An American military strike in Syria seemed imminent a week ago when author and peace activist Medea Benjamin spoke in Raleigh. Naturally, she was asked what the U.S. should do in response to the use of chemical weapons against his own people by—according to the Obama administration—Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Actually, because Benjamin had earlier ruled out military intervention, I asked her whether the U.S. wasn't obligated to do something about Assad. And if the answer's not bombs, what is it?
You're free to reject the premise of my question. But I still believe that the United States has a unique role to play as the leader of the free world, however much we've abused our privilege. So, too, does Benjamin, a veteran leader who seized the chance to present herself and others in the peace movement as well aware of America's responsibilities—and anything but isolationist.
"We're often accused of knowing what we don't like, but we don't know what we want," she began. "And I think that's just not true." Intense diplomacy and much more support for peacemaking groups and humanitarian aid organizations should be at the heart of American foreign policy, she argued. To show the world our peaceful intentions, we should close our more than 800 military bases overseas and the notorious prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
In short, she said, we should sow what we intend to reap—but unfortunately, we've sown too many Hellfire missiles while showing too little respect for human life in the rest of the world: "We [say we] can go anywhere we want, kill anyone we want, based on secret information." Which causes other countries to think, Why shouldn't we?
Benjamin, who co-founded Global Exchange and, after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, co-founded the women's peace group CODE PINK, was making a return trip to Raleigh to talk about her newest book, her eighth. Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control details her travels to trouble spots all over the globe. It's also a well-documented, very readable compilation of what is known about the super-secret subject of drones and their use by the U.S. and other powers, principally Israel.
Drone Warfare reads as an indictment of President Obama's war policies, though Benjamin went out of her way to say that she's not "anti-Obama."
Maybe not, but you know that "young woman" who interrupted Obama more than once during his address in May to an invited audience at the National Defense University in Washington? The woman Obama said he was cutting some slack because drone warfare "is worth being passionate about"? Well, that was Benjamin, a youthful-looking 60, who questioned Obama persistently before she was finally ushered out.
When Benjamin spoke to fellow activists at the Universalist Unitarian Fellowship hall last Tuesday, she expressed her frustration at how the peace movement, after rising up to fight George W. Bush, "just died" as soon as Obama took office. From 300,000 people on its mailing list and 300 active chapters—including a very active one in the Triangle—CODE PINK "fizzled" along with other such groups. "It's been extraordinary to watch," she acknowledged.
While activists were trusting the "peace president" to bring our troops home, Benjamin said, Obama has used drones—or, as the military calls them, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles—to continue and even escalate Bush's war on terror in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East.
Estimates of the number of people we've killed using drones, Benjamin said, range from 2,000 to 4,700, a figure supplied by Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican with access to classified information. The vast majority were either collateral damage—people in the wrong place when a drone took out the right person—or low-level Taliban or al-Qaeda sympathizers. Only about 70 were on any list of the high-level terrorist commanders that Obama insists are our targets—on the few occasions when he's said anything at all.
Under Obama, Benjamin writes in her book, the U.S. military machine shifted "from boots on the ground to assassins in the air," which helps explain why the American public is in the dark about what's happening.
One reason, she writes, and the good news for our country, is that we're losing fewer of troops in combat; our drones are operated by remote control from bases far from any battle. Another, and the bad news for a democracy, is that the Obama administration rarely acknowledges that we even have drones, except for the occasional announcement that a "bad guy" was zapped somehow in Pakistan or Yemen.
This, despite the fact that the U.S. drone fleet has expanded from less than 50 prior to Sept. 11, 2001, to more than 10,000 such aircraft now. They range from backpack- to airliner-sized, and they're loaded with cameras, heat sensors and, sometimes, Hellfire missiles. It takes up to 300 people on the ground to operate the biggest of them for a day, according to Benjamin's book.
We're moving, she writes, to a not-so-distant future where solar-powered drones stay airborne for years at a time and where wars are fought by robotic forces using software that doesn't just locate a target but—using algorithms like Google does—decides what the targets should be in the first place.
With drones, wars will be so easy, she writes. And there will be lots of them.
"People are not aware. In fact, they've been sold a faulty bill of goods, when the administration would even talk about it," Benjamin said. "If these policies were happening under the Bush administration, there would've been a massive outcry."
Since Benjamin's visit, Obama announced that he would ask for congressional authorization before striking Syria, though it's clear he doesn't think he needs it and may use force whether Congress approves or not. He's already acted on his own in Libya and, of course, in Pakistan, Yemen, et cetera.
Obama's move is patently political, designed to make Republican critics get behind him or be called weak on defense.
Still, as citizens, we now have some time to talk about whether endless wars—and secret wars—are what we want for our future. Let's discuss the inevitable blowback as the countries we bomb, and the terrorists we create when we do, launch drones back at us.
Or should we instead demand that our country try diplomacy and humanitarian efforts with Syria, Iran, Israel and Russia in an effort to bring peace to the region?
Even Obama acknowledges that bombing Syria won't do a thing for Syria, and that his only point is to take a stand against the use of chemical weapons by Assad.
Dropping bombs is easy, until they start dropping on you. Making peace is hard, but only until there's peace.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bombs away."