Obama, Israel, Pakistan, and drones

At a news conference in Thailand on November 18, president Obama made the following comments concerning the violence in Gaza and Israel:

Let’s understand what the precipitating event here was that’s causing the current crisis, and that was an ever-escalating number of missiles; they were landing not just in Israeli territory, but in areas that are populated. And there’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders. So we are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians. And we will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself.

Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory.

These comments passed without much notice. But suppose that we replace the country name Israel in the statement with the name Pakistan. Then what Obama would be saying is that he fully endorses the right of the Pakistan government and military to retaliate against American drones that hit targets within that country and even retaliate against the US itself. And the same would apply to Yemen, Somalia and who knows what other countries where the US is using drones to kill people.

But logic and symmetry and international law are thrown out of the window when it comes to Israel and the US because those two countries are judged by a different set of rules by US policymakers and the US media. In those cases, the two countries are assumed to be right whatever they do, and explanations are then produced to justify their actions.

(Thanks to this Ted Rall cartoon.)


  1. slc1 says

    As usual, Prof. Singham compares apples and oranges. The missiles employed by the US in Pakistan and Israel in the Gaza Strip are generally what is referred to as smart munitions that are specifically targeted against suspected terrorist targets. The missiles fired by the terrorists in the Gaza Strip are notoriously inaccurate and are fired willy nilly against civilian areas in Israel in order to kill as many civilians as possible.

  2. Jockaira says

    Do you really believe that the US is launching drones from bases located in Pakistan without Pakistan’s quiet permission? Pakistan has one of the most capable air forces in the world equipped with both US and Russian aircraft. Drones are slow-moving easy targets, especially for weapons like shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles which Pakistan also posseses.

    Pakistan goes along with pretty much anything the US wants in order to keep the billions of dollars of “aid” moving into the pockets of Pakistani politicians. Has it ever been otherwise?

  3. Mano Singham says

    What you are talking about is the difference between the weapons possessed by wealthy and poor military. Would you support Hamas getting the kinds of expensive weapons that Israel has so that they could precisely target military and political institutions inside Israel?

  4. Dunc says

    And yet Israel, with its “smart” munitions, somehow manages to kill and injure far more civilians than the Palestinians do…

    Also, I was under the impression that you kind of forfeit your right to self defence when you occupy other people’s countries. And what about the Palestinians, do they not also have a right to self-defence? Remind me, who’s occupying who here?

  5. F says

    Fine. Let’s play with Iraq then. They launched what at the U.S. which led to the U.S. “defending itself” inside Iraq? Never mind that the complicity (even via bribery as you describe) of some in the Pakistani government does not translate to the complicity of all, or even very many, Pakistanis.

    We’re just sticking with current events here, so we won’t bother with what the U.S. has done since inception (and before) through military force and corporate colonialism to populations within the borders it claimed and in other countries. Just the military has been in a nearly constant state of warfare, with two or four just actions to our credit out of hundreds.

  6. lorn says

    Until such time as Hamas renounces its pledge to destroy Israel Israel and Hamas will be at war. Perpetual, unceasing, war. How Israel deals with the difficulties of fighting Hamas as Hamas fighters and operatives move among the ostensibly neutral residents of Gaza is always a question. Keep in mind that even when there are times of relative peace, it is a war. During the time of relative peace both sides are diligently re-upping, rearming, and maneuvering for position.

    The analogs in philosophy and medicine are perpetually up for debate and revision: How much evil is allowed to be committed to gain how much good, and how do you kill cancer cells without destroying healthy cells. Some answers are more acceptable than others but there are no easy answers, and none that do not involve painful compromises and sacrifice.

    Ethics are always a judgment call. Cancer survives by being indistinguishable from healthy cells to the immune defense system. People treat cancer by amputating parts and carpet bombing the body with chemotherapy hoping to kill the cancer while saving enough healthy cells to keep the body healthy enough to live in. It is the method and underlying logic of all guerrilla warfare to try to win by both hiding and forcing such hard choices.

    The alternative to drone attacks is not a cessation of hostility. It is assault groups, assassins, and hit squads either formed within, or inserted into, Pakistan, Yemen, and other areas. Personnel on the ground will involve larger and more powerful weapons more frequently applied, higher duration of active violence, and many more casualties on both sides.

    There is also a good chance, once a significant number of people are committed, that any fight will escalate. Drawing in more people, more assets, more firepower. Had the raid to get OBL met significant Pakistani resistance the teams were prepared to fight their way out. Good chance this would have brought in close air support, missile strikes on Pakistani radar and establishment of limited air superiority.

    The US will reflexively move to its strengths. The military was set up to fight the USSR. While the Pakistani air force has its strengths it can’t match the US for power, sophistication, and a deep bench, to handle attrition.

    The whole thing could slide into a hot war between Pakistan and the US. The Pakistani leadership, with a lot of experience in maintaining a relatively safe middle between superpowers, if it has the chance to think it through, will wisely use creative delay tactics to greatly limit response. Some token military resistance is to be expected, and there rhetorical and diplomatic objection will go into overdrive but these will be set up to be traded for favors once the dust settles.

    We understand this terrain, as do the Pakistanis. They know the alternative to drone strikes and how to make the situation nominally palatable to domestic and foreign audiences. We use drones. They object in the media and diplomatic channels. We hand over money and arms to the leadership. Word is we may have given Pakistan their own drones.

    And the dance goes on.

  7. Ravi Venkataraman says

    @slc`: It is you who is confused. Whenever there is talk of Israel being in the wrong, you attempt to implicitly justify its actions. Prof. Singham’s original comparison is perfectly valid, and his question asking if it would be OK for the Palestinians to lob “smart” missiles at Israeli military targets would be acceptable to you deserves a response. If your answer is no, then please explain why it is OK for Israel to try and kill Palestinians but it is wrong for the other party to defend itself by lobbing missiles at Israel.

    As Prof. Singham points out, there seems to be a double standard here, and your reply is a prime example of it in action.

    The other implicit assertion in your statement is that it is OK to try and kill “suspected” terrorists by lobbing missiles in their general locality. Whatever happened to the much vaunted rule of law in these nations?

    Moreover, isn’t it the country that is lobbing missiles at “suspected” terrorists itself the “terrorist” (Israel and the USA)?


  8. Ravi Venkataraman says

    The comparison of the treatment of cancer to the killing of accused “terrorists” is clearly false. By killing a healthy cell while treating cancer, one does not kill any sentient person. Killing an innocent civilian is definitely not akin to killing a healthy cell in the human body. Such false analogies rely on emotional arguments, and must be rejected outright.

    If Israel is hell bent on committing genocide against the Palestinians, then there is no incentive for any Palestinian group to seek peace with Israel. If Israel continues to build on occupied territory, then there is no incentive for any Palestinian group to seek peace with Israel.


  9. says

    How much evil is allowed to be committed to gain how much good, and how do you kill cancer cells without destroying healthy cells.

    Arguments by analogy are useful when you’re trying to discuss/explain something that people don’t widely understand. Then, an analogy is appropriate because it help us establish a common baseline to move forward from. That’s especially useful if a field under discussion has its own specialized language, and analogies are a good way of getting the common vocabulary together.

    When you’re talking about something like killing people and warfare, the issue is well-understood by just about everyone, and there is plenty of useful vocabulary that almost everyone will immediately understand. We should be suspicious of use of analogy when there’s already that common vocabulary, because analogy can be used to manipulate or conceal just as well as it can explain. What you’re doing is one of those cases.

  10. says

    isn’t it the country that is lobbing missiles at “suspected” terrorists itself the “terrorist” (Israel and the USA)

    It makes more sense, really, to edit your statement as follows:
    Isn’t it the country that is lobbing missiles at civilian targets itself the “terrorist”?
    Both parties are doing that; Hamas’ weapons are very inaccurate and, as a consequence, are being launched with an expectation that they’ll hurt civilians if they hurt anyone at all. They’re not being aimed at targets that have any military value at all (by definition, since Hamas hasn’t got a plausible military capability to exploit even small “hits” on any targets in Israel) whereas Israel’s attacks are using precision weapons also targeting civilian targets, and those attacks are in the service of a plausibly achievable geopolitical agenda: conquest/ethnic cleansing.

    Both sides are in the wrong and both are using immoral methods. Does it make sense to say who’s the wronger? It would seem to me that having a greater ability to control the situation should confer more responsibility on that side, if it chooses to act. If one side fires a weapon at a civilian building and can pretty much expect to hit it, their decision is more likely to cause deliberate harm than the side that expects their weapon won’t hit anything at all. Another way of looking at this problem would be to look at the casualties inflicted on each side. The side with the more precise and controllable high-tech weapons has caused vastly more death and destruction. There’s a moral burden that increases as your deliberate choice to cause harm increases. That’s why we count the dead civilians in this kind of situation – it is one way of seeing who is being more monstrous.

  11. Jared A says

    Is Hamas the problem or a symptom of the problem? What do you expect to happen if you rigorously enforce an anarchy–as Israel has done in gaza?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *