The Potential For a Diplomatic Drone Disaster

There are multiple cases against America's international program of drone assassinations. There is the humanitarian case: the program has killed hundreds of innocent civilians, due to either bad intelligence or a simple lack of caring on the part of US officials. And, for the more heartless... er, hard-nosed pragmatists, there is the diplomatic case: the US is reportedly operating drones in Pakistan with only the flimsiest level of permission.

A story in the WSJ today delves into the diplomatic high wire act behind America's drone program in the tribal regions of Pakistan—an important if mercurial US ally, in case you've forgotten. Upon what permission does the US conduct this wildly controversial assassination program within a foreign country's borders? Upon... a weekly fax that goes unanswered.

Each week, the WSJ says, the CIA sends Pakistan a fax telling them what airspace the US drones will be using. Pakistan says nothing. And the drones go on.

After the May 2011 bin Laden raid, which the U.S. did without Pakistani permission or knowledge, the ISI stopped acknowledging receipt of U.S. drone notifications, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials. Replies were stopped on the order of the ISI chief at that time, said an official briefed on the matter.

"Not responding was their way of saying 'we're upset with you,' " this official said. The official said the ISI chief chose that option knowing an outright denial of drone permission would spark a confrontation, and also believing that withdrawing consent wouldn't end the strikes.

It's the diplomatic version of two passive aggressive roommates ignoring one another's notes left on the fridge. You do not have to be Zbigniew Motherfucking Brzezinski to see that this is a rather thin—and potentially disastrous—level of diplomatic and legal justification for the type of program that quite literally has the power to start a war. One can imagine that a very slight radicalization of Pakistan's controlling politicians, and a slightly greater official outcry on their part, could start this whole thing down a very dark (for the US—it's pretty dark for Pakistan already) path. In the WSJ story, various experts fret over the tenuous nature of the drone program's justifications.

In an April speech, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said the administration has concluded there is nothing in international law barring the U.S. from using lethal force against a threat to the U.S., despite the absence of a declared war, provided the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat.

On the international stage, matters are less clear-cut. The unwilling-or-unable doctrine, which was first publicly stated by the George W. Bush administration and has been affirmed by the Obama administration, remains open to challenge abroad, legal experts say. Conducting drone strikes in a country against its will could be seen as an act of war.

So, just to recap: the American drone assassination program in Pakistan, which is immensely unpopular there for obvious reasons, is justified by a single monthly unreturned fax, and Pakistan is letting that slide, for the time being, unless, of course, something happens which causes them to change their mind, in which case, we have no leg to stand on, and if the people of Pakistan decided that this is something worth fighting over, well, we're not really in a position to blame them. Remember how mad we get every time a foreigner even thinks about blowing up something here, no matter the justification? Yeah.

Even if you don't care about blowing up innocent children, this is a problem.

[WSJ. Photo: AP]