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A Model of American Opacity

How Obama's drone war echoes Egypt's military crackdown.

I can no longer keep track of all the ways the United States has lost the moral high ground when it comes to Egypt.

There was our initial namby-pamby response to the popular uprising against Hosni Mubarak in early 2011: We made vague noises about the virtues of democracy, but we dithered over calling for Mubarak to step down, because we're Dictators R Us -- Mubarak might have been a bastard, but he was our bastard. After Mubarak's ouster, we continued to sit on our hands as Egypt's interim military government grew ever more repressive in the run-up to elections. When the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsy won the presidency in the summer of 2012 and began rapidly consolidating power, we remained dithery, coupling the occasional pious call for increased political freedom with expressions of faint support for the entirely unlovable Morsy and faint distaste for the burgeoning secular protest movement.

Then, when Morsy was ousted in a military coup, we took a leaf from Orwell and insisted there hadn't been a coup, just "an incredibly complex and difficult situation" in which there was "a decision made by the Egyptian armed forces to remove President Morsy from power and to suspend the constitution," which is, of course, nothing at all like a coup.

This week, our response to the news that more than 600 Islamist protesters were killed by Egyptian security forces was to issue a stiff verbal rebuke and cancel a planned joint military exercise with the Egyptians. Yeah, that'll show ‘em. Since we still can't bring ourselves to cut the annual $1.3 billion in military aid we give Egypt, Egypt's armed forces are presumably laughing their way to the bank.

All that's ample reason for shame. But we've also lost the moral high ground for another, less obvious reason: Given the disgraceful lack of transparency surrounding U.S. drone strikes, we no longer have any principled ground on which to stand as we condemn the killings in Egypt.

That's because the Egyptian government's rationale for its recent killings is unpleasantly similar to our own government's rationale for drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

To the international press, the hundreds of Islamists killed in Cairo this week are protesters exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. True, some among those protesters may have committed acts of criminal violence, assaulting police stations and attacking members of Egypt's security forces, but that's no excuse for shooting people down. The security forces should use lethal force in self-defense only and should otherwise respond to the ongoing protests using only non-lethal methods.

Naturally, Egypt's current leadership offers a different version of the story. In their version, they're not dealing with largely peaceful protesters -- they're dealing with violent Islamic extremists committing "terrorist acts" to "demolish the pillars of the Egyptian state," as an Egyptian government statement put it. The terrorists have already demonstrated their commitment and capacity for lethal violence by staging attacks on dozens of police stations, government buildings, and churches, and killing more than 40 security officials. Naturally, non-lethal law enforcement methods are the preferred means of dealing with terror threats, but such methods have been tried and proved inadequate. "It became necessary to finish this thing," Egypt's ambassador to the United States explained sorrowfully in an interview with Foreign Policy.

Because what's a peace-loving state to do when threatened by violent extremists with a demonstrated determination and ability to commit acts of terror? Sometimes, it's necessary to use lethal force. No, it's not pretty, and occasionally, despite a conscientious government's best efforts, errors in intelligence or targeting will be made and the innocent will suffer, but what can you expect? This is war, and war is hell, and kindly mind your own damn business, United States.

To Egypt's military government, American officials condemning the killings are nothing but hypocrites. After all, is there any significant difference between what Egypt is doing in its own streets and what the United States is doing in the streets of other states?

When the United States uses drone strikes to kill alleged terrorists -- strikes that have killed thousands of people, not hundreds -- it doesn't show the world the evidence that led to those targeting decisions. It doesn't offer specifics about the past bad behavior of those it kills, or details of the future damage they would likely inflict if left unmolested. It doesn't acknowledge mistakes or offer a public account of any civilian deaths unintentionally inflicted. On the contrary, the United States does exactly what the Egyptian authorities are doing: It asserts the existence of a threat to national security, asserts its right to use force to counter it, asks the world to trust in the good faith and good judgment of its officials, and otherwise tells critics to buzz off.

True, Egypt is using lethal force inside its own borders, rather than inside the borders of another state. But does this make it worse, or better? The U.S. government does its killing far from its own territory, away from the prying eyes of journalists, judges, members of Congress, and anyone else who might be dismayed by the bloody aftermath of what we're so fond of viewing as "surgical" strikes. Egypt's government is at least doing its dirty work right out in the open, where its population can judge its actions for itself. (So far, many in Egypt seem content: As the New York Times reported today, many in Cairo apparently view the killings as justified. The Times story quotes one source explaining approvingly that Egypt's security forces need to "fight terrorism" and that the military has been transparent in its actions, moving in on protesters during the daytime, rather than under cover of darkness, so that "everything was obvious.")

And don't be too sure the U.S. government wouldn't resort to lethal force to kill domestic terrorists, if it comes to that. Probably not with drones, but weaponized drones are just a convenient way to kill people in regions where it's impractical for the United States to deploy ground personnel. The United States has not yet faced a domestic threat of the magnitude Egypt's authorities claim to be facing, and although American officials insist that they would always abide by domestic legal requirements when countering any terrorist threats at home, the logic of the Obama administration's argument about drone strikes isn't very reassuring. If the United States is legally entitled to kill suspected terrorists in Yemen because they're considered combatants in our armed conflict against al Qaeda and its associates, there's no obvious reason for the United States to refrain from killing suspected enemy combatants operating inside its borders if circumstances render non-lethal law enforcement methods impracticable. As ever in the war on terror, our only real safeguard against government abuse is the good character and self-restraint of American officials.

To be clear, I'm not expecting black helicopters to swoop down on the next Code Pink protest in Washington; I do, in fact, have a great deal of faith in our government's commitment to using only law enforcement methods inside our borders. I'll go further than that: Although I regard most U.S. drone strikes as strategically short-sighted and marred by an appalling disregard for rule-of-law principles, I accept the administration's assurance that strikes are carried out only after an exacting review process.

But although I believe the U.S. government has a far greater commitment to safeguarding innocent lives and exercising self-restraint than the Egyptian authorities, the utter lack of transparency surrounding U.S. drone strikes ensures that no one can prove it.

And that's not good enough. How can our condemnations of the bloody abuses in Egypt have any credibility when we've given the world no basis for believing we're less savage ourselves?

Ed Giles/Getty Images

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