The global counterterrorism mission imposes substantial political costs to the U.S. Yet policymakers are rushing ahead anyway. Why we should start thinking more about politics, and less about killing bad guys.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks to the media from the Pentagon Briefing Room in Washington, DC / Reuters
If you talk to any security or intelligence professional, they'll tell you that the consequences of the Arab Spring -- it turned one this week -- have been devastating to U.S. security interests in the region. Information gathering, operations, intelligence, and general context about the Middle East and North Africa had become so lopsided -- utterly reliant on the security services of the unpopular dictatorships in the region -- that their overthrow more of less crippled U.S. efforts.
Over the last year the U.S. bureaucracy has worked feverishly to reestablish itself in the MENA region. But while it does so it stands on the verge of making a similar mistake in its reliance on drones to achieve policy objectives. The first hints of this imbalance are manifesting themselves all the time in the politics of target countries -- places where U.S. drones fly and fire weapons.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta unveiled this week a plan to dramatically expand the use of drones and special operations as the DoD tries to figure out how to operate in a universe of limited resources. It is part of President Obama's shift toward smaller covert actions in place of bigger, overt wars. But this policy shift is not without cost, and those costs are rarely debated in the public or behind closed doors.
As one example, drones carry inherent political costs to the regime that allows them. Among domestic populations, drones are almost always unpopular, as they represent a distant and unaccountable foreign power exercising the right to kill them at will. The resistance to drones is debated heavily in Pakistani circles, but it's difficult to ignore the effects, like a walkout in Parliament.Given the precariousness of President Zardari's administration, the impending military resistance to his rule, and the intrigue over Memogate, it should concern U.S. policymakers deeply that the drone program is further destabilizing an already tenuous situation.
In Yemen, too, the situation continues to deteriorate. There remains society-wide unrest at the horrible rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, and even his replacements and other contenders are finding it hard to placate public anger (which seems to be spreading).While Yemen has never been particularly stable, there is every indication that the drone strikes -- which will continue so long as officials feel threatened -- have only made the instability worse.
The problem with the drones policy isn't that drones themselves are bad, but that they are happening without broader political, social, and even economic policies that could mitigate their pernicious consequences. In Pakistan, the limp U.S. engagement has at the very least not helped the nasty politics of Islamabad (the case of Raymond Davis -- whose case became the source of deep, vicious public anger -- shows that the drones policy almost certainly made Pakistani politics and the government worse off). In Yemen, the limp U.S. political engagement with the Yemeni opposition groups has not only failed to mitigate the negative consequences of shooting missiles into desert villages, it has also crippled the U.S. ability to cope with a post-Saleh future.
In both countries, Pakistan and Yemen, the U.S. faces a future similar to what it faces in the Arab Spring countries: a sudden cut-off of information and cooperation it thinks critical to the global struggle against extremism. Yet that hasn't slowed down the pace of drone warfare -- especially when they come to define U.S. policy in places like the Horn of Africa (another area where U.S. engagement is primarily through drones and special forces instead of through politics).
Already, some countries are reacting against this global assertion to fly airplanes and kill at will. Last December, Algeria denied the U.S. permission to fly drones over its territory to help contain negative spillover effects from the Libyan intervention. Needless to say, that has limited U.S. options in the area because the U.S. never bothered to come up with a policy that doesn't rely on drones. Thus, as there appears to be a growing gap between the CIA and Algeria on how to react to the threat posted by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, there just isn't the political foundation in place to work those differences through.
Future drone technology, which includes making the planes autonomous, are unnerving to many of us who wonder about the substantial costs imposed by the current, human-controlled aircraft.There are no immediate plans for an autonomous lethal drone yet -- all of the automated systems will be for surveillance and resupplying ground troops -- but the rush to robots in warfare is worrying. There just isn't enough thought about what consequences these systems impose on U.S. policy. There needs to be.
Senator John McCain and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly offered starkly different visions of service—and of America.
It was a week of powerful speeches. The least memorable, oddly, was delivered by the most naturally gifted speaker, former President Barack Obama at a campaign rally in Virginia. “Our democracy is at stake,” he said, before harking back to the trope of his 2008 campaign: “Yes, we can.” Compelling in the setting, but not special.
Far more powerful was former President George W. Bush’s indictment of Donald Trump that didn’t mention the 45th president by name. It was a cry for freedom as a theme in American policy, a denunciation of “casual cruelty” in American discourse, of “nationalism distorted into nativism,” of isolationism, of attempts to turn American identity away from American ideals and into something darker, driven by “geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood.” In itself it would have been noteworthy.
Emma Perrier was deceived by an older man on the internet—a hoax that turned into an unbelievable love story.
Emma Perrier spent the summer of 2015 mending a broken heart, after a recent breakup. By September, the restaurant manager had grown tired of watching The Notebook alone in her apartment in Twickenham, a leafy suburb southwest of London, and decided it was time to get back out there. Despite the horror stories she’d heard about online dating, Emma, 33, downloaded a matchmaking app called Zoosk. The second “o” in the Zoosk logo looks like a diamond engagement ring, which suggested that its 38 million members were seeking more than the one-night stands offered by apps like Tinder.
She snapped the three selfies the app required to “verify her identity.” Emma, who is from a volcanic city near the French Alps, not far from the source of Perrier mineral water, is petite, and brunette. She found it difficult to meet men, especially as she avoided pubs and nightclubs, and worked such long hours at a coffee shop in the city’s financial district that she met only stockbrokers, who were mostly looking for cappuccinos, not love.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
Four families of fallen servicemembers received next-day UPS letters from President Trump after a turbulent week in which Trump falsely claimed he had called “virtually all” of the families.
Updated on October 22, 2017.
The Trump administration is scrambling to defend the president’s characterization of his communications with grieving military families, including rush-delivering letters from the president to the families of servicemembers killed months ago. Donald Trump falsely claimed this week that he had called “virtually” all fallen servicemembers’ families since his time in office.
Timothy Eckels Sr. hadn’t heard anything from President Trump since his son Timothy Eckels Jr. was killed after a collision involving the USS John S. McCain on August 21. But then, on October 20, two days into the controversy over the president’s handling of a condolence call with an American soldier’s widow, Eckels Sr. received a United Parcel Service package dated October 18 with a letter from the White House.
A stunning new speculative-fiction book by Naomi Alderman couldn’t be more timely.
One of the most succinct definitions of sexual harassment I’ve read over the past few weeks goes like this: For men, it’s anything they might say to a woman that would make them uncomfortable if it were said to them, but in prison. It’s glib, sure. But it gets at the fundamental imbalance of power that characterizes relationships between men and women. To understand what it’s like for a woman to be catcalled, or harassed, or propositioned, it isn’t enough for men to simply put themselves in that woman’s place. They also have to imagine what it’s like to sense the imminent danger in those interactions—to be weaker than their aggressor in every way, and to have that weakness woven into the fabric of society itself. As the adage often attributed to Margaret Atwood goes, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
A neuroscientist on how we came to be aware of ourselves.
Ever since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, evolution has been the grand unifying theory of biology. Yet one of our most important biological traits, consciousness, is rarely studied in the context of evolution. Theories of consciousness come from religion, from philosophy, from cognitive science, but not so much from evolutionary biology. Maybe that’s why so few theories have been able to tackle basic questions such as: What is the adaptive value of consciousness? When did it evolve and what animals have it?
The Attention Schema Theory (AST), developed over the past five years, may be able to answer those questions. The theory suggests that consciousness arises as a solution to one of the most fundamental problems facing any nervous system: Too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed. The brain evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals at the expense of others, and in the AST, consciousness is the ultimate result of that evolutionary sequence. If the theory is right—and that has yet to be determined—then consciousness evolved gradually over the past half billion years and is present in a range of vertebrate species.
Monday afternoon, President Trump delivered a press conference from an alternative reality, or perhaps a slightly-less-dark timeline. His relationship with Mitch McConnell is great! They have the votes for Obamacare repeal! The hurricane relief effort in Puerto Rico is a smashing success! Democrats are to blame for GOP divisions on Capitol Hill! These claims range from the highly dubious to the patently false.
The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.
It is insufficient to statethe obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.
A new bookfollows Joseph Lister as he ushers surgery into the modern age.
Joseph Lister came of age as surgery was being transformed. With the invention of anesthesia, operations could move beyond two-minute leg amputations that occasionally lopped off a testicle in haste. (True story.) But as surgeons poked and prodded deeper into the body, surgery only became more deadly.
It was the infections that killed people.
And it was Lister who first realized that germ theory has profound implications for medicine. In a new biography of Lister, Lindsey Fitzharris argues that the invention of antisepsis marks the true beginning of modern surgery. The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine takes its title from Lister’s own notes, where he writes of his love for “this bloody and butcherly department of the healing art.”
Honoring the sacrifice of servicemembers requires understanding why they were put at risk, and demanding that those who did so hold themselves to account.
On Thursday morning, I planned to write a pointed screed decrying President Trump’s propensity to view the military community as a problem he can buy off with a check. Then, on Thursday afternoon, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, himself a Gold Star father, decried the noxious politicization of the deaths of servicemembers and how we treat their families in the aftermath. His remarks gave me pause, as they were meant to.
“Let’s not let this maybe last thing that’s held sacred in our society, a young man, young woman, going out and giving his or her life for our country, let’s … keep that sacred” he implored, lamenting the ugly and voyeuristic events of the past week.
Who better to set the protocol and define the limits of this sacred space than a father who lost his son in Afghanistan? Unless you’ve walked in his shoes, don’t ask questions.