When Obama went to Cambodia earlier this week there was some talk of him apologising for the ‘secret war’ of the early seventies; not only because one should say sorry for bombing half a neutral country flat, but also on the grounds that this paved the way for the Khmer Rouge takeover.
Up to a point, brother number one. Past that point, the politics matter more than the explosives. What counted more wasn’t the fact that Cambodia was bombed, but the fact that in order to enjoy a permissive environment for that bombing it was either necessary or convenient to have Lon Nol in office, a man who carried around Nixon’s autograph in the belief that it made him bulletproof and who defended Phnom Penh against encroaching Khmer Rouge forces by sprinkling consecrated sand in a circle around it.
I’m not arguing about whether or not the US helped depose Sihanouk in order to facilitate the secret war. But the US certainly welcomed his fall and took full advantage of it. The fact that he was a deranged autocrat was collateral. What mattered was that he provided political latitude for the conduct of extensive ground and aerial operations. He was good enough for government work.
What I’m talking about here are drones. They’re clearly not anywhere near as destructive as ground invasions or massed B52 strikes, but once again it’s the politics that matter. What kind of state would allow a foreign power to conduct remote surveillance and assassination missions over its territory according to criteria of its own devising and do it in such an obvious, non-deniable way? Moreover, drones are vulnerable; they can’t operate in any state with fairly rudimentary means of securing its own airspace and the willingness to use it.
So it’s not surprising that states which allow drone operations over their territories are ones in which there is already a substantial US military presence (Afghanistan), states which are grotesquely corrupt (Pakistan) and states which have collapsed (Yemen, Libya). There are musings now about having drone operations over Nigeria, which you can add to the grotesquely corrupt column. As far as non-states go, there were so many drones over Gaza this past couple of weeks that they were practically colliding with each other.
The use of drones, inevitably, tends to seal this state of affairs because it is conducive to their utility. It’s a signal that the failure of your state is useful to an outside power which will support state failure for operational and policy reasons. If you’re living in a military drone friendly environment, it’s a signal that the United States wants the failure of your state to continue. And pretty soon, not only the United States.