Last Saturday, three US military aircraft attempting to land at Bor in South Sudan came under fire, leaving four US service members wounded. The planes were trying to evacuate Americans from the town and had been dispatched from Uganda.
In Florida, the US government spent the last weekend hosting what was billed as a “robot Olympics” — a competition staged by DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency — a Pentagon-funded research organisation that invented, among other things, the internet) to encourage the development of new technologies.
I highlight these two very different stories because they are prime examples of the sort of thing that ought to get discussed in American political and media circles, but rarely does. Indeed, hours before the planes were fired on in South Sudan, and as the robot games were getting underway in Florida, US President Barack Obama was holding his end-of-year news conference, an event that said a lot about what was wrong with the Washington press corps and its approach to both journalism and public policy. It began with a reporter asking whether 2013 had been Obama’s worst year in office and continued through an hour of similar questions that rarely strayed beyond the minutiae of political tactics. That discussion (predictably) spilled over into the weekend’s political talk shows (always the best gauge of American political conventional wisdom). To the extent that any ‘big picture’ issue makes it onto these shows these days it usually concerns either speculation about the 2016 presidential campaign or musings about whether the most recent twist of the daily political news cycle spells doom for Obama or his Republican Party opponents (spoiler: They will say it does, but, really, it does not). In the process, Americans wind up having little or no debate about the country’s latest military deployment or the broader ethical, moral, political or policy questions raised by the ever-increasing use of robots (for example, drones) in American warfare.
What has obsessed America over the last ten days or so are racist and anti-homosexual comments made by the star of a reality TV show and the assertion by a Fox News anchor that “Santa Claus was a white man” (a position vigorously defended by other Fox hosts when the one who made the original comment came under attack). I wish I had made that last paragraph up but, sadly, I did not.
On one level, what the US was doing in South Sudan was pretty common. A day after the shooting incident at Bor, the US military managed to land safely in the town and airlift out Americans and other foreigners. We can hold a separate debate about the moral issues raised by western nations, swooping into Third World combat zones to fly their nationals to safety, but doing so is a time-honoured practice and not, in itself, especially unusual.
Last Saturday’s operation, however, raises legitimate questions about the US military’s Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, and how Obama and future presidents intend to use it going forward. AFRICOM is a relatively new organisation. It was established only in 2007 and still works out of a headquarters in Germany rather than Africa itself. There has been a lot of talk in US policy circles about it being a different type of US military organisation: One focused mainly on humanitarian operations. But with Al Qaida gaining a toe-hold in Mali, continued instability and rising militancy in Libya and a growing sectarian war in the Central African Republic reasonable people can ask if this new sort of US military organisation — however well-intentioned it may be — stands much chance of emerging in its intended form.
That brings us back to robots.
DARPA’s Florida competition was focused on “rescue robots” — machines designed to help, and to save, human beings after a natural disaster, terrorist attack or any more run-of-the-mill accident. Only a naive observer, however, will believe that technology will, or can, stop there.
The drones operated by the US military today are robots by another name. “Rescue robot” technology surely will save lives in many places in the years to come, but, just as surely, drones and the technologies that flow from them will grow both more sophisticated and more lethal. As they do, the element of human risk is slowly removed from conflict (for one side, at least) and war, in turn, becomes easier — and, therefore, more likely.
These are the issues that Americans ought to be discussing and that reporters ought to be forcing politicians at all levels to address. Instead, they talk about trivia and tactics. It is not an auspicious combination.
Gordon Robison, a longtime Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches Political Science at the University of Vermont.