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General News    H3'ed 1/13/20

Tomgram: Allegra Harpootlian, Droning the World

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

"Be assured of one thing: whichever candidate you choose at the polls in November, you aren't just electing a president of the United States; you are also electing an assassin-in-chief... In previous eras... presidents either stayed above the assassination fray or practiced a kind of plausible deniability about the acts. We are surely at a new stage in the history of the imperial presidency when a president (or his election team) assembles his aides, advisors, and associates to foster a story that's meant to broadcast the group's collective pride in the new position of assassin-in-chief."

Note that I wrote that not last week when President Donald Trump ordered a CIA drone to take out Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani, but in June 2012 after the New York Times published a reasonably glowing piece about President Barack Obama's deep involvement in the process of "nominating" those to be killed by CIA drones halfway around the world. It was already obvious where we were heading. Of course, at the time, the Obama White House was focused on killing non-state actors, including, in the end, such figures as Osama bin Laden (though not by drone) and an American exile and leader of al-Qaeda's Yemenese affiliate, Anwar al-Awlaki. But sooner or later, actual state actors like Suleimani were sure to come into some president's drone sights.

In fact, drones aside, the direction this country was heading in when it came to the assassination of state actors had long been obvious. There was, for instance, the CIA's attempt to poison Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba before he was killed (possibly at that Agency's behest). There were at least eight similar assassination attempts (including by poison) against Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the successful assassination of the Dominican Republic's leader Rafael Trujillo. And that's just to start down a list.

But in the Obama years, as I wrote in 2012, assassination became "thoroughly institutionalized, normalized, and bureaucratized around the figure of the president," even if "targeted killing" was then the term in use. (Almost eight years later, in the wake of Suleimani's death, "assassination" has become a commonplace in the media and has even been used descriptively by some Democratic senators and one presidential candidate.) Today, TomDispatch regular Allegra Harpootlian, an expert on the still-growing nightmare of drone warfare, returns us to that Obama moment to consider just how we got here -- to, that is, a drone killing chosen impulsively by a president who is the definition of turmoil, a killing that has brought us to the edge of another Middle Eastern nightmare, one which, if the last 18-plus years have taught us anything, can't end well.

Back in 2012, I concluded that "an American global killing machine (quite literally so, given that growing force of drones) is now at the beck and call of a single, unaccountable individual. This is the nightmare the founding fathers tried to protect us from." I wouldn't change a word. Tom

How the President Became a Drone Operator
From Obama to Trump, the Escalation of Drone Warfare
By Allegra Harpootlian

We're only a few days into the new decade and it's somehow already a bigger dumpster fire than the last. On January 2nd, President Trump decided to order what one expert called "the most important decapitation strike America has ever launched." This one took out not some nameless terrorist in a distant land or a group of civilians who happened to get in the way, but Major General Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran's elite Quds Force and the mastermind of its military operations across the Middle East.

Among the thousands of ignored American drone strikes since the 9/11 attacks, this was not one of them. In the wake of the assassination, we've seen: the Iraqi parliament vote to expel American forces from their country; all the Democratic presidential candidates make statements condemning the strike; thousands of protestors around the world take to the streets; and both chambers of Congress introduce resolutions aimed at curbing the president's expanding war powers. Even though there is still so much we don't know, one thing is for sure. Everything we thought we knew about drone warfare -- and America's wars more broadly -- is about to be thrown out the window.

When I first started writing this piece, I was simply reflecting on a decade of U.S. drone warfare and the problems it had spawned. But when this world-altering news broke, I immediately started thinking about how I got here, as well as how my country could continue to recklessly breed chaos and destruction throughout the Greater Middle East.

New decades afford us a chance to take a good, hard look at what transpired in the years past. Until that strike in Iraq occurred, it seemed like every time I opened Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram in the new year, I was inundated with sentimental reflections about how far we've come in the last 10 years and where we're going next. And I get it. I really do. It's the beginning of a new decade and nostalgia is in the air.

In fact, over the holiday season, I found myself with time on my hands and that same sort of sentimentality creeping up on me. So I decided to indulge myself by looking through old journals of mine. One entry in particular caught my attention. In 2010, when I was still an idealistic high school student in Tennessee, I wrote about the democracy movement I saw rising in the Middle East (what we came to know as "the Arab Spring") and how hopeful it made me that global peace might be achieved in my lifetime. I wrote about my desire not only to see the world but to help make it a better place.

Rereading that entry 10 years later, a few thoughts came to mind. First, I was amused by my unwavering optimism and how sure I was that everything would work out okay. Although I'd like to think that I still see glasses as at least half-full, the never-endingly destructive feedback loop of American foreign policy has certainly left me a more jaded twenty-something.

Then I was suddenly impressed by how close I'd actually come to living the life that the 16-year-old me once imagined. Of course, I haven't yet seen the entire world (though it's on my bucket list) or managed to bring about world peace (a girl's gotta sleep, ya know). Still, working to bring attention to undercovered issues like drone warfare seems like a reasonable first step to have taken.

With the world veering into unprecedented territory, I realized that it was time for me to take off those rose-colored glasses, reflect on what our world really looked like 10 years ago and how oblivious I was to so many of the darker parts of it.

If you remember, as 2009 ended, President Barack Obama went to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. While accepting the award, he made a moving speech about war and peace. Noting the absurdity of receiving the prize while still "the commander-in-chief of a nation in the midst of two wars," he laid out his ideas on how to build a just and lasting world of peace. At the same time, he defended his continued use of military force in the Middle East, arguing that "the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace," even if we "must also think clearly about how we fight" war.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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