There is growing dissent across the Middle East and beyond at what is perceived to be a total lack of transparency, ethics, and scrutiny over the U.S. government’s use of drones.
This concern was growing even before the U.S. expanded drone use into the Arabian Peninsula and Northern Africa. All of this consternation revolves around four fundamental questions that the United States has been reckless in ignoring on the global stage. Meanwhile, the answers based on previous American drone usage probably carry some severe repercussions for American foreign and military policies, let alone global peace and security:
Who is controlling the weapon system?
Does the system of control and oversight violate international law governing the use of force?
Are drone strikes proportionate acts that provide military effectiveness given the circumstances of the conflict they are being used in?
Does their use violate the sovereignty of other nations and allow the United States to disregard formal national boundaries?
Unfortunately, the overwhelming dominance of American drone capability allows these questions to remain largely unanswered or answered in contradictory ways. Analysts focused on short-term strategic advantage consider this purposeful avoidance brilliant, while analysis concerned with the long-term bigger picture worries that anytime interpretive space is allowed into drones’ ethical arena it is usually filled by a cacophony of conspiracy and hyperbole.
In an environment where drone technology is being openly sold on a massive scale across the global market and countless countries are striving to build and obtain their own drone fleets, it is deeply troubling that the general consensus around the world is that America uses drones in a manner that makes questionable targeting and covert killing commonplace. The lack of concern within American corridors of power seems predicated on lazy assurance that no real rivals would be willing to learn from and follow these ambiguities and obfuscations as precedent. The following evidence seems to indicate that might be the biggest mistaken assumption of all.
China and Pakistan
Most discussions of an immediate drone rival to the United States usually focus on China. China supposedly has over 900 different types of drones. The three most common Chinese UAVs, the Chengdu Xianlong and Pterodactyl 1 and the Sharp Sword, have startling similarities to the American Global Hawk, Reaper and Predator X-47B stealth drone respectively. This of course alludes to China’s success in economic espionage, where it is believed massive amounts of confidential technical and commercial applications have been stolen from America. This begs a question: why do so many experts believe in continued American technical domestic dominance when China shows how easy it is to bypass technical domestic innovation? Why develop it when you can just steal it?
Perhaps more disconcerting is the fact that China is an active participant in the sellers’ market, best epitomized by the Pakistan-China interaction. Few people realize Pakistan openly tried to gain drone technology from the United States, arguing that it would be able to continue the fight the U.S. had semi-legally begun on its territory against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. America politely but steadfastly refused this request. Frustrated, Pakistan turned to China. The Pakistan Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf said such deals with China would be both immensely beneficial to Pakistan and the world in general as it would offset America’s ‘undeclared technological apartheid.’
American analysts should not derisively dismiss such judgment. The U.S. refusal of Pakistan has been based on successive American presidential administrations feeling Pakistan was not ‘capable of handling such technology.’ As an olive branch the U.S. counter-offered a range of reconnaissance UAVs. In other words, it offered the very technology that American analysts openly deride as second-class and why other countries around the world will never catch up to the United States.
This is why the phrase ‘drone apartheid’ matters: Pakistan considered itself an ally to the U.S., fighting the same fight and challenging the same enemies, but was not trusted to have the same advanced weapons. How does Pakistan avoid feeling like the U.S. has purposely compromised its own security? Perhaps in a slightly ironic nod to the American tendency to talk out of both sides of its diplomatic mouth when it comes to drones, Prime Minister Sharif issued a statement after the China deal saying that Pakistan now had the capability to shoot down U.S. drones but would be a ‘responsible state.’ Fascinatingly, the greatest worry for America might be other states acquiring drones and adopting the same standards for its operational missions.
Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) actually succeeded in destroying a drone that it tracked flying over sensitive military installations and approaching the Dimona nuclear reactor in 2013. Israelis did not disclose whether or not this ‘enemy drone’ was successful in its mission but they were certain that it was not American, Chinese, or Russian. IDF claimed it to be an Iranian drone assembled in Lebanon and flown by Hezbollah. I have loosely called this the world’s first ‘Islamic Crescent drone’ and emphasized how it signaled a dangerous advance in the transnational proliferation of drone technology.
Iran has taken the lead in the region, claiming in 2013 to have developed both ‘Epic,’ a drone supposedly designed for both combat and reconnaissance, and ‘Throne,’ a long-range combat UAV with alleged stealth capabilities. While the general global reaction to these announcements has been skeptical, there are still important things to consider: it is relevant that Iran makes a point that its drones have the dual capability of both combat and surveillance/reconnaissance. The U.S. has pushed to keep these capabilities separate on the global market. Almost immediately upon these so-called Iranian ‘achievements’ both Egypt and Saudi Arabia became far more interested in acquiring drones for their militaries and developing their own programs. So the cascade effect is already happening in the drone market.
On that same level Turkey has openly pursued tactical UAVs for its own internal problem with the Kurdish Workers Party. The Turkish Army believed it was letting a prominent strategic advantage slip by if it did not acquire drones capable of helping in border security, urban warfare, and other operational missions innate to the fight against insurgent Kurds. The position is in essence a policy switch away from Israel, which had long been supplying its own Heron-1 medium-altitude, long-endurance UAVs to Turkey. So the Turkey-Israel connection shows an increasing sophistication in the drone acquisition market, where states now become more demanding and explicit about their own national security needs.
Singapore joined the list of Israeli drone acquirers in 2012. Unlike other countries, Singapore emphasized how the acquisition was just the first step in its long-term plans. Ultimately, success in the drone era according to Singapore depended not just on the existence of technology but on the development and training of talented personnel to operate it. Thus, it is yet another chink in the American armor that presupposes an easy continued dominance for its own drone fleet. Confidence in the superiority of American training is likely well-founded, but there is a difference between superiority and inaccessibility. Meaning, if drone technology can be stolen or purchased, so too can drone training techniques. It is not difficult to imagine a day where drone armies are operated by personnel that are relatively equal in terms of U.S. talent.
Indeed, Singapore seems to be a leading example for the greater region, as Asia Pacific has the biggest potential to be one of the largest UAV markets in the world. In addition to China and Singapore, India, South Korea, North Korea, Malaysia, and Australia are all active participants in the drone market, each one aiming to develop its own fleet. Thus, the complex reality of today’s drone era is getting ignored by American analysts: the United States does not worry about India, Australia, or South Korea becoming proficient in drone technology, but the same really cannot be said for North Korea, Malaysia, or China.
The countries in question are aggressively pursuing not just acquisition but domestic industrial production. In addition, these activities are being matched by a strategic military prioritization aimed at developing skilled personnel. More importantly, complex interdependence and the linked nature of conflict in the modern era mean this drone activity does not take place in a vacuum: all of these developments create reactive effects onto the global stage that are detrimental to peace. American comfort with drones so far has been predicated on a belief in maintaining superiority over three things: emerging rivals, domestic production, and commercial activity. The United States has de facto tried to create a ‘drone apartheid’ that it not only controls but also expects global acquiescence, even though most of the world does not support the idea that America is the most responsible, transparent, and ethical user of drones. Perhaps most importantly, just like with South Africa, this apartheid also seems destined to fall. When it does, America might be advised to worry about chickens coming home to roost.
Trump: The Symbol of America’s Isolation in the World
The president of the United States, who came to power in 2016 with the slogan of “Reviving Washington’s Power”, has become the messenger of failure and defeat of his country in the West Asian region and in the international system. The U.S. numerous military and political defeats in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon were so outstanding that there’s no way Trump can brag about his achievements in the region.
On the other hand, many Democrats in the United States, and even the traditional Republicans, have been criticizing the President’s costly and barren foreign policy in West Asia. In such a situation, Trump attempts to attribute this failure to the country’s previous administrations and condemn them over what is happening in today’s world, especially in the West Asian region, and he blames Obama for Washington’s constant and extensive failures in this area.
Besides, Trump’s other projections about the hard conditions of the U.S. in West Asia are noteworthy. In his recent remarks, Donald Trump said that if he wasn’t at top of the U.S. political and executive equations, Iran would capture the Middle East (West Asia)! This is while Islamic Republic of Iran created stability in the West Asian region, and besides, has stood against the long-term, medium-term, and short-term and destructive goals of the United States and its allies in the region.
Trump’s strategic weakness in the West Asia is an important issue which can’t be easily overlooked. Of course this strategic weakness did exist during Obama’s presidency, but the truth is that it reached its peak during Trump’s presidency. And in the future, this weakness will bring severe blows to the United States.
The fact is that the strategic calculations of the United States in the West Asia region have all failed. And many of the pre-assumptions that Washington called them “strategic propositions”, have never turned into reality for some reasons, including the vigilance of the Resistance movement in the region. This is the reason why America is so confused in confronting the equations of West Asia.
Under such circumstances, the only way before the President of the United States is to leave the region and confess to his defeat; an issue that many American analysts and strategists have noted. It shouldn’t be forgotten that in spite of his campaign slogans for stopping the military intervention in the region, the current president of the United States has intensified conflicts and created constant security crises in West Asia.
The direct, perfect, and comprehensive support of Donald Trump for takfiri terrorists reflects this fact. Trump started his support for ISIL since the beginning of his presence at the White House in early 2017, and he stood for the terrorists until the fall of ISIL in Syria. Even now, Trump is attempting to revive terrorist and takfiri groups in Iraq and Syria.
Despite passing half of his presidency, Trump has claimed that the defeat in Yemen, Syria and Iraq was Obama’s legacy. There is no doubt that Obama and his two secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, played a major role in creating terrorist and takfiri groups (especially ISIL), and committed bloodshed in Syria and Iraq.
There is also little ambiguity in the strategic, operational and even tactical defeat of the Obama administration in the battlefields of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. However, Trump can’t deny his share in this defeat, and pretend as if he’s the messenger of the victory of the United States in these scenes! The fact is that Trump completed the military and political defeats of the United States in the West Asia region. Today, the United States is defeated in the battlefield, and can well see that its pieces had failed in these wars.
On the other hand, the White House has lost the political arena of the region. The failure of the United States in the Lebanese and Iraqi elections, on the one hand, and the popular support for the resistance groups in Yemen and Syria, has left Trump and his companions disappointed in the region. In such a situation, attributing the recent and ongoing defeats of the United States to the Obama administration is completely expectable, and at the same time, unacceptable!
Finally, we can see that just like Obama, George W Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan and Carter, Trump is stuck in this strategic miscalculation in the West Asian region. Undoubtedly, in his last days in power, Trump will also understand that there’s no way he can overcome this strategic weakness through Saudi and Emirati petrodollars.
However, it seems that the scope of Trump’s defeat in West Asia would be wider than the previous presidents of the United States. Undoubtedly, in the near future, Trump, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley will become the symbols of failure in the US foreign policy, especially in the West Asia. In other words, the president of the United States and his companions at the White House will have to admit to defeat in the West Asian region at a great expense, and this is exactly what frightens the American authorities.
first published in our partner Tehran Times
Weather and White House Turmoil as Elections Loom
Hurricane Michael wreaked havoc as it traversed the Florida panhandle. The first Category 5 hurricane to hit the area since 1881 when records began, its 155 mph winds (only 5 mph short of Category 6) felled massive trees, blew away houses, collapsed buildings and left devastation in its wake. Relatively fast moving at 14 mph, it was soon gone continuing as a Category 3 into neighboring Georgia and then further up its northeasterly path. It seemed to signify a stamp of approval for the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on holding earth to a 1.5 degree Celsius warming issued a couple of days earlier. We are at one degree now so storms can only be expected to get worse.
In northeastern Turkey, a 300-year old stone bridge disappeared overnight. Villagers convinced it had been stolen called in the police. Further investigation concluded it had been washed away by a flash flood caused by a sudden summer thunderstorm further upstream — clearly far more intense than in the previous three centuries.
Ever more powerful hurricanes, monsoons and forest fires point to a proliferation of extreme weather events that experts relate to global warming. Yet President Donald Trump and his administration remain obdurate in climate change denial.
Thins are certainly warming up in the White House. Nikki Haley announced her resignation in an amicable meeting with the president. A staunch defender of many of Mr. Trump’s most egregious foreign policy changes, the UN Representative will be leaving at the end of the year to pursue opportunities in the private sector. So said the announcement. An astute and ambitious politician she has probably reassessed the costs versus benefits of remaining in a Trump administration. Some tout her as a future presidential candidate. Should she be successful she will be the first woman president, who also happens to be of Indian and Sikh ancestry.
The rap singer Kanye West visited the president in the Oval office. A ten-minute rant/rap praising him was followed by a hug for which Mr. West ran round the wide desk that had been seemingly cleared of all paraphernalia for the performance. He is one of the eight percent of blacks voting Republican. Sporting the Trump trademark, Make-America-Great-Again red hat, he claimed it made him Superman, his favorite superhero. And some suggested it was all further proof the place had gone insane.
A little over three weeks remain to the U.S. midterm elections on November 6th. Their proximity is evidenced not by rallies or debates rather by the barrage of negative TV ads blasting opponents with accusations of shenanigans almost unworthy of a felon. A couple of months of this and you lose any enthusiasm for voting. Perhaps it is one reason why nearly half the electorate stays home. Given such a backdrop, the furor over ‘Russian meddling’ in elections appears to be a trifle misplaced. Others call the whole business a ‘witch hunt’ and state flatly the U.S. does the same.
The old idiom, ‘put your own house in order’ is particularly apt when we realize the beginning of this affair was a Democratic National Committee email leak showing ‘the party’s leadership had worked to sabotage Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign’. It resulted in the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Always fair, aboveboard elections? Not bloody likely, as the British would say. Given the rewards, it’s against human nature.
The hot November for Trump is arriving
Political turmoil in the United States has become extremely unpredictable. The turn of events became worse with an op-ed at the New York Times on September 5. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon described it as a coup against Donald Trump.
The reality is that the president faces domestic problems in his second year in office. This has rarely happened in the US political history. The issue is of great importance with regard to the approaching mid-term congressional elections in November. Republicans have the majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate, but they feel the risk of losing the majority in both houses due to Trump’s record.
Indeed, a feeling has emerged among some American politicians that their country is heading in the wrong direction because of Trump’s policies. Even former President Barack Obama has joined the election campaigns by breaking his promise not to get involved in political affairs.
The situation is not also good for Trump internationally. Disagreement with the European Union – a traditional ally of the United States – over trade and political issues, trade war with China, increasing tension with Russia, exit from international treaties such as the Paris climate agreement and the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement Iran, have all made Trump to look dangerous in the eyes of the world. All these issues have made the situation unfavorable for Trump and his government at home and abroad.
But what is the answer of the president of the United States to these criticisms? The answer to this question is one word: economy. However, Trump is proud of his economic record.
According to statistics, the Labor Department published on September 8, US employment growth in August has beat market expectations, the non-farm payrolls increased by 201,000 from the previous month. Analysts were expecting growth of about 195,000.
The unemployment rate for August remained low at 3.9 percent. The average hourly wage rose 2.9 percent from the year before. That’s the highest level since June 2009. The latest figures are increasing speculation that the Federal Reserve will raise its key interest rate this month. The US economy expanded 4.2 percent in the April-to-June quarter, and is expected to grow more than 3 percent in this quarter.
But the economy cannot keep the president of the United States from the edge of criticism. Trump is in a difficult situation and worried about the result of the election and possible control of Congress by Democrats.
Issues such as the confessions of Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen on bribing women for having affairs with Trump and Russia’s possible involvement in the 2016 presidential election could possibly lead to his impeachment and his dismissal from power.
The US constitution says that the impeachment of the president should be endorsed by representatives from both chambers of Congress – the House of Representatives and the Senate. Democrats now have 49 seats in the 100-member Senate, and if they get 51 seats in the November election, they will still need at least 15 Republican senators to impeach Trump.
Still, if Democrats win the November election, even if this victory does not lead to Trump’s impeachment, it can put further pressure on him and cripple his government. According to a CNN poll, decrease in Trump’s popularity even among his supporters shows that the days following the November election will be hard times for Trump and his government.
First published in our partner MNA
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