How the lawyerly discourse of drone warfare misses the point

Cover00Chase Madar at Bookforum:

How quickly talk of war turns into talk of law! When a hospital is bombed in a military action, whether by the United States in Afghanistan, Russia in Syria, or Israel in Gaza, what typically draws outrage is the “war crime”—the violation of the laws of armed conflict—while the choice to wage war itself evades condemnation or analysis. Opposition to the Iraq War was commonly voiced as a matter of respect for international law. And now that Washington is helping a Saudi-led coalition bomb Yemen, one common apologia is that American targeting assistance saves lives by bringing air strikes into compliance with “international humanitarian law,” the euphemistic term for the laws of war.

Such opposition as exists to US drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Somalia is also frequently expressed as concern about inadequate legal procedure. But as Jameel Jaffer points out in the introduction to his new anthology, The Drone Memos, the problems with these strikes are hardly limited to questions of legality. Dennis Blair, a former director of National Intelligence under Obama, has worried that drone strikes might be harming the “national interest”—presumably, the security of the domestic United States—in the long run. Even perfectly executed tactics can undermine larger strategy: Not mentioned in Jaffer's introductory essay is this past May's drone assassination of Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the leader of the Afghan Taliban. Instead of causing the Taliban to disintegrate or surrender, it merely brought forward new leaders, who have turned out to be even more hostile to negotiations for peace and power-sharing deals with the Kabul government and its American patrons. At this point, reaching such a deal is Washington's aim in the Afghan war, but because of the successful drone assassination of a high-value target, this goal has been set back at least a year.

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