At the 2004 Radio and Television Correspondents' Dinner, President Bush joked about searching for WMDs under Oval Office furniture. The joke backfired when parents who had lost their children fighting in Iraq said they found the joke offensive and tasteless. Senator John Kerry said Bush displayed a "stunningly cavalier" attitude toward the war and those serving in Iraq.
So it’s odd that President Obama would make a crude joke about deaths that he is responsible for. But that’s just what he did at the May 1 White House Correspondents Dinner. "Jonas Brothers are here, they're out there somewhere,” President Obama quipped as he looked out at the packed room. Then he furrowed his brow, pretending to send a stern message to the pop band. “Sasha and Malia are huge fans, but boys, don't get any ideas. Two words for you: predator drones. You’ll never see it coming."
For people in Pakistan, where most of the drones are being used, the joke lost something in translation. According to Pakistani journalist Khawar Rizvi, few Pakistanis have ever heard of the Jonas Brothers or understood the reference to the President’s daughters. “But one thing we do know: There’s nothing funny about predator drones,” said Rizvi. “They’ve killed hundreds of civilians and caused so much suffering in Pakistan. And that’s no laughing matter.”
The point of using attack drones, which are piloted from 6,000 miles away in the Nevada desert, is to guarantee no U.S. casualties. But the increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles has led to an increase in the killing and maiming of innocents, often while they are sleeping in their beds.
You won’t get much of a chuckle by reading The New America Foundation’s 2009 report "Revenge of the Drones.” It shows that Obama, far from curtailing the drone program he inherited from President Bush, dramatically increased the number of U.S. drone strikes.
The report says that roughly 252 to 315 Pakistani civilians were killed by Predator and Reaper drone strikes between 2006 and 2009. Other reports place the figure much higher. Pakistani authorities released statistics indicating that over 700 civilians were killed by drones in 2009 alone, the year Obama took office. The running tally on the website PakistanBodyCount.Org is even more shocking: 1,226 civilians killed and 427 injured as of March 2010!
Equally shocking is the ratio of civilians to militants killed, which Middle East scholar Daniel Byman estimates at ten to one. It is a cruel joke indeed for the people of Pakistan that the U.S. military finds it acceptable to murder 10 innocent people for every Al Qaeda or Taliban operative killed.
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The use of the drones has also expanded in Afghanistan. Every day, the Air Force now flies at least 20 Predator drones — twice as many as a year ago. They are mostly used for surveillance, but have also carried out more than 200 strikes over the last year. “Since the start of 2009, the Predators and their larger cousins, the Reapers, have fired at least 184 missiles and 66 laser-guided bombs at militant suspects in Afghanistan,” reported Christopher Drew of the New York Times.
We will never know the true number of civilians killed by our drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Our military “doesn’t do body counts,” as General Tommy Franks famously said when questioned about Iraqi casualties. But each bomb that misses its target leaves a trail of unacceptable human suffering—young lives snuffed out, lifetime disabilities, grieving widows, orphaned children.
Like a bad joke that backfires, these cruel “mistakes” anger the local population, stoke anti-American feelings and prompt violent acts of revenge. As Pakistani-American attorney Rafia Zakaria wrote, “Somewhere in the United States, a drone operator sits in a booth with a joystick and commandeers a pilot-less aircraft armed with deadly bombs. Much like in a video game, he aims, shoots and fires at targets he sees on a satellite map….Sometimes the target is killed and sometimes the intelligence is faulty and a sleeping family or a wedding party bears the brunt of the miscalculation. At all times, however, the Taliban capitalize on the ensuing mayhem and gain new recruits and re-energize old ones. Terror thus spreads not simply in the village where the drone attack has taken place but far and wide in the bazaars of Peshawar and the streets of Lahore and the offices of Islamabad where these recruits avenge their anger against the drone attacks.
While Pakistanis and Afghans find nothing humorous about drone jokes, American businessmen like Neal Blue and Wesley Bush, the CEOs of General Atomics and Northrop Grumman, have been laughing all the way to the bank. Their companies have made a fortune producing the killer drones. General Atomics is a private company and refuses to disclose its revenue or profits, but it has sold more than $2.4 billion worth of drones and other equipment to the U.S. military in the past decade.
With the financial crisis, Obama has called for a three-year freeze on domestic spending, leading to cuts in everything from nutrition programs to national parks. But the Defense Department is exempt from the freeze and in the case of drones, the money is pouring in. The U.S. Defense Appropriations FY2011 doubles the outlay for drones. The U.S. taxpayer will now spend a mind-boggling $2.2 billion for the procurement of Predator-class aircraft, thus guaranteeing the slaughter of innocents for many years to come.
Whoever said laughter was the best medicine was never attacked by a predator drone. President Obama, just like George Bush before him, should not be allowed to get away with telling tasteless war jokes. But more important, he should not be allowed to keep employing weapons that, as in the case of landmines and cluster bombs, disproportionately kill civilians.