by the president’s leading counterterrorism expert, and in it he’s no outlier. It catches something about an American sense of self at this moment. Yes, Americans may be ever more down on the Afghan war, but like their leaders, they are high on drones. In a February Washington Post/ABC News poll, 83% of respondents supported the administration’s use of drones. Perhaps that’s not surprising either, since the drones are generally presented here as the coolest of machines, as well as cheap alternatives (in money and lives) to sending more armies onto the Eurasian mainland.
In these last years, this country has pioneered the development of the most advanced killing machines on the planet for which the national security state has plans decades into the future. Conceptually speaking, our leaders have also established their “right” to send these robot assassins into any airspace, no matter the local claims of national sovereignty, to take out those we define as evil or simply to protect American interests. On this, Brennan couldn’t be clearer. In the process, we have turned much of the rest of the planet into what can only be considered an American free-fire zone.
We have, in short, established a remarkably expansive set of drone-war rules for the global future. Naturally, we trust ourselves with such rules, but there is a fly in the ointment, even as the droniacs see it. Others far less sagacious, kindly, lawful, and good than we are do exist on this planet and they may soon have their own fleets of drones. About 50 countries are today buying or developing such robotic aircraft, including Russia, China, and Iran, not to speak of Hezbollah in Lebanon. And who knows what terror groups are looking into suicide drones?
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