How Those Pakistanis Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Our Drones
A few days ago, I watched a video of a remarkable debate between Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald and C. Christine Fair, Associate Professor of Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, moderated by Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan. I say “remarkable” because of the astonishing mental gymnastics Fair had to perform in support of her argument that Pakistanis welcome being droned by America. The debate was precipitated by a huge Intercept report, based on documents provided by a new, post-Snowden whistleblower, concluding that as many as nine out of ten people killed in our drone strikes weren’t the intended targets.
Well, mistakenly killing nine people for every one you kill on purpose might sound pretty bad, but Fair argued that actually it’s all pretty good because: (i) Pakistanis who say they don’t like their country being droned don’t count because they live in cities and are “cosmopolitan elites;” (ii) all polls and other studies suggesting Pakistanis don’t like being droned are unreliable because of various biases and methodological flaws; (iii) no one who believes that droning Pakistan is counterproductive knows the country sufficiently well to have a valid opinion; and (iv) we don’t know who’s been targeted and we don’t know who’s been killed, but we do know the program is working (this last one is especially puzzling, mostly in an internally contradictory kind of way).
Now, I admit I don’t know much about the region. I don’t speak any of the languages, and I’ve never traveled there. I haven’t read the Koran—not even a translation. So I’m clearly unburdened by the kind of erudition that seems to be the source of Fair’s confidence in her opinion that Pakistanis actually like it when America blows them up with sky robots.
What I do bring to the discussion, maybe, is some minimal insight into human nature of the sort we novelists like to flatter ourselves into believing is an important part of our work. And so, with no more than those embarrassingly scant credentials as my basis and with an even more minimal claim to some rudimentary common sense, I have to ask what’s probably a terribly un-nuanced and unsophisticated question. Which is:
How likely is it that any group of humans anywhere would appreciate a foreign power taking control of their skies and for years blowing up at will people the foreign power adjudged undesirable?
For example, you might believe street crime is out of control in America, or that a parasitical one percent is sucking the country dry, or that neo-hippy or minority protesters have it all wrong and are ruining everything, or that the Democrats are to blame for all the country’s ills, or that the problem is in fact the Republicans. But no matter what you believe, you probably don’t wish Russia or China or Iran or France or whoever would start patrolling the skies over your neighborhood and blowing up whatever Americans are vexing you. And you’d probably get a touch irate if one of those foreign countries went ahead and started up a drone program in America anyway. You’d probably resent such a foreign program under any circumstances, but if the program were blowing up nine people accidently for every one it killed on purpose, including at weddings and funerals, you might get so resentful you’d find yourself invested in getting some payback.
This is one of those things about human nature that’s super-obvious unless you deploy a lot of special learning to obscure it. As a species, we seem to have a deep-seated need to repay violence—especially violence by an out-group on our in-group—with violence of our own. See, for example, America’s ongoing response to 9/11.
So, being a somewhat simple man, I tend to figure that if I would hate something (invasion, occupation, robot airplane assassination campaign, that kind of thing) and react a certain way to it (by fighting back, for example), probably other people would react the same way were the shoe on the other foot. Even if they’re from faraway, exotically different countries—even countries impossible to understand except by data-driven PhD-credentialed area experts who have transcended the sorts of biases blinkering the benighted—I figure that our common human nature will provide a decent roadmap to understanding their behavior.
It occurs to me there’s even a name for this concept: I think I’ve heard it referred to as the Golden Rule. Or the Hillel the Elder version: “What is hateful to you, don’t do to others.”
But maybe what those rules really mean is, “Unless they’re Pakistani, because they’re different”? It could be that. I admit I’m one of those people who doesn’t know Pakistan well enough to say for sure. Plus I’m biased and don’t have good data.
And, in fairness to Fair and her learned, data-driven theories that Pakistanis welcome being droned—that the experience even reminds them of an uplifting story from the Koran!—it turns out there’s a long list of other peoples who, as it happens, were untroubled by foreign-inflicted violence and killing. So I am forced to acknowledge that Fair’s approach to justifying western violence does have a long and colorful history.
But wait, there’s still more…
Yesterday, Fair followed up her debate points with a post in the blog Lawfare. The additional points she made there are in their own way as interesting as the ones she made in the debate itself, while also perhaps shedding some light on how she’s able to maintain convictions about Pakistan that seem at odds with basic tenets of human nature. And so, a few thoughts in response…
Glenn Greenwald has tirelessly flogged the use of armed drones with Crusader-like conviction.
This one I just thought was funny. Someone who’s against bombing, invading, and occupying Muslim countries strikes Fair as some sort of Crusader? Holy backward historical references, Batman!
I was equally confused as to why the show was going to focus upon Pakistan, when the latest tranche of pilfered documents released by The Intercept promises to detail “the inner workings of the U.S. military’s assassination program in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia.”
We’ll come back to Fair’s notion of “pilfered documents.” Here, I’m more interested in the source of her confusion—apparently, the possibility that reactions in country X to a foreigner-run robot airplane assassination program might offer clues about reactions in country Y. Instead, Fair seems to cling to the notion that Pakistan is sui generis, somehow existing apart from aspects of human nature we can readily observe everywhere else.
The Intercept has set up a secure drop box to facilitate government employees’ illegally providing classified information to the organization.
Is it just me, or is anyone else getting the feeling that Professor Fair really doesn’t like leaks?
There’s a lot to be said about a mindset like this one. First, it’s authoritarian. Second, it’s weird, focusing as it does on the rare whistleblower rather than on rampant secrecy metastasis—akin to complaining about the brief drizzle we just had here in the Bay Area while ignoring the effects of a four-year drought. Third, it’s selective. Authoritarians like Fair never use words like “pilfer” or “illegal” to describe the kinds of leaks that are probably a thousand times more common than those of The Intercept’s new whistleblower: the ones offered up by insiders to pet reporters to make the government look good. We’ll come back to that last point in a second.
Mr. Greenwald and his associates refer to these persons as “whistleblowers.”
Well, yes, but only in the dictionary sense.
(Also, a parenthetical plea: can we eliminate the word “persons” from the lexicon, except maybe when used ironically, and learn to love the standard plural “people,” instead? We could then move on to “monies,” at which point we’d be on a roll and people might start writing more the way they talk.)
Empirically, the documents that have been leaked are riven with selection bias; leakers, driven by whatever personal motives, often selectively leak specific documents.
You have to be suffering from some pretty nuclear-grade selection bias of your own to make this point about a whistleblower and not apply it to the thousands of government officials who leak secrets in a way that’s favorable to the government (no illegal pilfering there!) every. Single. Day.
In fairness, the most invisible biases, and therefore the most dangerous, are always the ones that affect ourselves. Which would explain how Fair is able to simultaneously criticize other people for their alleged biases while turning an apparent discussion of a Koran passage by host Mehdi Hasan—something about unbelievers being unintelligent cattle—into an approving “cite.” It sounded like bullshit even before I looked closer. It was. Watch the video yourself. At their impressive best, Hasan’s remarks are laudable—who would argue that anyone should cede the moral high ground? At their occasional worst, they come across as the Islamic equivalent of neo-Atheist self flattery, or American exceptionalism or other nationalism. If Fair’s aside wasn’t a deliberate smear, it could only have been the result of intellectually crippling bias—the kind she readily perceives in everyone who doesn’t agree with her.
Consumers of these documents have no idea of how representative this sample is of all information that exists about the drone program. There are most certainly classified reports that positively describe the program’s utilization in specific theatres, but these documents have not apparently been leaked.
True, if by “have not apparently been leaked” Fair means to exclude New York Times articles like this one:
Drone Strikes on Al Qaeda Are Said to Take Toll on Leadership in Pakistan
LONDON — Revelations of new high-level losses among Al Qaeda‘s top leadership in Pakistan‘s tribal belt have underscored how years of American drone strikes have diminished and dispersed the militant group’s upper ranks and forced them to cede prominence and influence to more aggressive offshoots in Yemen and Somalia.
While the C.I.A. drone strike that killed two Western hostages has led to intense criticism of the drone program and potentially to a reassessment of it, the American successes over the years in targeting and killing senior Qaeda operatives in their home base have left the militant group’s leadership facing difficult choices, counterterrorism officials and analysts say.
And hey, guess what those anonymous counterterrorism officials were doing? They were leaking—AKA pilfering and illegally providing classified information to the media.
But they sure weren’t whistleblowing. Maybe this is why Fair hasn’t noticed.
In fact, given Mr. Greenwald’s evangelical zeal against the various uses of drones, I doubt that if the organization received such reports, it would publish them.
Why would it bother? For the publication of self-interested, government-revering leaks, we already have the New York Times and many other access-journalism addicts consistently happy to violate their own rules on the use of anonymous sources to curry favor with the powerful. Fair acts as though the government doesn’t already leak like a ruptured colostomy bag when doing so serves its own interest. The government does so constantly and pervasively, and suggesting that an investigative outfit like The Intercept should provide the government yet more assistance in promoting self-interested leaks is at best bizarre.
And if it did publish such exculpatory documents, would The Intercept’s writers simply dismiss them as “rank propaganda”?
Only if they wanted to accurately characterize government leaks justifying government programs, I imagine.
Second, these leakers are always anonymous, for obvious reasons: they do not want to be prosecuted for breaking the law. However, anonymous sources cannot be vetted for the sagacity of their interpretation or for their motives…Obviously, someone who is breaking the law to provide these documents must be presumed to be completely honest and factually correct in his assessments. [I think that last part is sarcasm]
I don’t want to belabor this point, but…again, government-serving leaks are probably a thousand times more common than government-critical ones. Fair is applying her principle to the .1% of critical leakers while giving a pass to the 99.9% wink-and-nod variety. The selective concern would be strange under any circumstances. That she manages to do it while lecturing others on the dangers of bias is stunning.
In its most recent product, “The Drone Papers,” The Intercept tells readers that the leaker was moved by his moral outrage. But is it not possible that less noble motivations compelled the leaker to provide these particular documents? If the motive was espionage or work-place dissatisfaction, does that change our perception of the documents and the leaker’s explanation of them?
For someone ordinarily so quick to dismiss everything that isn’t “data,” Fair’s pivot here to the mushy realms of the workings of the human heart is deft enough to make a novelist blush.
Sure, we should always factor in what we can know of a person’s motives (which often isn’t much). Which is why the government worked so hard (and ultimately unsuccessfully) to brand Snowden as a narcissist. What’s really odd, though, isn’t that people who hate whisteblowers always try to impugn their motives. It’s that such people never question the motives of the countless officials whose leaks amplify the government’s preferred narrative.
So if you leak to challenge power, there must be something nefarious going on. If you leak to burnish power, you’re just doing God’s work.
Nope, no bias there.
A third problem is the presumption that classification confers some standard of quality.
I see none of this in The Intercept’s reporting and can only surmise that Fair is either projecting or trying to set up a straw man. Pretty obviously, the point isn’t that secret documents are some kind of holy scripture, but rather that the documents in question are ones the government itself relies on, and as such are noteworthy regardless of their underlying “standard of quality.”
In my experience, classified products are rarely worth the effort to obtain and read.
Which might make one wonder why Fair is so upset about the pilfering and illegality and all that.
The Intercept claims that the documents it received “show that during a five-month stretch of the campaign [Operation Haymaker], nearly nine out of 10 people who died in airstrikes were not the Americans’ direct targets.” This is not the same as being “innocent.”
I find myself wondering a bit about someone whose attempt at exculpation is, “Hey, the person we accidentally blew up wasn’t ‘innocent!’” It seems maybe a bit like saying, “Hey, that guy we executed for a murder he didn’t commit? Well, turns out he might have had a couple outstanding parking tickets. Dude had it coming to him!”
Luckily, I secretly love when life imitates art, because this all reminded me of Agent Rogersz from Repo Man, responding to concerns about an innocent man being tortured by declaring, “No one is innocent!”
With respect to Pakistan, there is one study that actually comes to the exact opposite conclusion as the one put forward by Mr. Greenwald…Excluding one catastrophically disastrous strike which inflicted one of the worst civilian death tolls since the drone program started in Pakistan, nearly 90 percent of the people killed were militants.
Leave aside whether “We don’t accidentally kill as many people as you claim” can best be characterized as “the exact opposite conclusion.” Apparently the really catastrophically disastrous strikes don’t have catastrophically disastrous effects. In fact, catastrophically disastrous strikes shouldn’t be counted at all. And, once we’ve magically gerrymandered out those catastrophically disastrous strikes, we can explain away a dozen studies, polls, and informed commentary (and this one, too) and focus only on the one report we like, citing it for the counterintuitive proposition that Pakistanis welcome a drone assassination program that mistakenly kills only one innocent (whoops, I mean non-targeted) Pakistani out of ten and that the program is working as advertised.
Mr. Greenwald also cited the opinions of well-regarded generals such as General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan [“The resentment created by US drones is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level”]. Mr. Hasan also cited the views of retired U.S. Lt. General Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency [“Even when it works, even when we take out a big name, it makes us all feel good for 24 hours. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. It just makes them a martyr, they get replaced, it just creates a new reason for all of them to fight us harder”]… it should be emphasized that the opinions offered by any generals, unless supported by data and rigorous analysis, are simply opinions.
Fair also claimed during the debate that “He [General Flynn] doesn’t have data. He has no data.”
I just want to say that I hope the guy who used to run the DIA had access to some data. You’d generally want heads of the DIA and other such massive intelligence bureaucracies to stumble across a little data from time to time as they’re formulating their opinions. Otherwise our tax dollars are being wasted even more than I suspected.
As for McChrystal, during the debate he had the honor (along with investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, author of the drones-and-related topics book Dirty Wars: The War is a Battlefield and subject of an accompanying Oscar-nominated film of the same name) of being one of the many people Fair claimed “actually doesn’t know Pakistan.” Someone better tell that to McChrystal, because he seems to have written a whole book on the topic, a topic he probably had a hard time avoiding during his time as the commander of US and NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
By the way, another data-challenged person ignorant of all things Pakistani who might have come up but didn’t was Admiral Dennis Blair, former Director of National Intelligence, who claims drone strikes are “the politically advantageous thing to do—low cost, no US casualties, gives the appearance of toughness. It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”
Mr. Greenwald and Mr. Hasan also asserted vigorously that drones make more terrorists than they kill. To support this claim, Mr. Greenwald cited the opinions of several well-known persons. First, he cited Malala Yousafzai, the teenage girl whom the Pakistani Taliban shot for her promotion of female education…Ms. Yousafzai is a courageous young woman. She is not, however, representative of Pakistani thought…She’s also no expert on the matter at hand, her good intentions notwithstanding. Leaving aside her personal tragedy and perseverance, Ms. Yousafzai lived in Malakand, not in the tribal areas where drones exclusively operate…
It’s a little surreal to listen to a white chick from Georgetown explain how an actual Pakistani’s views on drones don’t count because the Pakistani isn’t representative of Pakistani thought, isn’t an expert, and didn’t live in the right part of Pakistan. But it is consistent with Fair’s overall theme that everyone who disagrees with her—NGOs, army generals, ex-heads of intelligence agencies, the British government, Pew polling, various actual Pakistanis—knows Pakistan so little, is so deprived of meaningful data, or is so crippled by bias, that they can’t understand the unique Pakistani appreciation of being droned by a foreign power.
There was also some discussion during the debate about whether—law and morality aside—drone strikes are ever effective. I want to say just one thing about this. Which is:
Of course drones sometimes take out an intended target. But then, so do chemical weapons. So do nukes. So would a flamethrower, if you deployed one against a house fly. “Effective” in this context is as misleading as the question of whether “torture ever works.” Anything can “work,” anything can be declared effective, if you exclude every side effect and other cost from your calculations. But destabilizing a nuclear-armed country and turning material numbers of its population into militants in order to kill a few fungible individuals might on balance be considered an odd definition of “effective.” It might even be considered insane.
Beyond which, as Greenwald himself points out during the debate, we’ve been waging a global war against terrorism for over fourteen years now and there’s no sign anything is getting better—in fact, every western government says things are getting worse. All of which even without more should make claims of drone “effectiveness” somewhat suspect.
I knew it [the debate] had aired only when Mr. Greenwald’s legion of acolytes began trolling me on Twitter with the familiar litany of often-misogynist rants.
Strangely enough, I think the key to Fair’s inability to understand that people don’t like being bombed by foreigners is contained in that one short sentence.
First, though, I want to congratulate Greenwald on having acquired a legion of acolytes. As someone who can legitimately lay claim only to a small cadre of people I sometimes flatter myself to think of as “fans” and no acolytes at all that I know of, I am humbled—and a little envious. I’m disappointed, though, that Fair missed the alliterative possibilities in something like Legion of Lackies. Well, maybe she’ll write another Lawfare post.
Anyway, I didn’t see the tweets in question, but I spend a decent amount of time on Twitter and so have no trouble believing that various people addressed Fair in demeaning, belittling, insulting ways, some of them misogynist. No doubt, there’s a lot of ugliness on the Internet.
Yet in her own tweets, Fair has taken to calling Greenwald “GeeGee.” There are too many to link to; if you’re curious, just search for it on her Twitter page.
Calling someone named Glenn Greenwald something like GG on Twitter could be easily explained as a way of saving scarce characters. But “GeeGee”? Come on. Everyone knows that conferring a nickname on a stranger—especially any kind of diminutive—is inherently insulting, and there’s no question that in resorting to this embarrassingly childish behavior, Fair is trying to insult Greenwald.
What’s so revealing here is that Fair knows she herself doesn’t like being insulted (unless she’s that rare individual who welcomes litanies of misogynist rants). And yet she seems incapable of what should be only the smallest of imaginative leaps: if she doesn’t like being insulted, probably other people don’t like being insulted, either. If she doesn’t think people should do it to her, probably she shouldn’t do it to other people. That Golden Rule thing again.
And though it’s a trivial instance of the phenomenon, the broad dynamics are similar: this is the same person who must know she would hate it if a foreign power started droning her neighborhood—but who can’t imagine that other peoples might feel the same way she would.
Sad to see so much learning get in the way of something so obvious. Sadder still to know how many people have to suffer and die because of intellectual and imaginative occlusions like Fair’s.