Warren Weinstein's death by drone is a wake-up call for America
It's time to seriously reassess our approach to counterterrorism
President Obama came under some mild criticism last week when the CIA accidentally blew up two innocent hostages with a drone strike: an Italian named Giovanni Lo Porto and an American named Warren Weinstein. An American member of al Qaeda was also killed in the strike, which followed the killing of another American al Qaeda member in January.
That makes eight American citizens who have been killed by drone strike during the Obama presidency. Weinstein isn't even the first innocent killed by mistake — that was the 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, son of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American al Qaeda propagandist and the only one of the eight who was killed deliberately. Obama did not even address Abdulrahman's extrajudicial killing, though former Press Secretary Robert Gibbs suggested he "should have had a more responsible father."
A case of accidentally vaporized Western hostages is different. It undermines the hero mythology of the American security apparatus, which is simply very bad at its job. And of that system, the CIA is the most broken part. When you put the worst agency in the American government in charge of blowing people up by remote control, you're going to get it badly wrong on a regular basis.
The only reason Weinstein's death counts as unusual is because of the passport he holds. If the CIA managed to kill an American hostage by mistake, imagine how many innocent Yemenis or Pakistanis have been killed by drones. (The answer is somewhere between 500 and 1,000.) In fact, not only has the CIA killed hundreds of civilians, it is literally Obama administration policy to routinely drone people whose identities are unknown, with what are called "signature strikes."
This hasn't percolated through mainstream American culture because drone strikes are reported in exactly the same fashion as when an American police officer shoots someone: The government gets utter, cringing deference. Official assertions that "militants" were killed are typically copied and pasted without question, and only when the dead person is unquestionably innocent and has a sympathetic tribal identity is there a brief moment of concern.
As Ryan Deveraux notes, when relatives of innocent Yemenis killed by drones attempt to get the same sympathetic treatment as Weinstein's family (e.g., an apology), they are ignored. If Weinstein had been an Arab Muslim named Hamid, it's very possible he would have been deemed a militant by virtue of his proximity to a terrorist compound, and few would have cared or noticed.
If we could think clearly about terrorism for one minute, we might conclude that even a very low error rate on drone strikes is highly risky, due to how enraged people get when you massacre their relatives for no reason. This is only compounded by the fact that we inexplicably put the drone program in the hands of an intelligence agency that missed both 9/11 and Iraq's lack of WMDs, and was recently caught trying to intimidate the Senate into burying a report on its illegal torture program.
But most of all, America could really benefit from recognizing that our sainted military-security apparatus isn't omnipotent. It's not entirely useless, of course. Keeping world shipping lanes open is a useful task. A few nuclear submarines are handy to preserve nuclear deterrence. And it is by all accounts very good at fighting the regular armies of poverty-stricken tinpot dictatorships.
But a realistic view of recent history shows that it is basically worthless for most of the major tasks we have assigned it. The occupation of Iraq failed. The occupation of Afghanistan failed. The intervention in Libya failed. The proxy war in Somalia failed. The drone war in Yemen is in the process of failing, badly. The last decade of American foreign policy has been a cascade of disasters that has disrupted political order of the Middle East, and then we act all confused when a group like ISIS pops up in the wreckage.
So here's my suggestion for how to conduct the drone campaign: don't.