Monday, 30 June 2014

The era of American drone supremacy is fading

June 29, 2014 4:56 pm
The era of American drone supremacy is fading
By Edward Luce FT
America would not tolerate another country operating with the same scope and secrecy
Ed Luce column©Matt Kenyon

In much of the world, the Predator drone symbolises US power. It is ubiquitous, stealthy and can strike at any moment. They patrol the skies of central Asia, north Africa, the Arabian peninsula – and now Iraq. Other countries have nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers. But nobody else can match the lethal ingenuity of America’s Hellfire missile. Little surprise that two US presidents – George W Bush, and now Barack Obama – have resorted to them so frequently. But their heyday is waning. America’s unipolar drone moment is ending.

Mr Obama’s chief problem is their speedy adoption around the world. Unlike nuclear weapons, there is no treaty governing the use of military drones. For roughly a decade, the Central Intelligence Agency has been able to strike targets pretty much with impunity – and blanket deniability. Of America’s partners, only the UK has been deemed fit for export. But others, including Iran, whose drones also patrol the same Iraqi skies as their US counterparts, have reverse engineered the unmanned aerial vehicle with relative ease. China is even exporting drones. Last month Saudi Arabia became its first big customer. Within five years, many countries, some of them highly unsavoury, will possess military drones, says the Rand Corporation.

All of which poses a quandary for Mr Obama and whoever succeeds him. Put simply, the US must emulate the hypocritical parent: do as I say, not as I do. Nobody wants other countries to act like the US. Many voices, including Mr Obama himself, have urged the US to put drone warfare on a transparent footing. At the moment, Mr Obama can order drone assassinations without having to admit it, or explain himself to anyone. Hundreds of militants have been killed in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. But hundreds more civilians, perhaps thousands, have also been accidentally killed.

It is inconceivable the US would tolerate another country, even an ally, operating with the same scope and secrecy. Yet it would be ill-placed to object if they did. Imagine if China decided to take out Uighur separatists in Afghanistan or further afield. Like al-Qaeda, China’s Uighur minority poses a threat to the Chinese homeland. Like al-Qaeda they resort to terrorism. On what grounds could Washington complain? As set out last week by the Stimson Centre, a security think-tank, China’s president would refuse to acknowledge the strikes on grounds of national security, just like Mr Obama. The same would apply to Vladimir Putin if he ordered drone strikes in eastern Ukraine. And so on. The threat of drone multipolarity is real – and potentially endless. Yet America’s moral suasion would be worthless.

Likewise, Washington would have scant legal grounds to object. America’s instinct is to claim a US exception for drones. Much the same argument is used for the International Criminal Court, whose strictures apply to soldiers everywhere except American ones. Because the US is democratic and universal, it alone can be trusted to operate drones responsibility.

There is much truth to the argument. Hand on heart, most people would trust Mr Obama to use drones over Xi Jinping, Mr Putin or a Gulf prince. Alas, it would hold no water with precisely the regimes that are most feared.

And thus we approach a strange crossover moment. Just as others are acquiring the technology, the US is drawing up the rules. Before Mr Obama leaves office, he will put drones on a firmer legal footing.

The frequency of US drone strikes has been dropping off but terrorist threats continue to spread
As Stimson and others recommend, control over drones is likely to shift from the CIA, which is secretive, to the Pentagon, which is less so. Mr Obama is also likely to set up an independent panel to oversee the US president’s use of drones. He may even promise to acknowledge each strike and publish details about what happened, civilian deaths included. That too, is seen as an important plank in putting drones on a legal footing. Transparency is the order of the day. Whether it will be enough to constrain others is an open question.

Mr Obama’s other problem is their declining efficacy. Between them, he and Mr Bush have ordered almost 500 lethal drone strikes. Their peak usage was during Mr Obama’s first term.But the frequency of US drone strikes has recently been dropping off. In its latest budget request, the Pentagon halved – to $2.7bn – the amount it requested for drones compared with last year.In contrast, terrorist threats continue to spread, most recently into Iraq, where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the al-Qaeda offshoot, now threatens the nation state itself. Last week Mr Obama deployed drones over the skies of Baghdad. But he made it clear that for the time being they would be used for surveillance only.

In war, as in peace, we live in an age of robots. Some of America’s technology will be unsurpassable for years – no country would be wise to fight a conventional war with it. Some of it, such as drones, is now easy to replicate. As a weapon against terrorists, drones are no panacea. By engendering impotent fear, they breed the kind of resentment that recruits terrorists. As Mr Obama is discovering in Iraq, there is no substitute for human engagement. Just as education is the answer to the rise of robots in the labour market, so terrorism can only be defeated by intelligence and smarter diplomacy. In the skies, and on the ground, there are no easy answers. With the rest of the world droning up, the US has no choice but to wise up.
Source: FT

No comments:

Post a Comment