Aerial warfare, drones and war crimes – time to revoke Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize

The Washington Post, the liberal mouthpiece of the US empire, carried a story in May 2013 detailing a speech by US President Barack Obama in which he declared that a crossroads has been reached in the ‘war on terror’. Obama announced that the terrorist threat to the United States has receded and that it was time to redefine and recalibrate the ‘war on terror’ in order to bring it to an end.

One of the main tactics that the Obama administration has used with escalating intensity is the drone warfare, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), so called Predator drones, to carry out lethal strikes against ostensible terrorist targets, assassinations of individuals deemed security threats to the United States, and for general intelligence-gathering in areas of heavy combat. Obama vigorously defended the use of drones in his May 2013 speech, and while he made a commitment to ending the ‘war on terror’, he made clear that key policies of that war, like the use of drones, will continue unabated. For instance, targeted assassinations with armed drones would continue, Obama insisted.

So while speaking of a general winding down of the ‘war on terror’, Obama is actually redefining its scope and application, and continuing to use the central plank of his administration’s counterterrorism strategy. In July 2013, the Washington Post observed that while the use of drones has decreased in combat hotspots like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, the use of drones is being redirected into non-combat areas, and their application is being expanded.

The present author has covered the ever-increasing use of drone warfare by the Obama administration, their utility for corporate profits, and the erosion of democratic safeguards that has accompanied the construction of the scaffolding of a US police state. The expansion of drone spying and warfare into new, non-combat areas indicates an escalation of the US ruling class’ efforts to extend its imperial overreach into new markets and acquire control of new resources at the expense of its competitors.

Obama, the first African-American president, has certainly devoted more attention to Africa, but not exactly for the benefit of its impoverished populations, or to alleviate the scourges of famine, war and disease. Africa is the site of renewed competition between the United States on the one hand, and Russia, China and other powers on the other for resources, markets and clients in that continent. The US has been losing out to its competitors, mainly Chinese investors, from expanding into various African ventures. Obama is countering growing Chinese ‘soft power’ in Africa in two ways; by building and expanding alliances with US clients in the region, such as Uganda’s dictatorial president Youweri Museveni, ignoring Museveni’s horrific human rights record; and secondly by sponsoring the construction of drone bases and launching sites, such as building new secret bases in the Horn of Africa, conducting spying operations on people and political forces in the region that are judged to be opposed to US interests. As Lee Wengraf wrote in the Socialist Worker online magazine:

“IT IS no exaggeration to say that the U.S. is at war in Africa. The continent is awash with American military bases, covert operations and thousands of Western-funded troops, and responsibility for this escalation must be laid squarely on Obama’s doorstep.

Key to the Obama administration global strategy in the post-Iraq era is a shift from “boots on the ground” towards “alliance-building.” The idea is to cement American “indispensability” to African political stability in geo-strategically critical areas–from the Horn of Africa, with its proximity to the Suez Canal and Middle East, to West African nations, with billions of barrels of oil.”

The new drone bases in Africa are part and parcel of this renewed push by American imperialism into the heartlands of that continent. The UAVs are carrying out spying missions across Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Mauritania, Mali and scores of other African countries. As the Washington Post reported in June 2012:

The U.S. military has largely kept details of its spy flights in Africa secret. The Post pieced together descriptions of the surveillance network by examining references to it in unclassified military reports, U.S. government contracting documents and diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group.

Further details were provided by interviews with American and African officials, as well as military contractors.

In addition to Burkina Faso, U.S. surveillance planes have operated periodically out of nearby Mauritania. In Central Africa, the main hub is in Uganda, though there are plans to open a base in South Sudan. In East Africa, U.S. aircraft fly out of bases in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Seychelles.

These clandestine intelligence missions and associated lethal air strikes are part of a long history of US intervention in Africa, whether directly or through the arming of proxy forces and US-friendly dictatorships. During the Cold War, the US was concerned about the political and economic independence of African nations, and the increasing role of the Soviet Union in backing anti-colonial, socialist and nationalist groups and forces in the region. The Soviet Union provided an alternative model of economic development, and the East-West rivalry had an impact on the politics and economics of the region.

With the Cold War finished, the US rushed to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of Soviet influence. However, intensified rivalry with China, Russia and the economic competition of these contending powers has been driving the US to escalate its involvement in Africa. The Economist magazine reported in June 2012 that responding to the alleged Chinese threat is the main priority for the US administration. The Defence Secretary at the time announced that by 2020 60 percent of American warships would be stationed in the Asia Pacific region, an obvious projection of US military power against China. Trade with Africa involves access to extensive natural resources, and these are a lifeline for US imperialism. Obama’s scramble for Africa, as Nick Turse puts it in a recent article, involves participating in shadow wars and mushrooming intelligence missions.

As Nick Turse elaborates on the US incursion into Africa in his July 2012 article:

Under President Obama, in fact, operations in Africa have accelerated far beyond the more limited interventions of the Bush years: last year’s war in Libya; a regional drone campaign with missions run out of airports and bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the Indian Ocean archipelago nation of Seychelles; a flotilla of 30 ships in that ocean supporting regional operations; a multi-pronged military and CIA campaign against militants in Somalia, including intelligence operations, training for Somali agents, a secret prison, helicopter attacks, and U.S. commando raids; a massive influx of cash for counterterrorism operations across East Africa; a possible old-fashioned air war, carried out on the sly in the region using manned aircraft; tens of millions of dollars in arms for allied mercenaries and African troops; and a special ops expeditionary force (bolstered by State Department experts) dispatched to help capture or kill Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony and his senior commanders.  And this only begins to scratch the surface of Washington’s fast-expanding plans and activities in the region.

The New York Slimes, the pro-war lapdog of the imperial American empire, reported in July 2013 that a new drone base in the sub-Saharan African country of Niger provides the US military with a foothold in that part of the continent. The story was making the point that new threats, along with the tried-and-true recycled menace of Islamic ‘terrorism’, was compelling the US to rethink its counterterrorism strategy and push for new drone bases in Africa.

The article quotes Michael Shurkin, a former Central Intelligence Agency operative who is now working for the RAND corporation. Shurkin says ““The U.S. is facing a security environment in Africa that is increasingly more complex and therefore more dangerous”; he goes on to state that “Effective responses, moreover, require excellent knowledge about local populations and their politics, the sort of understanding that too often eludes the U.S. government and military.”

Note that the New York Slimes is unconcerned with minor issues like poverty, corruption, famine, and the lack of social services in a country like Niger, or Mali, or other western African countries. Niger has a life expectancy at birth of 55 years, and the Human Development Index ranks Niger 186th out of 193 United Nations member states in terms of human social and educational development. Never matter, the point of the article is to convey the perspective of US imperial empire-builders; new threats in the region require ever-increasing military responses. The Washington Post adopted a similar perspective in its article about the Niger drone base published in March 2013.

Two researchers, Linda Bilmes from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Michael Intriligator from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), have co-authored a research paper entitled “How many wars is the US fighting today?” The authors examine how most Americans, when asked about how many conflicts the United States is engaged in, will usually name Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the reality is much more stark; the US is fighting unannounced and undeclared wars across the globe through the use of drones and strategic aerial firepower.

Bilmes and Intriligator examine those countries where the US is conducting drone strikes but where war has not officially been declared; Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. They include drone strikes in a long tradition of covert warfare by the US imperial class against Nicaragua, Cuba, Chile and other Latin American countries. Not only is the global scope of US drone and military operations detailed, but the authors also attempt to account for the finance for all these military incursions and network of military bases.

The investigators take specific examples of the allocation of funds for military purposes because, as they point out, “The size of the budget for all these operations is difficult to piece together because Congress appropriates funds to line items for each force, rather than to individual activities. In some cases, however, we can estimate the amounts being spent.”

For instance, the US currently provides the Pakistani government, a US ally in the region, with four billion dollars of direct military assistance. Bilmes and Intriligator explain that this is on top of another four billion dollars-worth of ‘civilian’ assistance, plus the billions the US spends reimbursing the Pakistani military for the expenses incurred by the Pakistani military in assisting US military operations and forces. This is happening all the while in the United States, the major city of Detroit has been forced into bankruptcy, and its citizens will be forced to endure another mass reduction in the quality of life and cuts to badly needed social services. The people of Detroit, already struggling with the consequences of deindustrialisation, are expected to face another assault on their declining living standards and conditions.

Bilmes and Intriligator focus specifically on warfare conducted by UAVs. They note that:

“the US drone program escalated rapidly between 2004 and 2010, with no public debate. There are no international rules of conduct on when it is fair and just to deploy them. Under the UN Charter, to which the US is a signatory, member states may defend themselves from an armed attack (Article 51) but Article 2(4) prohibits them from choosing war as a means of settling disputes.”

This raises some pertinent questions about the conduct of the Obama administration. The current US government is using a method of warfare that violates the United Nations charter, something that many consider to be war crimes. These crimes violate the rules that govern, among other things, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize. Not only that, but aerial warfare, the doctrine of raining down terror from the skies, is not something new. This doctrine has motivated imperialist states and their policy-makers to carry out war crimes, and crimes against humanity, crimes for which perpetrators have been charged, found guilty and punished.

Writing in the online magazine, and reprinted in the Huffington Post, Retired Lt. Colonel Professor William Astore states that drone warfare is neither cheap, nor surgical, nor decisive. The dreams of air power enthusiasts, Astore writes, has been to dominate the skies, bringing down death and destruction on the enemy below, sapping their morale and destroying their capacity to resist. Air strikes by UAVs is the latest incarnation in a long history of terror bombing by various imperialist states. Since the invention of airplanes, imperialist strategists have dreamt of overwhelming the enemy by the use of overwhelming firepower. As Astore relates, this fantasy is contradicted by the history of twentieth century warfare, where colonial powers, in attempting to demoralise their enemy, only succeeded in bringing more wanton cruelty and destruction, and air power failed to break the willpower of those determined to resist.

Astore points out that it was as far back as 1911 when the first modern air raid took place – by Italian aircraft in Libya, as part of the Italian effort at empire-building. One hundred years later, in 2011, NATO air power was a major factor in degrading the Libyan military’s ability to resist the organised contingents of NATO-backed rebels in that country. The other imperialist states, Britain, France, Germany, the United States and so on, were quick to follow suit and develop air war capacities themselves. The first advocate of unrestrained aerial bombing was the Italian Giulio Douhet. In his book, Command of the Air, published in 1921, Douhet advocated industrial-scale bombing that targets the enemy’s industries, using high-tech explosives and poison gas. Civilians were to be included in Douhet’s vision of aerial strategic bombing campaigns.

Such terror bombing, Douhet reasoned, would demoralise the target population, causing social dislocation, chaos thus bringing the war of colonial conquest to a speedy and successful resolution for the imperialist conqueror. One can see the fascist-inspired antecedents of the American 1991 ‘shock and awe’ bombing campaign against Iraq. No concern at all for the fate of the people bearing the brunt of such untrammelled bombing from the skies. Today, we can see the tragic consequences of the drone strikes in countries like Yemen, where previously peaceful regions become zones of conflict, resentment against the occupier builds, and a flow of refugees is created. Drone strikes do not change the beliefs of the attacked – indeed, they foment even further opposition to the United States imperialist overreach and provide a fertile ground for extremist groups to recruit new members.

The British heeded the call by Douhet, and took up strategic bombing with enthusiasm. Hugh Trenchard, the founder of the Royal Air Force, adopted strategic aerial bombing as his preferred tactic and elaborated it for the purpose of protecting and extending Britain’s newly acquired possessions in the Middle East. In the wake of the defeat of the Ottoman-Turkish empire, several Arab states, such as Iraq, were passed over to the victorious English. If the people in these states resisted, they were to be met with terror bombing. One British politician at the time, writing in his capacity as Secretary of State for Air, stated that poison gas should be used to pacify uncivilised and rebellious tribes in Iraq and elsewhere, dismissing any ethical concerns about the use of such weapons. That politician was Winston Churchill, and he put the aerial warfare doctrine to good use as prime minister of Britain during World War Two.

The British empire, and their American counterparts, applied the doctrine of aerial warfare with ruthless efficiency in World War Two. Concerns about the civilian casualties of bombing were forgotten in the outpouring of outrage against the German bombings of Guernica, the blitz on Rotterdam, and other German and Japanese war crimes. The combined American-British bombing campaign against Germany was no less devastating – German cities such as Dresden, Hamburg, Cologne and Berlin itself were reduced to piles of rubble by the thousands of sorties flown by Allied aircraft.

In March 1945, not to be outdone, American Air Force Major General Curtis LeMay led the firestorm bombing of Tokyo city in Japan. The mainly wooden buildings and environs of Tokyo were ‘scored, boiled and baked’ (LeMay’s words) causing the incendiary deaths of 100 000 Japanese people. Sixty further Japanese cities were firebombed in this way, before this destructive campaign culminated with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Surely these bombing campaigns convinced the Japanese leadership to surrender, and crippled the German war effort in Europe?

Astore writes that:

“Yet, contrary to the dreams of air power advocates, Germany’s will to resist remained unbroken. The vaunted second front of aerial battle became yet another bloody attritional brawl, with hundreds of thousands of civilians joining scores of thousands of aircrews in death.

Similarly mauled but unbroken by bombing was Japan, despite an air campaign of relentless intensity that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians.”

Writing in the Foreign Policy blog, Ward Wilson, historian and research fellow at the British American Security Information Council, argues that the single most decisive factor in convincing the Japanese leadership to surrender was not the destruction of Japanese cities, about which they were unconcerned, but the entry of the Soviet Union into the war. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, having finished the fighting on the German front, turned his attention to the Far East. The heavy battles between the Soviets and Japanese forces in mid-1945 finally persuaded the Japanese war planners that they had no option but to surrender, Japan’s military being incapable of fighting both the encroaching Americans from the south, and the Soviets to their north.

In the 1990s, aerial power advocates refined their vision of strategic victory with fantasies about ‘precision-guided bombs’ and much-ballyhooed ‘surgical strikes’. Targeted aerial power would bring about decisive military victories, and we were invited, by the compliant corporate media, to gaze in admiration at these new-fangled weapons bringing death and destruction. As William Astore writes, let’s not get carried away with these new, laser-guided ‘smart’ bombs:

“In the opening stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, for example, 50 precision “decapitation strikes” targeting dictator Saddam Hussein’s top leadership failed to hit any of their intended targets, while causing “dozens” of civilian deaths.  That same year, air power’s inability to produce decisive results on the ground after Iraq’s descent into chaos, insurrection, and civil war served as a reminder that the vaunted success of the U.S. air campaign in the First Gulf War (1991) was a fluke, not a flowering of air power’s maturity.”

It appears that the more recent acolytes of empire-building and colonialism, namely, the Zionist state of Israel, have adopted the doctrines of aerial bombing, but have similarly failed to absorb any of its historical lessons. The fact that strategic bombing does not produce the intended rapid victory but only heighten the resolve of its targets has been lost on the current Israeli leadership. Two researchers from the University of NSW, Clinton Fernandes and Craig Stockings, co-authored a paper on the subject of aerial bombing and the lack of its efficacy. Their paper “Airpower and the Myth of Strategic Bombing as Strategy” was published in 2006, just as the Israeli military machine concluded its strategic bombing campaign in Lebanon, for the ostensible reason of defeating the Lebanese Shia militia, Hezbollah.

The authors examine the impact of the Israeli bombing campaign on Lebanese society, stating that;

“The Israeli bombing campaign involved the destruction of highways, bridges, factories, sea ports, airports, the telecommunications network, schools, hospitals, petrol stations and military installations. At least 1181 people were killed in Lebanon, while the Israeli death toll was 157.”

What was the end result of this bombing campaign? Stockings and Fernandes write:

“Meanwhile, Hezbollah defied the region’s superpower with a combination of skill, courage, preparation, tactics, and organization. It has emerged from the conflict with its prestige – and that of its leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah – enhanced throughout the Arab world.”

The Obama administration’s policy of drone strikes is only the latest technological application of the old, discredited, nightmarish and criminal practice of strategic aerial bombing. Its enthusiasts have proposed its supposed ‘surgical’ feature, ignoring the mass civilian deaths and casualties that accompany such bombing. This doctrine is an essential tool of the imperialist states in their quest to build and expand economic empires, and has nothing to do with minimising the loss of lives or damage to property. The liberal commentators who are still cheering for Obama, must now realise that the current Obama administration represents a redesigned continuation of empire, not a decisive break with it. Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize must be revoked, because he has continued to apply a predatory, criminal doctrine that violates the very principles upon which international human rights and peace efforts are based. What kind of political and economic system is it, which fails to acknowledge the people that have died as a result of all the aerial bombing campaigns, and then applies the central doctrine of their killers?

3 thoughts on “Aerial warfare, drones and war crimes – time to revoke Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize

  1. Thank you for writing about this important issue and all the links to various articles on this subject. We need in depth articles analysing and informing the public about the devastation caused by the drones, the regularity of these attacks and how widespread they are. Yes, we thought that Obama would be on the side of the downtrodden, but he turned out to be even worse than Bush in his intransigence.

  2. All these heroic, Western war criminals. Well, at least their “our” war criminals. Actually, Obama is much worse than Bush and just plain scary. This man and his cronies are capable of anything.

  3. Yes, Helen, Obama is worse than Bush because the image and reality are so disparate.

    And I still cannot get over how any president could be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize before having the opportunity to translate their rhetoric into reality.

    The other thing I cannot get over is the naivety of my left-leaning friends in academia who thought Obama would be different. There was never any reason to expect him to be different, as his record on corporate power, and indeed any kind of power, was clear before his election.

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