Obama 16. Drones and Assassinations.20.02.13. Part I

Obama 16 Drones and Assassinations 20.02.13

Part I: Background


Howard Adelman

I will first set the debate over drones and targeted assassinations within the larger context of the overarching meta-narrative of the way America deals with the wicked, and specifically its foes, of which the movie, Zero Dark Thirty was an example. I will then sum up the historical residue of the first historical instance of American intervention overseas against non-state actors, the Barbary pirates at the beginning of the nineteenth century. I want to then connect this discussion with the movie, Zero Dark Thirty with respectto the decision process, the alternative modes of implementation and the factors considered. Then I will return to the issue of the after debate focus on torture versus an examination of the legal and ethical factors in the decision.

Tomorrow, in Part II, I will discuss the debate over the use of drones and targeted assassinations.

We are not living in the antebellum America of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, of Thoreau and the conversational popular poetry of Walt Whitman. Emerson deposited the core myth of American culture in its literature and defined American exceptionalism and indifference to the old and the rest of the world. Americans are different. Americans have had a different experience and have endured their own unique traumas. The American environment is different. It has a frontier (and when it crosses that frontier, it will always need another).

Contemporary Americans are heirs to the pre-Iraq War literature of Toni Morrison and Ralph Waldo Ellison though always haunted by pre Civil War shadows of Ahab’s fight with Moby Dick, except in the unusual parallel to hunting for Usama bin Laden. Further, Americans have the sense that to live a normal bourgeois life is to choose mere survival (as depicted in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending)rather than the adrenaline rush of true living. Americans, and perhaps many other peoples, love an adrenaline rush.

America’s role as leader of the world is not over. It is about to be reborn and resurrected, not in the stupid and self-destructive ways of George W. Bush and bully boy Dick Cheney who a year ago (12 March 2012) thought Toronto was too dangerous and cancelled a speaking engagement. America is now being reborn and resurrected in terms of the vision of Barack Obama. America will describe the world as Americans see it and remake the world in terms of that image. I am trying to get a handle on that new image and the analysis of domestic policy was the propaedeutic. The vision becomes clearest in the articulation of Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

To inspire Americans with a new vision, the president has to embody a set of norms that most Americans will buy into. The only other alternative was to envision secession as the New England states did prior to the Civil War, and as the poet James Russell Lowell advocated in the Atlantic Monthly in the 1850s to free New Englanders from the taint of slavery. Lowell’s sense of an ending was articulated in his essay, "Where Will It End? Except for small groups of Americans, that vision of secession has certainly not been possible after Lincoln. Since the Civil War, Americans have to deke it out (excuse the Canadian hockey metaphor but it is appropriate), though no longer domestically using military means, until there is only one vision of America left as pre-eminent.

Walt Whitman claimed he was the poet that could embrace and speak for all Americans and articulate what it was like to live and experience both the chaos and the grandeur of such a dynamic country. He did not succeed. Instead America got Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War that taught most Americans not to kill each other, at least in a civil war, but also the desirability and necessity of fighting it out politically and symbolically. Barack Obama as a true heir to Whitman is busy selling America on itself in terms of his vision.

One hundred and fifty years later, the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 9/11 was the symbolic equivalent to the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861. The reality, horrific enough, is not nearly as important as its symbolism and its resonance with the iconography of American historiography.


Very soon after its birth, America became an interventionist power thrusting whatever might it had into situations of violence overseas. Michael Oren, the current Israeli ambassador of Israel to the United States and a well-renowned scholar, wrote an influential essay based on his bestselling 2007 book, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. The article appeared in the journal, Politics (22 November 2008) "How To Deal With Pirates," in which he argued that the historical lesson was clear: respond aggressively.

At the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, pirates, backed by the North African city-states of Morocco, Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli, were attacking merchant ships in the Mediterranean. The pirates demanded protection money so the ships of the respective nation would not be attacked. Alternatively , and after the fact, they demanded ransom money for the sailors, ships and cargoes that they did capture. The rationale offered was not greed but the Islamic injunction in the Koran that Muslims had a "right and duty to make war upon whomever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise." In London in 1795 they offered John Adams and Thomas Jefferson assurance that American ships would not be attacked if America paid $1 million, then 10% of the national budget. 20% of American overseas trade went through the Mediterranean. In opposition to John Adams, Jefferson was adamantly opposed to paying protection money. In 1785, Americans paid a ransom of $60,000 to get two ships released, but the costs for protection rose astronomically over the ensuing decade. Ten years later, the USA paid almost $1 million to get back the dey of Algiers and 115 sailors.

Lacking an overseas navy and no longer enjoying the protection of either the British navy or the French navy under their 1778 alliance, the Americans were cornered. Jefferson tried to create a coalition to fight the pirates but failed since most European states found it more expeditious to pay protection money than engage in another war. Initially, so did the USA which, for example, paid a tribute of $80,000 in 1784 but against the advice of Thomas Jefferson. "The object of the convention shall be to compel the piratical States to perpetual peace." (Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson) In the new century he was president.

In 1801, when he refused to pay $225,000 and $25,000 per annum, the pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States. Contrary to Jefferson’s previous resistance to a standing army or navy, he sent a small squadron of frigates to the Mediterranean. Americans were humiliated with the loss of the frigate, Philadelphia, and the capture of her crew in 1803. By 1805, after a spectacular raid that blew up the captured ship and caused extensive damage to Tripoli, and by sending additional ships and land forces, America largely freed itself from the scourge of pirates and paying annual tributes, a process that took ten further years to complete with naval victories by Commodores William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur.

For a short version of this narrative, see Gerald W. Gawalt who is the manuscript specialist for early American history in the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, "America and the Barbary Pirates: An International Battle Against an Unconventional War"; it is available online. For fuller versions see the following: Joseph Wheelan (2003) Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror 1801–1805;Frank Lambert (2005) The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World; and Joshua E. London (2005) Victory in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation. For a very livelier, short and more contentious account as indicated by the title, see Christopher Hitchens, "Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates" also available online. It is subtitled: "America’s first confrontation with the Islamic world helped forge a new nation’s character." Hitchens mentions that in Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, later excised, he included a condemnation of “the Christian King of Great Britain” for engaging in “this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers.” The war served as a critical factor in the states agreeing to a stronger and more centralized federal system, especially for defence. Further, the culture created by those actions and their rhetorical embellishments inculcated into future generations the Marine Corps anthem with which most of us are familiar, at least with the opening line, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”

Honour versus humiliation, self-defence and revenge, freedom of the seas versus ‘surrender’ to terrorism were all in play. Hitchens, Gewalt and others cite Kipling’s poem "Dane-Geld", especially the final two lines explicating why one should never surrender to depradation:

"For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!”

The Decision Process and Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty makes clear that a decision had been made to close down the operation tasked with finding bin Laden, a task that far pre-dated 9/11. The film suggests several of the possible reasons – the belief that he was either dead or so holed up in a cave in the Tribal Areas of Afghanistan as to be ineffective, the shift in priority to home security, the need to execute two major wars, the lack of any solid intelligence on his location.

A formal announcement that the operation to find bin Laden, code-named Alec Station, had actually been abandoned was made by the CIA on 3 July 2006 and published in The New York Times the next day in a story entitled, "CIA Closes Unit Focused on Capture of bin Laden" even though George W. Bush had vowed after 9/11 in his usual propensity for over-statement that, "The most important thing is for us to find bin Laden," and reaffirmed that, "It is our No. 1 priority and we will not rest until we find him." ("Transcript of Bush press conference," CNN, 13 March 2002 http://archives.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/03/13/bush.transcript/.) Note that the emphasis had been on his capture. I believe that this was not just for public relations purposes.

However, the issue getting bin Laden was resurrected in the 2008 presidential campaign with Obama replaying the Kennedy democratic tact of showing that a democratic candidate was more militant than the Republican one. In the second McCain-Obama presidential debate on 7 October 2008, mostly spent on domestic economic, education and health policy, one of the questions posed to the candidates on foreign affairs was the following one from Katie Hamm: "Should the United States respect Pakistani sovereignty and not pursue al Qaeda terrorists who maintain bases there, or should we ignore their borders and pursue our enemies like we did in Cambodia during the Vietnam War?" The question was about using Pakistan as a safe place to retreat by Afghani terrorists and whether the candidates favoured hot pursuit.

McCain responded first suggesting he was a metaphorical Canadian in the ilk of Paul Heinbecker and Don Hubert in support of prudent humanitarian intervention, an answer that had nothing to do with a question about hot pursuit and everything to do with McCain trying to counter an image of him as an uncontrollable hawk and to display his experience and cool prudence in contrast to that of Barack Obama. In citing the Canadians, I am here referring to the work on cooperative security undertaken in the last decades of the nineteenth century and its successor, the Canadian doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect that was articulated by Canada under the leadership of Canada’s then Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy and key civil servants such as Don Hubert and Paul Heinbecker, and academics such as Fen Hampson at The Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. (Cf. Rob McRae and Don Hubert (eds.) (2001) Human Security and the New Diplomacy: protecting people, promoting peace, Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, and Fen Hampson (2002) Madness in the Multitude: Human Security and World Disorder, OUP).

By the middle of the first decade, the doctrine had received unanimous support by the United Nations and then virtually no implementable activities in spite of the strenuous efforts to ensure that the doctrine remained narrow and actionable. Libya could be interpreted as the rare exception. (Cf. Fen Hampson (2011) "Libya’s bigger lesson? There are no lessons," iPolitics INSIGHT, 29 August) I believe that civilian protection was offered as one reason for the air protection provided by the West, but I do not believe civilian protection was the main motivation. In any case, as Fen Hampson concluded, it was unlikely to be imitated. The twenty-first century continued as an American century and Canadian cosmopolitanism slipped into the background.

In the presidential debate, Obama responded to the question Katie Hamm raised that was similar to McCain’s only in that he too ignored the query. Instead of discussing hot pursuit, he said, "I don’t understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, while Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us." He pushed his refrain that Iraq was a bad war and Afghanistan is a just war because integrally related to the War on Terror. After inserting an aside on American humiliation in the past and that America should not be coddling Pakistan as McCain was suggesting, he added: "if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden (my italics); we will crush Al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority." Not capture, not capture or kill, just kill. And he reiterated the point in a follow-up.

On 2 June 2009, seven months after he was elected, President Obama resurrected the hunt for bin Laden. There was no suggestion that this was a result of a lowly CIA gent uncovering new information. Obama directed Leon Panetta, the CIA Director, to have a detailed operational plan for locating and capturing (not killing) bin Laden. When bin Laden’s suspected compound was located in January of 2011, that it was bib Laden’s was far more overwhelming that suggested in the movie. In the film, the evidence is limited to the following:

– Abbottabad was an excellent communications hub

– the compound was .8 miles fro the Pakistan Military Academy implying this would inhibit an American raid, not that the Pakistani military would come to bin Laden’s aid

– the third floor balcony had a 7′ high privacy wall, sufficient to keep the 6’4" bin Laden from being seen

– the compound had no internet or landline telephone.

What was left out, presumably to help the plot and pacing, were the following:

– the compound was at the end of a dirt road

– it was built after 2001 but before 2005

– the compound was huge, eight times larger than the luxurious compounds nearby

– the surrounding wall was extra thick and extra high (12-18′)

– no garbage was ever set out for collection (someone correct me if my memory is incorrect on this one).

The delay in making the decision was not because of heavy doubts about whether the compound belonged to bin Laden but because of the time needed for preparation to ensure the best means were used with the least risk to the troops and America’s reputation. The preparation process had to provide for:

– the time it takes to establish a safe house

– the time to build the replica of the compound and practice (in taking the shortcut of failing to build the wall and only using a chain link fence in the model, the Americans failed to understand the effect of the wall on the downdraft of the helicopter rotors)

– the time to prepare the back up rescue team, in turn requiring a detailed understanding of roads, routes and traffic patterns

Evidence that the compound belonged to Obama was presented with three different options to attack it at a meeting of the National Security Council:

a) bomb the compound using B-2 stealth bombers;

b) send a smaller drone;

c) send in a tactical team by helicopter.

The first option was eventually ruled out for two reasons. A bomb large enough to destroy a possible or suspected underground bunker would blow up at least one adjacent Pakistani house and at least a dozen Pakistani civilians would be killed in addition to the civilians in the compound. Further, Pakistani cooperation would be required for that type of raid and the Americans, especially President Obama, did not trust the Pakistanis with information on a secret mission. Initially, however, Obama was on side with Maya in the film. He favoured the bombing option. Given the implications, at the meeting of the NSC on 29 March, that option was bracketed. The helicopter raid became the option of choice.

Why wasn’t the option of using a drone-fired tactical munition considered further since it was initially favoured by Robert Gates, then Defence Secretary? Because it depended on bin Laden’s habits and they were too irregular to guarantee certainty. At the end of March, orders were given to develop the implementation phase of the raid but without the final go ahead order. Note that all along there is no evidence that consideration was given to civilian deaths of women and children within the compound as a key factor in making the decision. The key factor was the safety of the tactical team and ensuring they got out. On 19 April when Obama gave the ok to the helicopter raid, he qualified the raid by insisting that the team be well enough equipped to fight their way out because he did not trust the plan to obtain Pakistani cooperation once the raid was underway if the military were alerted and initiated action. The final ok came on 29 April.

Yet none of the factors in this deliberation and planning were portrayed in the movie. It was just Maya’s will versus the cats in charge who did not seem to have her gumption. For a very detailed account of the deliberations over options and implementation, see http://medlibrary.org/medwiki/Operation_Neptune_Spear#Planning_and_final_decision. Also read Mike Allen (2011) "Getting Osama bin Laden: How the Mission went down," Politico, 2 May.

As I wrote yesterday, in the movie Maya wanted to send drones or drop a bomb to blow up Usama bin Laden’s compound. The only references to why this option was taken is a reference to risk, risk to America’s reputation since a drone attack was far less risky to American troops than landing Navy Seals within Pakistan with a Pakistan military base less than a mile away. The presumption is that the women and children in the compound mattered, not because if they were killed, it might be offensive to legal and ethical principles under just law norms, but because America would have to deal with the negative fallout from the bad public relations that would follow. Further, a daring-do raid would have the opposite effect.

We never hear anything approaching a rational decisions process that would consider the conditions, the consequential expectations, the norms (these are not even mentioned), whether bin Laden should or should not be captured alive, etc. All we get are hints at such a debate and the implication that any rational process would have squashed an attack on the compound altogether. In the film, it was not Barack Obama’s or his advisors rational considerations that determined the outcome but Maya’s indomitable will and determination. The film did not really get into the difficulties in making the decision or the various factors that weighed on them. But neither did the discussion after the movie. Is a raid to kill bin Laden less reprehensible that if done with a drone?

Why did the film not think the issue of civilian protection in the compound was relevant? Further, why did the chattering classes spend all that word copy on the issue of torture and not debate killing Obama when there was no evidence he offered armed resistance? Why is a raid by Navy Seals on a compound in another country to kill residents therein a matter of enormous curiousity but not a matter of a normative debate when, within weeks of the release of the film, a raucous debate rose up over the use of drones and targeted killings? Yet the killing of bin Laden was the most sensational targeted assassination of any of them. Is it alright to kill the unique albino Moby Dick while enormous energies are spent on determining whether it is right or not to kill various other types of Islamist toothed whales — sperm, narwhal, pilot and beluga whales — and what degree of collateral damage can be tolerated for baleen whales whether they be blues, grays, bowhead, fin, humpback, minke or right whales?

Tomorrow Obama 17 Drones and Assassinations 21.02.13

Part II: Circumstances, Objectives, Anticipated Results and Norms


[Tag Obama, bin
Laden, Barbary Pirates, Zero Dark Thirty, Targeted Assassination]

Obama16.Drones and Assassinations.20.02.13.doc