Will U.S. drone program turn the country into a pariah?

Chided by rights groups for the UAV bombings' civilian casualties, the US is losing its moral high ground

By Jean MacKenzie
Published October 24, 2013 5:25PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global Post Editor's note: This story has been updated with new revelations about Pakistan's reported complicity in US drone strikes.

Washington is certainly taking a beating on the world stage these days.

Just this week two leading international human rights groups came out with reports accusing the US government of possible war crimes in connection with the CIA’s ultra-secret drone campaign in Pakistan and Yemen.

Amnesty International’s “Will I be next? US drone strikes in Pakistan” and Human Rights Watch’s “Between a Drone and Al Qaeda: The Cost of US Targeted Killings in Yemen” paint a grim picture of President Barack Obama’s sharp escalation of a program that’s carried out hundreds of unmanned airstrikes since 2004.

Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, in Washington for a White House meeting, delivered a scathing indictment of the drone attacks in a speech at the US Institute of Peace Tuesday.

“The use of drones is not only a continued violation of our territorial integrity, but also detrimental to our resolve and efforts … at eliminating terrorism from our country,” Sharif said. “This issue has become a major irritant in our bilateral relationship as well. I would therefore stress the need for an end to drone attacks."

On Wednesday, Sharif said he "brought up the issue" in a meeting with Obama.

However, despite the prime minister's public protests, Pakistani officials have secretly endorsed the US drone program for years and receive routine classified briefings on targets and casualties, the Washington Post reported. The Post cited information gleaned from secret CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos.

"For political reasons, [Sharif] has to raise the drone issue with President Obama, even though he already knows that Obama is not simply going to agree to no more drone usages in Pakistan," said Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia program at Washington's Wilson Center, in an interview with Radio Free Europe.

Perhaps as damning as the drone attacks themselves is the consistent refusal of the Obama administration to acknowledge the harm done by the weapons.

CIA chief John Brennan has repeatedly claimed that the tally of civilian casualties is few to none. During his confirmation hearings in February, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein said Senate figures indicated the correct statistic year-to-year was “typically in the single digits.”

But independent analysis suggests the numbers are much higher. While hard data is difficult to come by, given the extreme secrecy surrounding the programs, as well as the difficulty of accessing dangerous and remote areas, organizations including the New America Foundation, the Long War Journal and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have released reports documenting between 150 and 592 civilian deaths from drone strikes between January 2009 and July 2013.

The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism this month said US attacks by unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, had killed 2,200 people in Pakistan in the past decade, 400 of them civilians.

The outcry over the rights groups’ accusations has been immense. Every major news organization has covered the reports, and the White House has responded with adamant and irritated justification of its drone strikes.

“US counterterrorism actions are precise, they are lawful, and they are effective,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday. “By narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”

From the intensity of the reaction, one would think the information contained in the two reports was new. In fact, it closely mirrors a report released over a year ago by New York University and Stanford called “Living Under Drones.”

The report does not mince words:

“In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling ‘targeted killing’ of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts. This narrative is false.”

It was so explosive it prompted Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, philosopher and irascible dissident Noam Chomsky to tell an international audience that it proved the Obama administration was waging “a campaign of international terrorism — by far the most extreme in the world.”

Chomsky’s excitability aside, many experts agree the drone program and the whole question of US regard for noncombatants deserve more scrutiny.

Civilian deaths at the hands of US soldiers are one reason Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been so reluctant to grant foreign military personnel immunity for crimes committed on Afghan soil, a big sticking point in ongoing US-Afghan negotiations.

Secretary of State John Kerry insists there will be no US troops in Afghanistan if the issue is not resolved.

One can understand Kerry’s point: The state of Afghanistan’s legal system does not bode well for anyone caught in its grip.

Transparency International issued a report this summer showing the country’s judiciary was perceived as its most corrupt institution, which, given that Afghanistan is tied with Somalia and North Korea for the dubious title of most corrupt nation in the world, is saying something.

But the Afghan president does have a point: incidents of US missile strikes targeting wedding parties, helicopter gunships killing children out gathering firewood, and similar episodes, some never acknowledged, have sparked outrage and calls for accountability.

So the Amnesty and HRW reports will doubtless provide more fuel for the fire in Kabul, where a council of elders, or Loya Jirga, will soon gather to discuss the question of immunity for US troops.

But why is the world giving so much attention to these new documents, when it all but ignored the NYU/Stanford offering?

It may reflect a significant change in Washington’s international standing over the past year.

While Wall Street continues to dominate world economies, it may no longer be controlling the political high ground.

More GlobalPost analysis: Credit ratings, explained

The fight over Obama's plan to bomb Syria this summer dented the president's image a bit when he was unable to put together a convincing coalition to punish President Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people.

A last-minute agreement between Washington and Moscow, enlisting the UN in scrapping Syria’s chemical weapons, saved the day — but not US influence.

The US National Security Agency snooping scandal and other revelations by former security contractor Edward Snowden have not helped. Most recently France expressed its extreme irritation at what it termed “unacceptable practices” by calling the US ambassador on the carpet.

Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, has also blasted the US over its penchant for spying on its friends, even calling off a state visit to Washington over the whole affair.

Now Mexico’s government is ramping up its rhetoric in demanding the US investigate reports of spying on both its current and former leaders.

The shameful spectacle of political dysfunction in Washington leading to a government shutdown and a close brush with default — what some media wags are calling “the US’ near-debt experience” — has also diminished the superpower in the eyes of the world. Everyone from the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde to Chilean President Sebastian Pinera took the US to task for jeopardizing the world economy with its political brinkmanship.

So it is a weakened Washington that’s fielding questions about its drone program these days.

Not that anyone should be too concerned: “America’s global image remains more positive than China’s,” according to a Pew Research survey released in July.

Whew! That’s a relief. But of course, that was more than three months ago.

Back in 2007, then-Sen. John Kerry tried to slam the foreign policy of President George W. Bush by saying that the US had become “sort of an international pariah.”

It may have been hyperbole then, rhetoric designed to support Kerry’s failed bid for the White House.

But if Kerry and his Washington colleagues are not careful, it might not be an overstatement for much longer.

Jean MacKenzie

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