The argument that drone strikes may be counterproductive is nothing new. Left critics of the Obama Administration have been consistently making this argument for the last few years, Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill foremost among them. But, something seems to have occurred over the last few weeks: the mainstream media appears to have begun questioning the utility and consequences of these attacks.
The New York Times published an important and widely-discussed article on the Administration's "kill list." The story reiterates much of what leftist critics have been saying about Obama's drone doctrine, particularly about the post-mortem identification of who is and who is not a "militant."
The Washington Post -- in my view, one of the most egregiously militaristic of the "respectable" media -- has thrown its hat into the ring over the last week with two important articles, taking a hard look at the potentially radicalizing effects drone attacks are having in Yemen.
Khaled Abdullah reports that the attacks may be strengthening Islamist groups in tribal regions that have become "ground zero" for drone attacks:
Awlak tribesmen are businessmen, lawmakers and politicians. But the strikes have pushed more of them to join the militants or to provide AQAP with safe haven in their areas, said tribal leaders and Yemeni officials.
“The Americans are targeting the sons of the Awlak,” Aidaroos said. “I would fight even the devil to exact revenge for my nephew.”
In early March, U.S. missiles struck in Bayda province, 100 miles south of Sanaa, killing at least 30 suspected militants, according to Yemeni security officials. But in interviews, human rights activists and victims’ relatives said many of the dead were civilians, not fighters.
Villagers were too afraid to go to the area. Al-Qaeda militants took advantage and offered to bury the villagers’ relatives. “That made people even more grateful and appreciative of al-Qaeda,” said Barakani, the businessman. “Afterwards, al-Qaeda told the people, ‘We will take revenge on your behalf.’ ”
As the story clearly indicates, if jihadist organizations are growing in strength in Yemen, their ideology has little to do with. Neither sharia nor establishing the global caliphate, but rather the desire for justice and revenge is fueling the growth of the Islamist insurgency in Yemen.
The Post followed this up yesterday with a look inside the Administration's rationale behind drone strikes in Yemen:
Current and former U.S. officials familiar with the campaign said restrictions on targeting have been eased amid concern over al-Qaeda’s expansion over the past year. Targets still have to pose a “direct threat” to U.S. interests, said a former high-ranking U.S. counterterrorism official. “But the elasticity of that has grown over time.”
The adjustments in the drone campaign carry risks for the Obama administration, which had sought to minimize the number of strikes out of fears of radicalizing local militants and driving them into al-Qaeda’s ranks. Growing unrest in Yemen has blurred the boundaries between al-Qaeda cells plotting terrorist attacks and a broader insurgency that operates under the terrorist network’s brand.
There's really nothing new in these article, merely confirmation of a critique that has been made for years. The question remains, though, whether or not the mainstreaming of the drone critique will have any long-term effect.
These articles do, however, suggest a renewed interest in the motivations of terrorist. Misunderstanding why individuals take up arms or strap bombs to their chests has enormous consequences. George W. Bush's "they hate us for our freedoms" argument fueled the Iraq debacle. Few in the mainstream media questioned the logic of imposing "democracy" through force of arms as an antidote to the"evils of Islamist terrorism. If they had bothered to actually read bin Laden's rationale for his war on the "Far Enemy" they would have seen that foreign occupation and the American military presence in the Muslim world -- a presence that could not be expanded with the shedding of blood -- was a driving force behind al Qaeda's worldview. So, maybe a unnecessary war would have adverse effects.
Much of the time, "terrorists" are not motivated simply by ideology -- which is a favorite argument of the Islamophobic right. Some are pure ideologues, people for whom the goal of the global caliphate is the driving force for their embracing of total warfare. But, many -- perhaps most -- are motivated by what they see as injustices perpetrated against Muslims and the need to avenge their moral community, as scholars like Scott Atran and Marc Sageman have long argued. During the nineties, a generation of jihadists were inflamed less by their religious outlook than by footage from Palestine, Bosnia, and Chechnya. Iraq and Afghanistan provided similar fuel for radicalization over the last decade. The Madrid and London bombers' pathway to terrorism demonstrate this, though their radicalization was also fostered by a perceived sense of discrimination and alienation.
The primary difference between the radicalizing potential of the current drone campaign is that it is a more immediate source of anger and the need for vengeance. While the videos of atrocities in Bosnia or the Abu Ghraib pictures showed injustices perpetrated on Muslims in foreign locales, drone strikes are radicalizing people living in these very locales. The deaths of family members, personal friends, or members of one's clan has thus a far more radicalizing affect, potentially radicalizing regions rather than scattered groups of individuals.Furthermore, as Scott Atran argues in his book Talking to the Enemy, the perceived sense of injustice alone may not alone be sufficient to push an individual to embrace violence. But when that injustice is localized within and fueled by one's peer group -- buddies in one's neighborhood or members of one's extended family -- than the pace of radicalization picks up considerable speed. Drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan seem to be ideal case for such radicalization: when someone you know, a friend or a relative, has been unjustly killed by a drone attack, radicalization is almost assured.
Returning to the mainstreaming of the drone critique, does the newfound interest of media organizations such as the Times and the Post indicate a more broad change in the perspectives of Americans? Will US citizens begin considering the counterproductive effects of the drone doctrine?
It's difficult to say. A poll from February showed that most Americans approved of the program. I have not seen any more recent polling, but I would suspect that public approval of drone strikes has not changed much. Furthermore, it's hard to know how much influence the media actually has on public opinion. In Iraq, the media seemed to follow the public in taking a critical view of the war. The Times and the Post may be a little ahead of the curve this time around.
More generally, the idea that American military activities are counterproductive -- that we're doing things that others may find as immoral and unjust -- runs counter to our nationalist self-image as "good guys." In this sense, Americans will probably be unmoved by arguments about radicalization.
After all, we're killing bad guys, "terrorists." How cares why they became terrorists in the first place.