The lead story in The New York Times today concerns U.S. surveillance drones, operated not by the Pentagon or the CIA, but by the State Department, that are patrolling the skies over Iraq even after our combat troops have gone home. In the story, Iraqi officials complain that the drones are an affront to their new nation's sovereignty.
The State Department drones do not carry weapons, but are used as sky high lookouts over the massive U.S. embassy and other consulates. The fact that they can't shoot missiles is a distinction that is lost on most Iraqis, given the growing American reputation for striking from the sky without warning.
“We hear from time to time that drone aircraft have killed half a village in Pakistan and Afghanistan under the pretext of pursuing terrorists,” Mr. Salah said. “Our fear is that will happen in Iraq under a different pretext.”
Even putting aside Iraqi's natural concerns about another country running spy planes over its land, the program raises potentially bigger questions about diplomats operating what amounts to a spying campaign in someone else's country. The drones have traditionally been the domain of the military, but even as their use has increased in combat operations, it seems they're now becoming a visible part of every aspect of American action overseas. But as the quote above shows, to those living under the "watchful" gaze of unmanned planes, the difference between American security and American aggression isn't much of a difference at all.
The program is also another reminder of just how entrenched the American government plans to be in Iraq as the country struggles to find its footing as an independent, democratic nation. If the drones are needed to protect 11,000 U.S. workers at the giant Baghdad embassy, perhaps we should rethink just how big that embassy needs to be