Obama dances with drones

By Steve Weissman
TruthOut.org | Perspective

Photo-illustration: Everett Bogue / t r u t h o u t)
Photo-illustration: Everett Bogue / t r u t h o u t)

In America's relations with Islamic countries, a peculiar dishonesty reigns. It is all so hush-hush, and often done with a wink and nod, as the rulers of these lands lead Washington to believe one story while telling their own people the opposite. The media reports are hard to forget: Arab nations wanted the Bush administration to invade Iraq. Sunni Arab leaders are urging Israel and the United States to bomb suspected nuclear sites in Shiite Iran. And, from The New York Times last week, "Pakistan Rehearses Its Two-Step on Airstrikes."

Citing unnamed Pakistani and American officials, the well-placed Jane Perlez reported that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari had given the Obama administration the go-ahead for our remotely piloted drones to fire rockets at targets inside the country. Most of the drones, she wrote, take off "with Pakistani assent from a base inside Pakistan."

Her account, though breathless, was hardly breaking news. Over a year ago, in March 2008, Newsweek reported that then-President Pervez Musharaff had given Washington "virtually unrestricted authority" to launch Predator drones from secret bases near Islamabad and Jacobabad. The Washington Post similarly spoke of a tacit understanding that Washington had with Musharraf and Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani to allow US strikes on foreign fighters operating in Pakistan, but not against the Pakistani Taliban.

What Jane Perlez added was a candid discussion of how President Zardari was talking out of the other side of his mouth as well. He was, she reported, continuing to proclaim publicly "that the drones represent an infringement of Pakistani sovereignty that the government cannot tolerate." Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi went even further, publicly rebuking Washington for the drone strikes, which were - he said - eroding trust between the allies. He said all this while standing next to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to Perlez, Ambassador Holbrooke dismissed the rebuke as something to be expected.

Expected? Perhaps. But who benefits from what Perlez called the diplomatic dance around the drones? More important, who stands to lose?

For Obama, the go-ahead serves to justify his position during the presidential election campaign that the United States should make a priority of striking militarily against al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. Candidate Obama said he would do it with or without Pakistani permission, which brought furious condemnation from both Hillary Clinton and John McCain. All three must have known from their advisers that Musharaff had already given his assent, much as candidate John F. Kennedy knew that the Eisenhower administration had already planned to invade Cuba when he called in his debates with Richard Nixon for tough action against Fidel Castro. As with JFK, Obama's apparently undiplomatic assertion let him stand tall and talk tough, which is politically what he thought he needed to do.

Once Obama won the presidency, the game should have changed. The question to ask before going any further was whether the military gains from killing al-Qaeda leaders justified the political reaction from ordinary Pakistanis every time one of the drones killed women, children and wedding guests, which the drones do all too often. No doubt the question has been quietly asked and answered, though only within the White House, and President Obama has decided that whatever the political costs, the military gains count more.

Next the American brass will likely push for the right to send Special Forces on covert raids into Pakistan, as high-level officials reportedly urged General Musharaff to accept during a meeting in January 2008. Mushareff pointedly refused, but Zardari, who is widely seen in Pakistan as an American puppet, might prove more amenable. And even if Zardari says no, the American military will urge Obama to give the go-ahead for covert raids on his own, as he said he would do during the presidential campaign.

Zardari's permission for the drones to operate in his country and the Pakistani military's zeal to have drones of their own do not in any way diminish the huge popular backlash against the weapons. But Islamabad's refusal to stand openly on the issue puts the onus on Washington, making it easier for Islamist opponents to build a nationalistic, anti-American movement in the only Islamic country with nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. This is a threat that will keep on growing no matter what happens to al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden.

Even more telling, the insistence on a secret understanding should in itself have warned Obama that the killer drones had become too hot to handle. Sadly, he failed to take the warning to heart. In his pursuit of a military victory against al-Qaeda, and his insistence that the Zardari government seek a military showdown with the Pakistani Taliban and their Islamist allies, our normally astute president simply cannot see that the remotely piloted Predators only feed an ever-escalating civil war. Killing bin Laden with a drone or commando raid would certainly give many Americans enormous satisfaction and win Obama unending political praise at home. But that is hardly worth the price of losing a nuclear-armed Pakistan to the Islamist jihadis.

22 April 2009 — Return to cover.
______