Daniel Klaidman is the author of a new book, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, and in a video recently posted to the Daily Beast website, Klaidman evangelizes the utility and innovation of drone warfare while at the same time dismissing critics of Obama’s drone program.
The video was highlighted by Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald yesterday. He called it “one of the most flagrant and repellent examples of rank government propaganda masquerading as objective journalism” that he had ever seen. It certainly appears to have been directed toward clueless or uninformed Americans, who are just now hearing reports of a controversial drone program and need to be brainwashed before they begin to ask too many questions.
Klaidman opens by noting criticisms and how the words “drone strikes” have taken on “sinister overtones.” He mentions there are “safe havens” in Pakistan off-limits to US troops. He says nothing about why they are off-limits. The US would have to declare war on Pakistan to actually have troops in Pakistan. He goes on to say, “No responsible American President given this option would allow Al Qaeda to plot attacks against the homeland unmolested.” The inclusion of the buzzword “homeland” in that statement is one of the first clues that this video will be rank propaganda.
Following this statement, Klaidman goes on to note the civilian casualty rate is 17% (and makes no mention of the controversial method being used by the administration to count all military-age males in a strike target area as combatants). He says Obama has used them “six times more frequently than Bush” and, after dropping that fact, makes a claim that Obama’s use of drones is completely legal because of the Authorized Use of Military Force and essentially insinuates debate about illegality is unmerited.
Klaidman next tackles how the “supernatural” nature of drones might lead one to be opposed to their use. He shares an anecdote about a drone operator that waited until a “suspected militant” was done playing with his children. When the children ran off, he fired a missile that killed this father. Just who this target was is not stated. As a cross-hair hovers over a father and his children before the drone operator pulls the trigger, viewers are to trust Klaidman that this “militant” was, in fact, someone who posed an “imminent threat” to the US and needed to be taken out. But this “precise” targeting, Klaidman says, is what makes drone warfare a remarkable “humanitarian advance.”
Then, there’s the argument in support of collateral murder that he makes. He acknowledges that secrecy is a legitimate issue, but the CIA could fix that problem by acknowledging when it kills civilians who are not “terrorists.” This would make the program legitimate and less reprehensible. What Klaidman doesn’t say is it would further entrench American exceptionalism into military warfare and US foreign policy. Undoubtedly these reports would follow with the clarification that these drone strikes are necessary to fighting “sworn enemies” of the United States.
And after this argument, he touts a survivor of a drone strike who said he didn’t oppose drones because it was less ruthless than having the Pakistan military come through Waziristan to hunt for Taliban or al Qaeda elements. This point is flawed, however, because of its subjectivity. Klaidman could have just as easily animated a drone victim’s testimonial:
The men who died in this strike were our leaders; the ones we turned to for all forms of support. We always knew that drone strikes were wrong, that they encroached on Pakistan’s sovereign territory. We knew that innocent civilians had been killed. However, we did not realize how callous and cruel it could be. The community is now plagued with fear. The tribal elders are afraid to gather together in jirgas, as had been our custom for more than a century. The mothers and wives plead with the men not to congregate together. They do not want to lose any more of their husbands, sons, brothers, and nephews. People in the same family now sleep apart because they do not want their togetherness to be viewed suspiciously through the eye of the drone. They do not want to become the next target.
Finally, Klaidman concludes, “It is hard to imagine any president not taking advantage of weapons that are so precise in targeting but do not expose service members to any danger. That’s why drones are here to stay. Instead of railing against them as illegal assassination, liberal critics should concentrate their efforts on pushing the government to be more transparent. Survival depends on making tough choices. When it comes to the drone program, liberals should too.”
Klaidman wants the few outspoken liberals opposed to drone warfare to make the “tough choice” of accepting this new revolution in warfare that appears to be free from legal constraint. He wants “liberal critics” to stop scrutinizing this policy and pretend what the Obama administration is doing shouldn’t be controversial at all. And instead of suggesting the drone wars in Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen are disgraceful, just ask for transparency on what is happening. Once the truth is known, it will be clear this program is not as bad as “liberal critics” want the public to believe.
The tone of the video is accentuated by awkwardly eerie music. The chalk drawings are also, as a companion to Klaidman’s pronouncements, creepy. The entire production seems to indicate this is what people who are granted interviews with members of presidential administrations on national security matters must do. They must make any contestable aspects seem unexceptional so the public will not take issue with the administration when previously unknown details become known.