Losing the Moral High Ground

Losing the Moral High Ground

Last week Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spent three days in Pakistan defending U.S. Policy before a variety of groups. Some of the audiences were blunt and combative, reflecting the dramatic decline in popularity of U. S. policy. The Pakistani criticisms include U.S. interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs, U.S. failure to allow Pakistani textiles into American markets in desired quotas, and the growing U.S. relationship with India particularly on nuclear matters.

But the issue that drew the most attention and anger is the U.S. use of unmanned drone airplanes to kill people in Pakistan, a program guided offshore by civilians from as far away as western United States. Some Pakistanis told Clinton that the program amounted to “execution without trial.” Others asked Clinton if she viewed these drone attacks as terrorism. “No, I do not,” she replied, but refused to comment further.

This CIA program is aimed at terrorism suspects around the world including countries where U.S. troops are not based. The program was initiated in the Bush administration, continued by Obama, and is now one of the fastest-growing programs of the U.S. military. After September 11, Bush signed a secret memorandum of notification giving the CIA the right to kill members of Al Qaeda and confederates virtually anywhere in the world.

Targeted killing has become official U.S. policy although the U.S. has a law forbidding assassination. The CIA furnishes the intelligence and selection of victims. It depends on the quality of the intelligence and whether cash bounties to informers and personal revenge influence the execution decisions. Errors in targeting have led to civilian deaths of innocents especially members of families of the targeted.

The CIA keeps broadening categories of the condemned, from Al Qaeda to Taliban to insurgents. Opponents of the program say that it is more effective `to arrest suspects than to kill-in order to obtain intelligence from them. Dead men tell no tales.

The CIA has farmed out the killing to commercial contractors who hire and train civilians to make the life and death decisions under pressure, a system that makes many uneasy. Other critics point out that the drone is not a decisive weapon but its use is likely to inspire hatred of America and even create more enemies seeking revenge. And as Clinton found out in Pakistan, a longtime U.S. ally, the drone program could cause America to lose the moral high ground, from time immemorial an important asset in rallying the nation, attracting allies, and deterring rivals.

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