The real price of our secret wars

MQ-1 Predator

With the Obama Administration nearing its end, it seems like somebody ought to talk a bit about the implications of one of its signature policy accomplishments: normalizing the idea of endless, undeclared secret war.

(It doesn’t surprise me that people aren’t lining up to tackle that subject, given the broad, bipartisan support people express in polls for the general concept of drone strikes and the like. But I feel like somebody ought to.)

Take a look at this Presidential Policy Guidance document, written by the White House in 2013 and released in a redacted form to the public in August of this year. It lays out the process by which the executive branch of the U.S. government targets and executes its “kill/capture” operations.

Put yourself into the shoes of a leader in one of those drone-patrolled nations as you read it. How does it read to you, from that perspective?

  • Per U.S. policy, you now have to accommodate, within your borders, the operations of certain armed American military units. The identities, strength and operational patterns of these units may be disclosed to you, or they may not. Nothing in American policy requires them to disclose this information to you.
  • The mission of these units will be to hunt down and kill certain of your citizens. They promise they won’t kill anyone who doesn’t deserve it, of course; and for all you know, they’re actually sincere. But even they acknowledge that occasionally they make mistakes. You are expected to be willing to live with that.
  • When the citizen of your country in question is targeted for capture, they will be interrogated. You will be provided no details on which interrogation methods are used on them, other than a directive to the interrogators that those methods should “[preserve] the availability of long-term disposition options, including prosecution.” The International Committee of the Red Cross is to be notified of the detention, and provided “timely access” to the detainee; neither courtesy is extended to your government.
  • Captured detainees may be held for “long-term disposition” as long as the U.S. deems necessary. This detention may take place in a third country “consistent with U.S. national security.” You will not be informed which country this is, beyond the assurance that “in no event will additional detainees be brought to the detention facilities at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.”
  • When the citizen of your country in question is targeted for death,¬†you are assured that this action has only been taken because “capture is not currently feasible” and “the relevant governmental authorities in the country where action is contemplated cannot or will not effectively address the threat to U.S. citizens.” Both determinations are made in secret, within the U.S. government. You will have no opportunity to participate in or appeal them.
  • Should the U.S. government determine that a “lethal action” within your borders is justified, you are assured that it will only be undertaken in a time and place where there is a “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.” What constitutes a “near certainty” is not defined. You will have no input into this determination.
  • Your country may have laws that would restrict or block such operations. The U.S. government recognizes no obligation to follow such laws, or indeed¬†any of your laws, while performing military operations within your borders. The only legal constraints it recognizes are “domestic” (e.g. U.S.) and international law.

If a foreign power asserted any of these privileges within our own borders — even one of them — I dare say we would consider that an act of war.

We are free to assert them ourselves without such worries. But for one reason and one reason only: because today, we are strong. Nobody we have presented with these terms wants to fight a war with us, because they are certain they will lose. So they swallow their offended honor and accept whatever terms we dictate.

But people remember. When they are pushed around, they remember. When they are bullied, they remember. And those memories are long.

By making these assertions, we are teaching entire generations of people around the world that the foundation of American power is not law, or justice, or even right. The foundation of American power, we tell them, is might. We, who are strong, do what we will; they, who are weak, do what they must.

They accept this, for now, because they have no choice. But they remember.

Arrogance is rarely a winning strategy in the long term. By institutionalizing it, we store up trouble for the future. We create enemies for our children and grandchildren to fight. We undermine our interests of tomorrow to avoid inconvenient debates today.

This is the real price of our secret wars. It’s moral debt. And someday, some generation of Americans will be called upon to pay it off.