LibLink…Paddy Ashdown: If you’re opposed to drones, then think again

In Liberal Democrat circles, when Barack Obama is discussed, it’s generally agreed that he’s doing a grand job except for the not insignificant matter of the extra-judicial killings and the use of unmanned drone attacks.

Paddy Ashdown has expressed a different view writing in today’s Times describing drones as the most “democratic” weapon ever invented.

As a lifelong peace-loving hippy, you’d expect that I would have been the first to head Paddy’s advice:

 war is a revolting practice and cannot be discussed without using revolting words. So the squeamish and those morally offended by all violence should look away now.

I didn’t, though. Partly because whether you agree with him or not, Paddy knows what he’s talking about.

On drones as a better option than some of its predecessors:

Drones are not weapons like cluster bombs — they are a delivery system. They do not, like cluster bombs, scatter themselves indiscriminately over large areas or lie there unexploded for children to step on later. The weapon they deliver is a so-called “smart” bomb that has the same purpose, effect and horrible result, wherever and however it is launched.

If this is what offends because it leads to “extra-judicial executions” (and that does indeed raise serious moral questions), then it should offend whether the weapon is launched from a drone, a nearby Special Forces team, a helicopter at 10,000ft, an aircraft at 25,000ft, a satellite at the edge of space or even nowadays with their accuracy, a submarine-launched Cruise missile from hundreds of miles away.

But what if it’s the smart bomb we don’t like?

Then we can all go back to good old indiscriminate high explosive — not “smart”, not trying to be selective (“smart” bombs do not always succeed in being selective, but they are at least an attempt at it) and of course not at all pleasant for the inadvertent innocent who, in much larger numbers, will get killed and maimed along with the intended target.

And now for the democratic bit. The use of drones, argues Paddy, gives us more accountability over military interventions than we have ever had before:

It is said that every week President Obama sits down with his advisers and personally decides how drones will be used in the week ahead. Can we imagine what that must be like for a democratically elected politician? No taking shelter behind a command chain that reaches right down to the judgment of the poor bloody soldier on the ground. This time the President is personally involved — personally accountable; perhaps even in a way that could, theoretically at least, be open to challenge before an international court of law.

And if we’re worried about infringing another country’s territory, then, he says, that sort of thing has been going on for much longer than drones have been around:

In the Borneo jungle conflict of the early 1960s I was ordered to take my unit across the Indonesian border to carry the war to “terrorists” sheltering in Indonesian territory. The operation was secret, sanctioned by the Cabinet and never came to light at the time. But if it had become public I am sure that the Government would have claimed that the action was consistent with the well-established practice of “hot pursuit” and a country’s legal right to take “self defensive” action where its security is threatened from the territory of another nation.

Basically, Paddy is arguing that drones are just another slightly more efficient way of carrying out a military intervention. I would like him to elaborate more on the issues he mentioned in passing – the principle of extra-judicial killings, for example.

You can read his whole article here (£).

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • I think the issue is not so much the drones, it’s the fact that whatever method is used, in all the so-called ‘liberal interventions’ innocent people end up getting killed regardless of any “good” intentions and “increased accountability” of the politicans using drones….

  • Charles Beaumont 14th Feb '13 - 2:46pm

    Simplistic, simplistic. I am amazed that Paddy has fallen into this trap and that Caron repeats his words uncritically. The drone strikes programme has not taken the place of a worse, less targeted form of warfare. Before the drones, US planes were not bombing targets in Pakistan or Yemen. It is not valid therefore to compare drones with unguided weapons. Drones are a new and deadly addition to unconventional warfare which has loosened its own rulebook to make it easier to justify killing the innocent.

    Two examples: the definition of a “militant” (ie. a valid target) under the current US drone strike programme was loosened by President Obama so that it now “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” (from the New York Times). You only have to consider the final point to realise how incredibly sinister this is: after killing someone, if evidence comes up that shows you were wrong, you then acknowledge that fact, like throwing a woman into a pond and if she drowns she wasn’t a witch after all. The second major concern is loosening the standards of certainty of target. Most of the CIA’s strikes in Pakistan are so-called “signature” strikes – that is, striking a pattern of behaviour rather than a targeted individual. To quote the Wall Street Journal (a right-wing paper, owned by Murdoch, strongly supportive of the “War on Terror”), “Signature strikes target groups of men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren’t always known. The bulk of CIA’s drone strikes are signature strikes.”

    So, to sumarise, the drone strikes programme will kill people whose identities aren’t known and will lazily define those killed as “militants” until someone, somehow proves they were innocent (too late of course).

    Finally, Paddy was wrong about cluster bombs: some “targeted” strikes have also dropped cluster bombs as part of the overall package, such as the 17 December 2009 strike in Abyan, South Yemen.

  • Yellow Bill 14th Feb '13 - 3:26pm

    How short is the memory in certain quarters.

    I would advert Charles to the retaliatary bombing of Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1989, or indeed the even more indescriminate bombing of Libya in 1986. Both examples carried out without declaring war on the countries concerned.

  • Al McIntosh 14th Feb '13 - 3:40pm

    If the UK government carries out attacks on Scotland’s airports after next year’s yes vote as scaremongering unionist peer Lord Fraser says could happen, then I wonder if Caron will be waiting at Prestwick or Turnhouse airports to welcome Paddy’s drones?

  • This is not a complicated issue. It’s not right to attack other people’s countries. Imagine the reaction of Pakistan was bombing villages in the Cotswolds because they’d decided there were some bad people there. Drones are just a particularly repulsive and cowardly way of doing it.

    Our politicians need to change their attitude and stop making war.

  • Liberal Eye 14th Feb '13 - 4:21pm

    I am also amazed and appalled by Ashdown’s argument. It amounts to saying that these are better bombs because they are “smart” which is, of course, a wholly Orwellian construction. Sure, they are more accurate, more likely to hit what the bomber aims at so they are better bombs but still just bombs and what they are aimed at is often children and civilians whose behaviour matches a certain “signature” as Charles outlines above. This signature evidently includes attending weddings and funerals.

    Caron claims that ” In Liberal Democrat circles, when Barack Obama is discussed, it’s generally agreed that he’s doing a grand job …” Maybe, but those who think so need to wake up and take note of what’s actually going on. It’s true that after Bush Obama presented as a breath of fresh air; a man who could speak in whole sentences and who promised change. But although running as a liberal, he has governed as a right winger – representing the plutocrat interest even above that of respectable and traditional conservatives never mind liberals. For instance he has frustrated attempts to hold the big banks to account for the epidemic levels of fraud some of them have perpetrated and he is attempting to abolish Habeus Corpus (it’s currently held up in the courts). Currently also he is attempting to gut social security while pretending that “those Republicans made me do it” although it’s clear that he is on exactly the same page as they are. There is remarkable strong evidence that right wing strength in Congress is maintained by vote frauds and gerrymandering the elimination of which should be a liberal priority yet we hear nothing of such moves. How much evidence of where his heart really lies do you need?

    If Americans are buying guns in record numbers it’s because many are scared of their own government and feel it has slipped out of democratic control. Buying guns may not be the most sensible response but it’s understandable given the culture. However, people are right about the lost control – government is now dominated by big money and vested interests, especially Wall Street. Government is now by the plutocrats for the plutocrats, Obama is their man and, for all the dust kicked up, the fight between the two parties is just for show.

  • Liberal Eye 14th Feb '13 - 4:32pm

    I forgot to include this link for a bit of further reading.

  • Old Codger Chris 14th Feb '13 - 4:53pm

    All bombs are immoral (I believe the Allies accidentally killed more French civilians in WW2 than the number of Brits killed in the Blitz). Sometimes they are necessary – it’s a matter of opinion when and in what circumstances. Are drones any worse than other delivery systems?

  • Liberal Eye 14th Feb '13 - 5:05pm

    See also the two most recent posts by Riverdaughter (13th and 14th Feb)

  • David Allen 14th Feb '13 - 5:13pm

    “Are drones any worse than other delivery systems?”

    Well – When you are at war, you hit the enemy any way you choose that is not outlawed by international law. If Pakistan had declared war on the US, Obama could reasonably have retaliated with dumb bombs or smart bombs. Wedding parties would have recognised the need to hide from danger.

    But the US and Pakistan are not at war. Everybody would recognise that dumb bombs aimed indiscriminately at the population of Pakistan would be unjustified. Some would argue that genuinely smart bombs, which could be relied upon to kill only terrorists, would be morally less bad. Mossad would use that argument to justify targeting enemy terrorists, and using commandos to make sure their operations were genuinely smart. There is a case for that.

    Drones, however, are kidding-smart. They allow Obama to write a kill list on paper which pretends to be as precise as Mossad’s lists. But it isn’t. The drones don’t properly discriminate. The kill list is a figleaf to cover up a largely indiscriminate campaign.

    The cover up works to some extent in the West. Many Westerners think Obama’s policy is civilised. The cover up fails in the East. The victims know that they are victims of hypocrisy. They will not forget that. So we stoke up future trouble for ourselves.

  • A drone is a tool and like many others the military use it can have a lethal destructive effect. I think what Paddy is getting at, and I agree totally with him, is that the line of responsibility for their use is more direct, and less easy for politicians to avoid taking responsibility for their use. Too often the boots on the ground get to take responsibility when left in untenable situations making hugely complex choices made in a split second.

  • So basically, Paddy’s argument is, “Well they are less bad than what we used before.” Strangely, I consider Obama in that vain, but it does not make me think he is good.

  • Charles Beaumont 14th Feb '13 - 8:53pm

    @Steve – your point is correct, insofar as Paddy is making the comparison with other types of military “tool”. But the big difference is that the drones allows the US to do warfare that it wasn’t otherwise doing, not that it replaces a worse type of warfare. It is only under the drone strikes that we redefine militants to be anyone who is near a bomb when I drop it. Only drone strikes have led to this concept of “signature strikes” which means that people spotted doing star jumps are assumed to be in a terrorist training camp. Before drone strikes the US wasn’t bombing Pakistan, nor was it invading it, napalming it, or any other type of direct military strike.

  • the justifications in the post for the use of drones are truly extraordinary. Isn’t it closer to the truth that technology is killing remotely, ergo without risking a whole series of politically inconvenient Don McCullinesque photographs and without risking military personnel. Whether or not Mr Obama decides where and when the strikes are made is completely irrelevant and has nothing to do with democracy. After all, he is not authorising the bombing of people who vote for him.

  • Terrifying. I really despair for the future of the world when a politician can write this stuff. These weapons are democratic? President Obama is accountable? A court of law? So who gets to vote on their use? Who is Obama accountable to? Does the USA even recognise international criminal courts? How do we know that these drone attacks are not inflaming the situation in the countries that are being bombed by them?

  • Richard Dean 16th Feb '13 - 2:25pm

    Well, Paddy is perhaps being a bit sensitive, and is perhaps overlooking the possibility that the host country’s authorities may in reality be giving tacit approval, but the drones are democratic in the sense that an elected politician gets to decide who lives and who dies, rather than an unelected soldier.

    Sure, the politician decides on the basis of information provided by the soldier, and the idea of signature targeting does not provide an accurate picture of who, but at least the politician gets to question the information and the procedures. It would even be feasible to extend the process so that it was decided by a committee of elected politicians (though obviously only the security-vetted ones!).

    The alternative is presumably to give the soldier some form of carte blanche, perhaps a generic rule of engagement. Would this be better? What other ways are there of conducting an effective war on terror?

  • Richard Dean 16th Feb '13 - 2:26pm

    sensitive -> insensitive !

  • Actually I’d read his comments in a different way. He seems to be saying that the fact that a weapon is delivered by a Remotely Piloted Air System, aka drone, isn’t all that important. The significant part of this is that there is a degree of governance around how the targetting process is carried out.

    We as a party unfortunately can’t have a sensible debate about this as we tend to conflate weaponised RPAS with surveillance and reconnaissance vehicles, and we conflate use which is explicitly covered by international law; Law of Armed Conflict, and that which is not.

    The RPAS itself is only a small part of the whole chain of events and decisions that lead to a kinetic attack, and indeed frequently a collection RPAS is going to be involved even where the kinetic event is delivered by a team on the ground, delivered through rotary or wheeled.

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