During the second presidential debate, the one focusing on foreign policy (remember that snoozer?), the big take-away was the fact that President Obama and perennial presidential hopeful Mitt Romney were in such lock-step on foreign policy that they hardly had anything to argue about. It seems the center-right and center-left essentially agree when it comes to how to prosecute the War on Terror, or at least they’ve both learned a lesson from one of Bush II’s mistakes; Don’t stand in front of a Mission Accomplished banner and pretend that an unconventional war will lead to a conventional parades-in-the-streets victory celebration. This one is going to be ugly, and it’s best if we have tamped-down, realistic expectations about that ugliness.
This has not stopped the far-right and far-left from criticizing the use of unmanned drones to prosecute this war. Some of these concerns are more legitimate than others. Among the least legitimate are concerns that unmanned drones are a step across some great divide toward artificially intelligent robots bringing war against humanity (sorry, but they are no more or less human than the cruise missiles we sent after Saddam Hussein back in Gulf War 1), that drones were fine when a real American was ordering their use but not when our current president is doing it (quit choking on your sour grapes, guys), or that drones are somehow undignified or cowardly (as though we are obligated to show up and slap people with white gloves when they would gladly blow up civilian targets with truck bombs). These arguments are patently ridiculous.
Unfortunately, most of the other arguments against the use of drones fall into a category in between the absurd and the worthy-of-debate. Some argue that the President does not have the right to use drones in countries where Congress has not made an official declaration of war. They use this as an example of President Obama’s executive overreach. This is blatantly hypocritical coming from people who turned a blind eye to previous presidents who authorized military actions in countries where we were not officially at war. Here are some countries where we’ve had military actions without actual congressional declarations of war. In chronological order, we’ve had military incursions in the Dominican Republic, Cambodia, French Polynesia, the West Indies, Argentina, Peru, Indonesia, Fiji, Samoa, Mexico, China, The Ivory Coast, Turkey, Nicaragua, Japan, Uruguay, Panama, Angola, Colombia, Taiwan, Colombia, Egypt, Korea, Haiti, Samoa, Chile, Brazil, The Philippines, Honduras, Syria, Morocco, Cuba, Guatemala, Newfoundland, Bermuda, St. Lucia, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Antigua, Trinidad, British Guiana, Greenland, Iceland, Greece, Vietnam, Lebanon, Thailand, Laos, Congo (Zaire), Iran, El Salvador, Libya, Chad, Italy, Bolivia, Liberia, Sierra Leon, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Macedonia, the Central African Republic, Albania, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Tanzania, Afghanistan, Sudan, East Timor, Serbia, Nigeria, and Yemen. Oh, and there are some that don’t even exist anymore, like the Kingdom of Tripoli, Spanish Florida, French Louisiana, the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Hawaii, the Soviet Union, and Dalmatia. These are all pre-9/11, by the way. So if the argument is that President Obama has overstretched executive authority by taking military action without the formal authorization of Congress, that doesn’t make him exceptionally tyrannical; it just makes him a normal president.
Another argument is that these are targeted killings of accused criminals who deserve the right to a fair trial. This would be an entirely legitimate argument if it came from people who had consistently held that the declaration of war on Al Qaeda was illegitimate because the group isn’t a country, so all actions against Al Qaeda should have been undertaken by law enforcement. Conservatives who gave George W. Bush a blank check to fight Al Qaeda all over the world can make this argument, but first they have to admit they were wrong and slap “We Should Have elected John Kerry in ’04” stickers on their cars. Liberals who want to make this argument would have to own it completely, and would have to forgo the electoral benefits that came from the killing of Osama Bin Laden, meaning they very well might have to accept that this position is important enough for them that it would justify a Mitt Romney presidency. I don’t hear that from either camp.
Slightly more legitimate is the concern that Americans have been targeted. I recoil at this because it smacks of a kind of American exceptionalism I find repugnant, the same kind that says foreigners can be imprisoned without trial but Americans cannot, but I admit that our laws do make different allowances for the treatment of American citizens than for the citizens of other countries. However, if the President has the authority to send troops to attack American nationals fighting against us in foreign lands, then that authority necessarily extends to all the means at the military’s disposal, and the military should be able to choose the means that is most effective, threatens the safety of the fewest civilians, and puts the fewest American soldiers at risk. Hence, drones.
Among the most legitimate concerns are those regarding the transparency of the means by which the targets are chosen. “[The] review process occurs entirely within the executive branch, violating the principle of the separation of powers. The executive is the judge, jury and executioner,” Juan Cole argues. “The drone program in the United States is hugely anti-democratic because the whole thing is classified. Therefore, it cannot be publicly discussed or debated with the officials behind it, who can neither confirm nor deny its very existence.” This concern is real, but the same could be said about any military planning. Decisions regarding household raids in Iraq and Afghanistan were made under the same conditions, with the targets receiving no trials unless they were captured. The drone strike program is striking because it is employed when the President invokes his right to kill or capture suspected Al Qaeda operatives, despite the fact that the drones have no means to capture anyone. That shocks the conscience, but only because we were willing to take it on faith that ground forces always make every effort to capture enemies. Not only is this assumption naïve, but it must be counterbalanced by the recognition that our forces put themselves in incredible danger when seeking to capture suspected terrorists. As much as it seems monstrous that President Obama personally authorizes the killing of suspected terrorists, we should remember that the alternative is to personally authorize missions to capture them and to take responsibility for the inevitable loss of American lives that would accompany those decisions. I completely understand that some are concerned that this President or the next might abuse his/her authority to send in the drones, but without some evidence that the 227 strikes he’s authorized as of January 23rd of this year have been so capricious that the loss of American soldiers lives would be preferable because it would focus American attention on the abuse, this argument is simply premature.
There’s also the legitimate concern about civilian casualties. Any moral person should share this concern. Also, in a conflict with an asymmetrical group like Al Qaeda, where winning the hearts and minds of the locals is paramount to “victory” (whatever that means in this kind of war), we have to acknowledge that every civilian casualty is not only a moral tragedy but also a strategic failure. But in this context, criticizing drone strikes is also a philosophical failure. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been between 472 and 885 civilians killed in U.S. drone strikes as of October of 2012. That’s in 350 strikes going back as far as 2009. That’s certainly a lot of civilian deaths, but, for the sake of an honest comparison, consider five years of boots-on-the-ground combat in Iraq: According to our own government’s judgment (leaked through Wikileaks’ Iraq War Logs) 66,081 Iraqi civilians died in the period between January 2004 and December 2009. No one can make a claim that President Bush or President Obama lacked the legal authority to put our soldiers in harms’ way in Iraq during the period between 2004 and 2009. But putting soldiers on the ground produced 140 times as many civilian casualties as drone strikes in a similar amount of time. So if civilian casualties are the concern, criticizing drone strikes simply doesn’t cut the mustard.
Ultimately, the most philosophically consistent criticism of our drone strike policy comes from complete pacifists; if you don’t like that people are killed in wars, drone strikes are certainly a part of that equation. Wars between nations do not produce winners; they produce countries that lose more and countries that lose less. Even in a post 9/11 world, we should acknowledge that the people who actually attacked us are all dead, and that we exchanged the threat of potentially devastating future attacks for the very real and quantifiable loses we’ve suffered as a consequence of our reaction to the attacks on 9/11. The War on Terror may have prevented X, but X is unknowable, and the more than 4,000 U.S. military deaths in Iraq, the more than 3,000 U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan, the more than 3,000 U.S. contractor deaths in both, the $4 trillion dollars worth of projected costs (about $13,000 per American), and the estimated tens of thousands of Afghanistani civilian deaths and the estimated 120 thousand Iraqi civilian deaths are knowable, and should weigh heavily against any abstract threat. I used to be an absolute pacifist on religious grounds, and though I’ve always thought of the men and women who commit themselves to our Armed Forces as exemplars of duty and self-sacrifice, I’m still highly skeptical of the efficacy of any war to produce anything but human misery and opportunities for profiteering for corporations. With that being said, I would encourage my fellow liberals to lay off the drone strike arguments. Questioning the need for war of any kind should be a part of our political debate, but holding hands with hawks to criticize drone strikes threatens to sound like an argument that we should exchange the lives of more soldiers and more civilians because we’re uncomfortable with a new technology or with opaque military strategizing that isn’t actually new at all.
Righties, you hate Obama. You can’t articulate a good reason why you hate him so much (despite my requests, hell, my begging for a good explanation), so you’re grasping at straws.
My fellow Lefties, you don’t like war. Good. Stick with that. Unlike the Righties, you have literally trillions of good reasons.
But both sides, lay off the drones.