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How the New Democrats Could End the Drone Wars

Leftist challengers in 2018 have an opportunity to tackle one of the most troubling legacies of the Obama years.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is part of of a new group of progressive Democratic candidates. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

One spring during the Obama administration, I sat with a group of Yemeni farmers in Sana’a. I’d contacted them after a U.S. drone flying over the village of al-Sabool struck a bus full of shoppers, killing twelve civilians. One of the farmers, Abdullah, told me how he’d rushed to the scene to find his neighbors, grievously wounded, struggling out of the wreckage. He carried survivors to hospital. 

A man reached into his pocket and pulled up a grainy video on his phone. Together we watched the aftermath of the attack. The shell of a Land Cruiser was aflame. A woman’s charred remains had fused to those of her ten-year-old daughter in her lap. Her surviving son, Ahmed, told me he’d only recognized his sister from a clump of her hair. My colleague stepped out of the room to vomit.

Beyond the ashen bodies, one image from the farmer’s video stayed with me: a semicircle of men, all holding glowing smartphones, filming the wreckage.

During the Obama years, these videos became the local equivalent of American videos of police shootings. The viral images came, for Yemenis, to symbolize the brutality and incompetence of American drone policy.

The target of the al-Sabool attack wasn’t in the bus. Several further strikes apparently missed him, too.

In the past eight months, another front has opened in the CIA’s “war on terror.” This time it’s Niger. The agency has quietly erected a drone base in Dirkou from which to surveil and strike the Sahara, a conduit for drugs, arms, and migrants hoping to cross the Mediterranean.    

Drones remain a popular counterterrorism tool: no risk to the pilot; no flag-draped coffins. But as I learned in years investigating the drone wars in Yemen and Pakistan, the ripple effects, while less visible to Americans, are real. Drones heighten locals’ suspicions of foreign meddling and can destabilize fragile nations. And a new wave of progressive Democrats, in 2016, has the opportunity finally to call a halt, reversing one of the most troubling legacies of their party’s time in power.

No national security policy is more associated with President Obama than “targeted killing.” In his first year alone, the U.S. carried out more drone strikes than took place during the entire Bush presidency. By the end of his term, the rate of strikes had increased by a factor of ten, enjoying support from Congressional Democrats and aggressively defended in court by the Obama-era Justice Department.

All told, Obama’s drones killed thousands. The best independent estimates number the innocent dead in the hundreds, far in excess of the 120-person tally administration published in a nod to transparency at the end of Obama’s term. 

Under President Trump, the U.S. government has stopped issuing such reports altogether. Trump has not hesitated to expand the drone wars he inherited. This year the U.S. has conducted drone strikes in at least eight foreign countries: Niger, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Iraq.

This year, progressive challengers have beaten established Democrats by pressing for more left-wing policies at home. But the midterm challengers have been markedly quieter on national security and foreign policy.

If looking for a way to burnish their credentials in this field while distinguishing themselves from the establishment, the new progressives have a ready-made issue in targeted killings. To win this debate, they would need to accept that the drone wars began with Democrats. They would need to talk with Americans about terrorism: where it comes from, how to fight it, how much of our national oxygen it should be permitted to consume. 

The incoming generation of leftists could wean the party from the drone.

A young boy at an anti-drone protest in Peshawar, Pakistan.
A. Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

How did airborne assassinations become the key tool in our intelligence arsenal?

An American drone first killed someone outside a theatre of war in November 2002. But encouraged by technological advances, and hemmed in by the president’s campaign positions against on-the-ground entanglements, it was President Obama’s White House that truly embraced the drone—with CIA director Leon Panetta memorably calling drones “the only game in town.”  

Counter-terrorism remained a top priority as Obama came into office: Only swift action by passengers stopped Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly working with the Al Qaeda branch active in Yemen, from bringing down an airline full of Christmas travellers over Detroit in 2009. Drones offered a seductive promise: a cheap, limited weapon to reduce the risk of terrorism (something Americans want) without risking American blood (something Americans oppose). Moreover, unlike messy diplomacy or human intelligence, they offered clear, measurable results: names crossed off lists.

Perennially at risk of looking weak on national security, Obama protected his flank by running many more lethal counter-terror operations than his predecessor, backed by a public-relations campaign that sold Obama’s image—to party and public—as a calculating but ruthless warrior. “A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions. And he knows that bad strikes can tarnish America’s image and derail diplomacy,” ran the New York Times article revealing the existence of a kill list. However grey the ethics of drone killing, Obama’s supporters argued, Americans should thank themselves that a cautious president—a former constitutional law instructor—kept the policy tightly under personal control.

But this also meant that the legitimacy of Democrats’ drone wars was vested in Obama’s morality and judgment. Few considered how the violence might grow in the hands of the nationalist hard right.

Support for the drone program ran deep among Democrats. Dianne Feinstein, then-chairwoman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, staunchly supported the CIA in the drone wars even as she clashed with them over torture. Only a handful of Senators—Rand Paul from the libertarian right, and Ron Wyden from the left—questioned whether it was wise, forty years after the Church Committee report, to let the CIA back into the assassination game.

By 2016, Obama began to voice concerns. “I don’t want our intelligence agencies being a paramilitary organization. That’s not their function,” Obama said in a 2016 exchange with students at the University of Chicago.

National security leaders, after retirement, also began to cast doubt on the drone war’s effectiveness. Many felt that drones’ promise—low-risk national security on the cheap—was proving a mirage. The weapons were not as accurate as initially hoped, and there was a problem of perception. Stanley McChrystal, the former commanding general in Afghanistan warned in 2013 that American drone strikes “are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”

The first academic study into the drone war, a 2012 collaboration between the Stanford and New York University law schools, found drones depressed school turnout in targeted communities, and kept terrified farmers from their work—neither outcomes ideal for creating stability in conflict zones. They caused an epidemic of anxiety and depression.

Although the second Obama administration seemed more conflicted than the first about its policies, only two bereaved families ever received a presidential apology for a drone strike: the relatives of the American and Italian
hostages killed in a strike on Al Qaeda in Pakistan in 2015.

For those at the sharp end of the drone wars, this double standard has festered, fueling resentment that only helps the region’s radicals.

The number of Yemenis in the local branch of Al Qaeda increased severalfold during Obama’s war. “I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined the lines of Al Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake,” one Yemeni activist told CNN after an attack in September 2012. The average young man in Niger or Yemen is increasingly aware that a drone pilot in the United States can kill someone’s wife and children before driving home to his own at the end of a shift.

And the results of that realization give the lie to one of the fundamental assumptions of drone warfare: that there is a way of picking off the people who threaten us without the hard work of engaging the societies from which they come.

In President Trump’s first year in office, strikes in Yemen and Somalia have tripled. He’s boasted of having “totally changed [the] rules of engagement” for air war, with predictable results: over six thousand civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria alone. In April, The Washington Post reported the president had watched a video of the CIA strike, only to ask why the agency had waited until the target was away from his family.

But with the 2018 midterms, a new class of Democrats may tilt the balance of power in Congress. The leftists in their ranks have a chance to seize the opportunity Democrats missed in 2008—to reset America’s relations with the Muslim world. A foreign policy platform to match their domestic ambitions would explain that our endless, borderless war on terror has an opportunity cost: money and talent drained on a failed attempt to manage remote populations from the sky. The siren call of low-risk counter-terrorism has in fact fueled violent sentiment, and radicalized communities against American interests.

Democrats bequeathed us the drone wars. It would be only fitting for Democrats to stop them.