When James Madison warned that “no nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare,” he was referring to the corrupting influence of unchecked power on leaders. Since the Korean War ended 60 years ago, the world has backed away from war as an instrument of national policy. Tactics have changed to guerrilla warfare, air strikes, drones and house raids; yet all these share moral ambiguities. Unchecked power lurks in the shadows.
If the United States wants to lead and bring about what St. Augustine called the “tranquility of order,” it should first examine its own conscience. The United States has earned worldwide respect for its help to victims of hurricanes and earthquakes. But today, especially in the Middle East and the undeveloped world, the dominant image of America is negative. Why? There are three related reasons: overwhelming U.S. military presence, the drone syndrome and a wobbling commitment to human rights.
The United States maintains approximately 1,000 military bases around the world. And when U.S. troops “withdraw” from Afghanistan, at least 10,000 troops may remain, along with thousands of civilian operatives, to protect U.S. interests in resources and to expand U.S. power. This will cost billions that could be invested better at home.
Many of these bases house the drones that redefine how 21st-century wars will be fought. Drones also expand executive power to a dangerous degree. Robots kill the enemy without endangering American troops or contractors who may operate the weapons from thousands of miles away. But drones also obfuscate the responsibility of the faceless technicians and White House lawyers for their deadly results, and they raise factual and moral questions that the president declines to discuss. After President Obama’s announcement that the United States had killed Anwar-al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, in a drone attack, his press secretary sputtered helplessly when a reporter pressed for evidence that justified the order to target an American citizen abroad. A week later another drone reportedly killed another U.S. citizen, Mr. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son.
Spokesmen for the Central Intelligence Agency have stressed the accuracy of drones. Yet the Awlaki strike killed at least eight persons, not just the two usually named. According to Global Research, based in Canada, out of the 44 drone strikes in the tribal area of Pakistan over the previous 12 months, only five hit their targets. They killed five key Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, but at the cost of over 700 civilian lives.
Since 9/11 the C.I.A., now under General David Petraeus, has transformed itself from an intelligence-gathering organization into a paramilitary unit. The C.I.A. has embedded agents in the New York City police force to help infiltrate the Muslim community. And 20 percent of the C.I.A.’s staff members are now “targeters,” who draw up lists of people the C.I.A. will try to kill—by drones, land mines or other means—without the accountability expected of the military.
Today the Air Force trains more unmanned aerial vehicle operators than it does pilots. Robotic researchers design control panels modeled on video games so that 19-year-old recruits who have been playing “Kill Zone” and “Assassin’s Creed” can apply their skills in the real world. The future operator will have to control multiple drones rather than one. Military planners hope technology will develop drones that can be programmed to make life-or-death combat decisions by themselves, at the projected cost of $94 billion over 10 years. By then many of the 50 countries that have acquired drones will have the capacity to destroy enemies from afar. Will they follow America’s moral example?
The United States must extricate itself from the 10-year-old mentality that the journalist Mark Danner has called “the state of exception.” That exception has allowed the distinction between politics and law to become blurred. Being “at war” has led to the setting aside of long-held wartime limits and to violations of human rights. And that exception has allowed the United States to torture, waterboard, assassinate and incarcerate suspected enemies indefinitely in Abu Ghraib, in secret prisons abroad and in Guantánamo, still a symbol of U.S. irresolution.
That former Vice President Dick Cheney would praise President Obama for killing Mr. Awlaki and in the same interview criticize him for not approving the Bush-Cheney “enhanced interrogation techniques” exemplifies the national conscience still stuck in the moral mud. The government and the American people must acknowledge that this struggle against terrorism is a police action, not a war. Police are supposed to enforce the law, not bend it. The more the United States fails to follow this rule, the more its conscience shrinks, until it resembles that of the enemy who would drag America down.