The Morality Of Drone Warfare

Here are many of the Dish posts that look at the morality of drone warfare.


Thu Oct 22, 2009 – 8:32pm:

The Case Against Drones

Andrew Exum calls Jane Mayer’s article “perhaps the very best piece on the use of unmanned drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Exum, a long time critic of the drone program:

My worries have always centered around how the attacks are perceived on the ground, so it has been frustrating to read careless readers of our argument mistakenly assume we agree with open-source reporting out of Pakistan. To the contrary. I focus on Pakistani press reports because, in a war of perceptions, I am less concerned with how many civilians we areactually killing and more concerned with how many civilians the neutral population thinks we are killing.

Spencer Ackerman has further thoughts.


Sat Sep 4, 2010 – 1:12pm:

An Algorithm For War
by Zoe Pollock

Ron Rosenbaum makes a convincing moral argument against drone-porn war crimes:

Drones mean you don’t need to win hearts and minds if you’re allowed to blow away the bodies of “the enemy” without risking U.S. lives. But at what cost? Few of us have wanted to scrutinize too carefully a program that holds out the tempting promise of “victory” and thus the withdrawal of large numbers of troops from Afghanistan sooner rather than later. Or to look at the downside: that drone slaughter—whether or not it’s a war crime—is counterproductive, creating generations of potential terrorists from the families of the innocent victims of careless carnage. A 2009 Brookings Institution study estimated that for every “militant” killed, there were 10 civilian casualties. And critics have pointed out that each of them will have 10 grieving relatives who will become “militants” or supporters in all likelihood.

Of course, there’s a lot of controversy over the percentage of noncombatants killed in the drone strikes. One study, not very convincingly, puts civilian casualties at slightly above 3 percent. Another says 10 percent, another a full one-third, Brookings far more. Do these different numbers yield different moral conclusions? Are the drone strikes defensible at 4 percent murdered innocents but indefensible at 33 percent? There’s no algorithm that synchs up the degree of target importance, the certainty of intelligence that’s based on, and potential civilian casualties from the attack. It’s a question that’s impossible to answer with precision. Which suggests that when murdering civilians is involved, you don’t do it at all.


Tue Sep 7, 2010 – 1:17pm:

A former military analyst writes:

Rosenbaum’s analysis was interesting but his framing is fatally misconceived. He talks about “murdering civilians,” which is always a war crime – no need to hand-wring about drones there. I used to present target packages complete with information that helped commanders judge how many civilians we were likely to kill if we blew up the house. We used our own ‘algorithms’ to decide what level of (estimated/projected) collateral damage was acceptable given military objectives. Because, you see, all the way since forever war has involved a certain predictable amount of civilian casualty. That’s a major reason why war is so awful.

The argument can be made that the relative painlessness for one’s own side has tricked us into underrating the damage we do, and that part of the discussion is both interesting and persuasive. The stuff about murdering civilians just gives me a strong feeling like he hasn’t thought very hard about the topic.


Thu Sep 2, 2010 – 10:25am:

Death by Drone
by Conor Friedersdorf

Says James Poulos:

There’s something about drones that makes me queasy. Maybe it’s the whole robots-with-guns thing. We’re a long ways away from the day when machines programmed to kill fight wars so human Americans don’t have to, but I think the following principle is important to keep in at least the back of our minds going forward: war is something awful, serious, and dangerous enough that real people should have to do the bulk of it. Assassinating evildoers in remote locations is one thing; getting in the habit of outsourcing death and destruction to the bots is another.

And elsewhere at Ricochet, here’s Adam Freedman:

I did my usual snorting and scoffing when I heard about the ACLU’s latest lawsuit to enjoin the killing of terror suspects abroad. But is it possible that they’re on to something?

According to the complaint, the CIA and JSOC (Joint Special Operations Committee) maintain a “kill list” of individuals whom the US can kill anywhere, anytime. The list includes US citizens. The ACLU appears to concede that the US can kill its enemies in war zones, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. But what authorizes the government to summarily kill US citizens on suspicion that they’re plotting terror activity? Even if the targets are guilty of treason, the Constitution requires the testimony of two witnesses or a confession in open court.

The ACLU also objects to killing foreign nationals outside of war zones; however, that argument is much weaker. But US citizens? Like my fellow Ricocheterians over here, I have my qualms about the ease with which the government can now send a drone to do its dirty work.

I wish the right would do less scoffing at the ACLU. It’s often unjustified. But I’ll live with scoffing if it’s followed by the dawning realization that the Obama Adminstration has imprudently asserted for itself an extraordinary extra-constitutional power, the potential abuse of which ought to terrify any citizen who is half paying attention.

Once that realization has sunk in, I’d encourage this followup thought: whereas the ACLU is standing against this radical expansion of federal power — an executive branch death panel, if you will — conservative instituitions like The Heritage Foundation aren’t merely silent, they’re hiring a senior staffer who believes that the ability to draw up a list of American citizens to be killed is inherent in the power of the presidency.


Mon Sep 6, 2010 – 3:52pm:
by Chris Bodenner

Tim Heffernan joins the debate:

I am not sure why [Poulos] thinks it’s better to have our people rather than our robots do our killing — because it’s more honorable? Produces fewer civilian deaths? Both are reasonable and both are debatable, but I won’t speak for him and instead hope he will explain. In any case, to me the reason to prefer human to robotic war is a cold and brutal one: because it brings war home to the citizenry in the form of the dead and wounded, and the citizenry may then be less likely to support future wars except out of clear necessity. I don’t like the logic of that argument and cannot defend it morally, but the distancing of civilians from their wars is a serious matter that both I and the Department of Defense have been concerned about for a long time, albeit for totally opposing reasons.

Dominic Tierney observes:

Rami Khouri, a scholar and editor based in Beirut, described how the Lebanese viewed the Israeli drones in the 2006 war in Lebanon: “the enemy is using machines to fight from afar. Your defiance in the face of it shows your heroism, your humanity…The average person sees it as just another sign of coldhearted, cruel Israelis and Americans, who are also cowards because they send out machines to fight us.” America’s population is as frightened as the lion from the Wizard of Oz. And its robots are as heartless as the tin man. Americans will not face death, whereas its enemies embrace it. In anti-American circles, the suicide terrorist may look like a brave rebel resisting the evil Galactic Empire.


Fri Dec 17, 2010 – 6:02pm:

A Drone Attack Every 1.8 Days

Ackerman continues to sound the alarm:

Independent accounts of what it’s like to live under the shadows of the drones are still all-too-rare, especially in English. Given the amount of investment the Obama administration has in the drones, it’s unlikely that the administration would listen. But however targeted the strikes may be, the hundreds of thousands of civilians in North Waziristan and the rest of the tribal areas live with the anxiety of the missiles overhead. How long can the U.S. avoid a reckoning?


Sun Apr 17, 2011 – 9:56pm:

Drones And A Just War

The question here is as intense as it was in the Second World War when a Christian preacher with impeccable anti-Nazi credentials decided he could not stand by as the Allies set German cities, crammed with civilians, on fire:

What would Bishop Bell have thought of America’s use of unmanned drones to bomb targets seen only on computer screens thousands of miles away — i.e., at Creech Air Force Base, in Nevada? For unmanned drone aircraft are an extreme case of mediated warfare, in which the combatant — the distant operator of the drone — is so far removed from the action that he or she can only have a highly detached sense of responsibility for the action.

The enemy on the ground is disembodied almost entirely because the combatant is sitting in front of a screen far from the physical site of conflict. Charles Lindbergh warned of this long ago — that bombing from the air could remove the human element from combat.

Bell’s point, in his context, was that aerial bombing was taking human responsibility out of the equation.

The bishop kept pulling photos out of his pocket, which his anti-Nazi contacts had gotten to him, that told their story of the human torches, mostly women and children, that the British raids were creating. Bell felt that if he could just show people in England what was actually happening on the ground in Germany, they would be repelled and question the bombing. He lamented that the Royal Air Force pilots could not possibly see the results of their work and were thereby detached from the human cost of what they were doing.

What I wonder at today is not so much the existence of un-manned drones that kill “anonymously” but that there is so little opposition in this country to their use.

This op-ed, unsurprisingly, was turned down by the Washington Post.


Sun Aug 14, 2011 – 8:54pm:

The Children We Kill

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A new report from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveals the profound moral costs of drone warfare, waged by the unacccountable CIA:

The highest number of child deaths occurred during the Bush presidency, with 112 children reportedly killed. More than a third of all Bush drone strikes appear to have resulted in the deaths of children.

On only one occasion during Bush’s time in office did a single child die in a strike. Multiple deaths occurred every other time. On July 28 2008 for example, CIA drones struck a seminary in South Waziristan, killing al Qaeda’s chemical weapons expert Abu Khabab al Masri along with his team. Publicly the attack was hailed a success.

But the Agency’s strike also killed three young boys and a woman. Despite the secrecy surrounding the drones campaign, details emerged in May of this year that not only was the US aware of this ‘collateral damage’, but that the then-CIA chief Michael Hayden personally apologised to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Gilani for the error.

The Obama administration has also killed over 50 children, but seems to be trying to improve:

There are indications that the Obama administration is making efforts to reduce the number of children being killed. Following the incident in September 2010 that killed Din Mohammad’s children, and another strike just weeks earlier in which a further three children died, there has been an apparent steep fall in the number of child fatalities reported by media.

That is partially in line with claims by some US intelligence officials that drone targeting strategies have been altered to reduce civilian casualties. Although the Bureau has demonstrated that CIA claims of ‘zero casualties’ are false, there are fewer reports of child casualties since August 2010.

(Photo: Syed Wali Shah Aged 7, killed in strike Ob32/Noor Behram.)


Thu Aug 18, 2011 – 5:58pm:

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There’s been some pushback against the Bureau of Investigative Journalism report we highlighted:

Though even a single civilian casualty ought not to be taken lightly, the focus on alleged collateral damage distorts the essence of the drone program. In reality, technology allows highly trained operators to observe targets on the ground for as much as 72 hours in advance. Software engineers typically model the blast radius for a missile or bomb strike. Lawyers weigh in on which laws apply and entire categories of potential targets—including mosques, hospitals and schools—are almost always off bounds. All these procedures serve one overriding purpose: to protect innocent civilian life. The New America Foundation’s database of strikes shows it’s working.

This year civilians made up only about 8% of the 440 (at most) people killed in drone strikes in Pakistan down from about 30% two years ago. As for affecting U.S. popularity on the ground, according to the Pew Global Attitudes survey, the U.S. favorability rating—long battered by conspiracy theories and an anti-American media—hovers at about 12%, almost exactly where it stood before the program’s advent seven years ago.

I noted the big increase in accuracy under Obama, and am glad for it. Benjamin Friedman still opposes the drone war, but I tend to agree with Ben Wittes’ defense of drone strikes as the least worst evil after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The key is to keep refining accuracy and ensuring that civilian casualties, especially of children, are kept to an absolute, over-riding minimum.

(Photo: A US ‘Predator’ drone passes overhead at a forward operating base near Kandahar on January 1, 2009. By Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images.)


Tue Jun 12, 2012 – 1:22pm:

Are Drones Defensible?

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Friedersdorf believes that my posts on drones are at odds:

Sullivan is … celebrating Obama’s drone kills and suggesting that they’re part of why he deserves reelection. And yet, in more considered moments, he asserts that the drone campaign (a) violates the constitutional imperative to get Congressional permission for war; (b) constitutes the use of a technology that inclines us to blowback and permanent war; (c) effectively ends the Founders’ vision; (d) empowers an unaccountable and untrustworthy agency; and (e) kills lots of innocent children.

Hold on. (a) The war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan was explicitly authorized by the Congress back in 2001. (b) recent research suggests blowback is not inevitable in all cases (although I certainly agree it is a major drawback) and the attacks themselves are extremely effective in what they are trying to do:

On the basis of comprehensive analyses of data on multiple terrorist and insurgent organizations, [two new] studies conclude that killing or capturing terrorist leaders can reduce the effectiveness of terrorist groups or even cause terrorist organizations to disintegrate … [R]eligious terrorist groups were almost five times more likely to end than nationalist groups after having their leaders killed.

(c) What ends the Founders’ vision is religious terrorists from mountains in Middle Asia successfully invading and terrorizing major cities in the US and killing thousands. What frustrates me about Conor’s position – and Greenwald’s as well – is that it kind of assumes 9/11 didn’t happen or couldn’t happen again, and dismisses far too glibly the president’s actual responsibility as commander-in-chief to counter these acts of mass terror. If you accept that presidential responsibility, and you also realize that the blowback from trying to occupy whole Muslim countries will be more intense, then what is a president supposed to do? I think the recourse to drone warfare is about as reasonable and as effective a strategy as we can find. It plays to our strengths – technology, air-power, zero US casualties, rather than to our weaknesses: occupying countries we don’t understand with utopian counter-insurgency plans that end up empowering enemies Moqtada al Sadr and crooks like Hamid Karzai, and turn deeply unpopular at home. Given our country’s fiscal crisis, massive expensive counter-insurgency is no longer a viable option.

Not that blowback isn’t a real worry; not that all of Conor’s concerns shouldn’t be part of the equation. It’s possible, for example, that wiping out the entire mid and top leadership of al Qaeda could make things worse:

What is coming next is a generation whose ideological positions are more virulent and who owing to the removal of older figures with clout, are less likely to be amenable to restraining their actions. And contrary to popular belief, actions have been restrained. Attacks have thus far been used strategically rather than indiscriminately. Just take a look at AQ’s history and its documents and this is blatantly clear.

But as Will McCants explains:

Al-Qaeda Central’s senior leaders seek to kill as many citizens as possible in the non-Muslim majority countries they don’t like, particularly the United States and its Western allies … It is hard to imagine a more virulent current in the jihadi movement than that of al-Qaeda Central’s senior leaders. Anyone with a desire or capability of moderating that organization was pushed out long ago.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Clint Watts side with McCants. Bill Roggio returns to basics:

Nine years into the drone program, it is now clear that while drones are useful in keeping al Qaeda and its affiliates off-balance, the assassination of operatives by unmanned aircraft has not led to the demise of the organization or its virulent ideology. During both the Bush and Obama administrations, US officials have been quick to declare al Qaeda defeated or “on the ropes” after killing off top leaders, only to learn later that the terror group has refused to die. Instead of being defeated, al Qaeda has metastasized beyond the Afghan-Pakistan border areas, and has cropped up in Yemen, Somalia, North Africa (including in Mali), and even in the Egyptian Sinai.

And there does seem a danger, especially in Yemen, that drones may be focusing the Islamists’ attention away from their own government and onto ours. Which is why this program needs to be very carefully monitored, excruciatingly reviewed, constantly questioned. So yes, I’m with Conor on the need for more accountability and transparency on this.

But if you’d asked me – or anyone – in 2001 whether it would be better to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq to defeat al Qaeda, or to use the most advanced technology to take out the worst Jihadists with zero US casualties, would anyone have dissented? And remember the scale of civilian casualties caused by the Iraq war and catastrophic occupation: tens of thousands of innocents killed under American responsibility for security. The awful truth of war is that innocents will die. Our goal must be to minimize that. Compared with the alternatives, drones kill fewer innocents.

Of course, we need to be incredibly careful to limit civilian casualties even further. Counting every military-age man in the vicinity of a Jihadist as a terrorist is a total cop-out. We should see the real casualty numbers and adjust accordingly. But we also have to stop the Jihadist threat. It is real. And a president does not have the luxury of pretending it isn’t.

(Photo: A MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle prepares to land after a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The Reaper has the ability to carry both precision-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles.)


Wed Jun 13, 2012 – 12:21pm:

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I wrote that the position Greenwald and Friedersdorf hold against the the drone campaign “kind of assumes 9/11 didn’t happen or couldn’t happen again, and dismisses far too glibly the president’s actual responsibility as commander-in-chief to counter these acts of mass terror.” Greenwald counters:

I absolutely believe that another 9/11 is possible. And the reason I believe it’s so possible is that people like Andrew Sullivan — and George Packer — have spent the last decade publicly cheering for American violence brought to the Muslim world, and they continue to do so (now more than ever under Obama). Far from believing that another 9/11 can’t happen, I’m amazed that it hasn’t already, and am quite confident that at some point it will. How could any rational person expect their government to spend a full decade (and counting) invading, droning, cluster-bombing, occupying, detaining without charges, and indiscriminately shooting huge numbers of innocent children, women and men in multiple countries and not have its victims and their compatriots be increasingly eager to return the violence?

This passage is so overwrought it barely merits a response. Now George Packer and I are the real reasons for 9/11 or 7/7 or the brutal mass murders we just saw conducted by Islamists in Iraq? And the idea that I have “spent a decade” “cheering for American violence” is, well, ridiculous. For the last nine years, I have been a brutal critic of policies I once cheered on, and campaigned furiously against the pure, protracted violence of torture, which I always opposed. Ditto the notion that Bush = Obama or that Obama = Bush in the war on Jihadist terrorism. Not true, by a mile. Digby seconds Greenwald:

A great nation would not delude itself into believing that it can kill its way to security. And that’s what this is — a violent version of security theater where we all feel soothed that the president is “taking out”, one by one, all the foreigners who want to hurt us. And it’s as ridiculous today as it was five years ago. Killing individuals, some bad I’m sure, along with innocents and lowly hangers-on cannot fix this problem.

In a later post Greenwald points out how unpopular drones are in other parts of the world. And that is a worry, as I wrote in my original post. But it seems to me that Glenn sees no difference between invading and occupying whole countries with the attendant blowback and infinitely larger civilian casualties, mistakes and ill-will, alongside a program of torture for prisoners (Bush) and a successful exit from Iraq and an attempt to defeat al Qaeda more surgically and precisely in its original heartland, while stopping torture and by that and other means dramatically improving intelligence (Obama).

I agree – how could one not? – that the drone program can backfire. Which is why I said it has to be conducted with extreme care. But the notion that the fundamental reason the US is now targeted simply because we defended ourselves from a brutal attack (and aims for more attacks) seems far too simplistic to me. Yes, we always have to worry about stirring more violence in defending ourselves from violence. But we also have to worry about the violence directed at us. There is a distinction between the motives of an arsonist and the errors of a fire-fighter.

And Digby has the same delusion: killing people doesn’t win wars, she says. She would have opposed the Abottabad raid? Would Glenn? If Glenn is going to accuse me of being an imperialist, it seems to me he should be prepared to say he would not have killed bin Laden. The blowback in Pakistan has been intense. By Glenn’s argument, bin Laden should still be sitting in his room, planning new assassinations and terror attacks. Does he think it’s even halfway credible for anyAmerican president to have contented himself with that? Or is he not living on the same planet I am?


Fri Jun 15, 2012 – 5:07pm:

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A reader writes:

Instead of dealing with and forthrightly acknowledging your belief that America should have the special right to extinguish civilian lives wherever and whenever it wants, you fall back on claims like “the notion that the fundamental reason the US is now targeted simply because we defended ourselves from a brutal attack…seems far too simplistic to me.” AQAP had nothing to do with 9/11 and as we know from recent reporting, much of the al Qaeda that instigated 9/11 has been dismantled. Can you (or anybody) plausibly claim that jihadis currently living in Yemen or Pakistan have “brutally attacked us?”

Another is on the same page:

The Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists is very specific. It targets only nations, organizations, or persons [the President] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons. This, in my inexpert reading, means only al-Qaeda and the Taliban. So yes, let’s assume drone strikes against those organizations are lawful. But the question becomes, are there any natural limits on such strikes?

We’ve already killed or captured nearly everyone who had anything to do with 9/11. Does the fact that people go around calling themselves al-Qaeda and Taliban necessarily mean that they are the people intended to be targeted by the resolution? These organizations are almost entirely just names at this point, that some people adopt for themselves to score political points but which have almost nothing to do with the original group of perpetrators. Furthermore, what do people in Yemen, Somalia and now the Philippines have to do with 9/11? I’m pretty sure not even John Bolton would argue that the Philippines had any connection to the hijackers or their accomplices.

Another shifts gears:

You said “I agree – how could one not? – that the drone program can backfire. Which is why I said it has to be conducted with extreme care.”

The underlying premise here – that it’s possible to conduct a drone assassination program “with extreme care” – is the sticking point. Greenwald has made it quite clear over his career that he believes the more power you give the government, the more it will abuse that power. His belief (and mine) is that you can’t trust powerful people to use their power “with extreme care,” because even if they believe they’re actually doing that, they will always end up abusing their power to protect their own interests. So no matter how much you argue about how effective the drone strikes are and whether they’re worth the blowback they will inevitably cause, you’ll never come to agreement with Greenwald because you believe our governments can be trusted to act “with extreme care” and he believes they can be counted on to do the exact opposite.

This issue – trust in authority – is the main difference between you and Greenwald. The question I would pose is this: What makes you believe our government is capable of conducting an extra-judicial international assassination program with “extreme care”?

I’ll be responding to these readers and to Glenn Greenwald next week.

(Photo: A Pakistani labourer works at a house in front of the demolished compound of slain Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in northern Abbottabad on April 25, 2012. A year after Osama bin Laden died in a US raid, Al-Qaeda keeps spreading its message of terror in Pakistan, analysts say, with splinter groups threatening the country’s fragile stability. A campaign of missile attacks by unmanned US drone aircraft in Pakistan’s lawless northwest, long a hideout for militants, has weakened Al-Qaeda’s structure by eliminating some of its leadership. By Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)


Tue Jun 19, 2012 – 2:15pm:

Greenwald goes another round:

The constant assumption in American political discourse is that there are so very many people in the world eager to attack the U.S. — The Terrorists — but the question of why this is so is simply never asked (actually, I ask that question often, but aside from patent propagandistic pap (they hate us for our Freedom) it’s rarely answered).

In response to my argument over the last two days that ongoing U.S. aggression is making a Terrorist attack more rather than less likely, Sullivan rhetorically asked: “is he not living on the same planet I am?” Actually, I’m not: I’m living on the same planet as most of the people on Earth, who share these views and reject Sullivan’s; I’m living on the same planet as Ibrahim Mothana, who sees these truths in his daily life; I’m living on the same planet as the mountain of empirical evidence that explains why there are so many people eager to bring violence to the U.S. (as opposed to, say, Peru, or South Africa, or Finland, or Brazil, or Japan, or Portugal, or China).

Glenn makes some serious points about blowback from civilian deaths, especially when our own government keeps changing its statements on them. I acknowledged that in my original post in this conversation. It’s particularly worrying in Yemen, where our drone attacks seem to be radicalizing the populace, as well as taking out Jihadist terrorists. Don Rumsfeld’s infamous remark that he worried we were creating more Jihadists than we were killing is completely salient here. But here’s a sentence I would love to see Glenn write:

I do not envy President Obama having to figure out how to respond.

There is no acknowledgment in Glenn’s posts of any balancing of interests here, or of any terror threat that cannot be blamed on the American victims.

We know that we were attacked on 9/11 – and my apologies to Glenn but it killed thousands of innocent civilians and was designed only to kill innocent civilians – by a gang reared in training camps in Afghanistan. So we have proof of principle that allowing such camps to form and to organize is to risk the lives of Americans. Some risk is inevitable. But a responsible president cannot simply ignore that risk altogether. He is the commander-in-chief. Preventing his own citizens from being murdered within the Constitution is part of his job description.

Counter-insurgency is a far more expensive, and far more protracted and thereby, for the same reasons Glenn elucidates, likely to be counter-productive. Counter-terrorism by aerial intelligence and drone strikes is far more effective in terms of results and costs. If you compare the number of civilians killed under US occupation in Iraq, there really is no comparison at all. We’re talking hundreds versus a hundred thousand. And I for one am relieved that al Qaeda in Af-Pak has been decimated, relieved that the US has been free of Jihadist mass murder for the past decade, happy that bin Laden is at the bottom of some distant ocean so that he cannot murder again.

But Glenn is right that we should not get intoxicated by this tool. It can backfire badly. But the answer to that is not a view that Jihadism is solely a creation of the US. It is in part, but it is also a modern form of religious fundamentalism annexed to brutal violence and barbarism. In other words, it’s both. Which makes this a real debate. I’d say that the Obama administration has done a remarkable job on offense against terror, but needs to be more transparent and more honest and more selective in its drone strikes. There is a balance to be struck. And in striking that balance, I’m glad Glenn is out there prodding Washington to see past its own hall of mirrors.


Tue Jun 19, 2012 – 10:36am:

How Many Civilians Have Drones Killed?

We don’t know for sure. But we do know, thanks to Pro Publica, that Obama officials have issued a string of off-the-record numbers which simply cannot all be true. Interactive graphic here.


Wed Jul 11, 2012 – 1:22pm:

“The Lethal Presidency”

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Tom Junod sees the drone war as central to Obama’s presidency:

You are not the first president with the power to kill individuals. You are, however, the first president to exercise it on a mass scale. You inherited the power from George W. Bush as one of several responses to terrorism. You will pass it on to your successor as the only response, as well as an exemplar of principle. Your administration has devoted far more time and energy to telling the story of targeted killing than it has to telling the story of any of your domestic policies, including health care. It is as though you realize that more than any of your policies, the Lethal Presidency will be your legacy.

The essay, as with everything from Junod, is well worth reading – a fair but powerful case against drones and the targeted killing of enemy combatants. This strikes me as its nub:

The danger of the Lethal Presidency is that the precedent you establish is hardly ever the precedent you think you are establishing, and whenever you seem to be describing a program that is limited and temporary, you are really describing a program that is expansive and permanent.

Jonathan Last asks why more liberals haven’t turned on Obama over this:

There were plenty of Republican types whom Bush drove out of the party. (Andrew Sullivan, Kathleen Parker, Andy Bacevich, Jim Webb, etc.–the list is actually pretty long.) Why haven’t any lefty Dems done the same?

Sonny Bunch spots a double standard:

What conservatives have a problem with is the way in which liberals treated incredibly difficult issues of national security—Gitmo, GWOT, drones, waterboarding, etc.—as little more than a political cudgel with which to bash someone they didn’t like and then, when their guy was in office, ceased giving a shit.

But I have to say that this line of attack on Obama seems remarkably off-base to me – even in Junod’s nuanced reflection. The conflation of the issues above – Gitmo, GWOT, drones, waterboarding, etc – is part of the problem. Obama tried to close Gitmo but the Congress wouldn’t let him. He never proposed or even hinted that he would end the war on Jihadist terror; in fact, one of his defining moments as a candidate was to defend war as necessary at times in countering evil. He gave a Nobel Peace Prize speech which was centered on Christian realism, not pacifism, as a basis for deciding issues of war and peace. Liberals who had a problem with this presumably still have a problem, but Obama has done nothing that he didn’t explicitly say he’d do.

The difference between him and Bush, moreover, is stark. First and foremost, there is an end to the torture program. For many of us, that was the first non-negotiable deal-breaker from the Bush administration. To bungle two wars, as Bush and Cheney did, is one thing. To throw away the invaluable tradition of decency in wartime was unforgivable. Torture is not, as Bunch would have it, a “difficult issue”. It is an easy one. We don’t do it or condone it and we bring to justice anyone caught doing it. Obama’s failing is in the latter part – but it pales in comparison with Cheney’s lawless barbarism. And the end of torture has immensely improved intelligence and brought some moral credibility back to the West. Are some terror suspects being treated horribly in allied countries? There’smuch evidence that this is true. And the Obama administration should be extremely careful not to exploit or use any intelligence garnered from torture or abuse. But there is an obvious difference between the injustices perpetrated by regimes in developing countries and the standards we set for ourselves.

As to the drone war, what would Junod have Obama do? The alternatives are either long-term occupation of Jihadist-spawning countries, or a decision to end all military responses to Jihadist terror, or a more focused drone campaign that can minimize civilian casualties while taking out key enemies planning to kill Western and Muslim civilians. I harbor severe worries about the unintended consequences of the drone war, and deeply regret civilian casualties. But there were around 100,000 civilian casualties caused by the Iraq occupation. Obama’s record is simply not comparable with the widespread destruction and immorality of the Bush-Cheney era.

So Obama has waged the war he promised (against al Qaeda) with minimalist but lethal means (drones). He has been far more successful in killing Jihadists before they kill us than Bush, with Osama the most conspicuous example. He has ended torture; he has withdrawn every soldier from Iraq; and is winding down the Afghanistan campaign. If you are a utopian liberal who projected onto Obama peacenik pretensions he never claimed himself, you can, I guess, be outraged. And the danger of precedent and blowback is real and deserves airing. But the idea that a more moral, more lethal and less casualty-laden fight against al Qaeda is some kind of betrayal of Obama’s promise just baffles me.

It is not a betrayal. It is a promise kept.


Tue Jul 17, 2012 – 2:05pm:

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Tom Junod responds:

Now, I did not — and do not — condone the use of torture any more than Sullivan does. But the moral risk of torture is not so different from the moral risk of targeted killing. Indeed, the moral risk of torture provides a template for the moral risk of targeted killing. What was introduced as an option of last resort becomes the option of first resort, then the only option. Sullivan always understood that torture was a temptation, and that the day would come when it was applied not in emergency, “ticking-clock” situations, but as a matter of routine. Well, that day has come, only now with targeted killing, where the option of first resort meets the court of no appeal.

Yes, killing is a part of war, and torture isn’t. But what if the the kind of militant who was captured and tortured under Bush is the kind of militant who is simply being killed under President Obama? The Obama Administration vigorously denies this, just as it vigorously denies that it is combating terrorism by practicing a policy of extermination against terrorists. But the numbers — the thousands killed by drone and raid against the single high-value asset captured and interrogated outside the theater of war in Afghanistan — tell a story that can’t simply be shrugged off. Interrogation has been replaced by assassination.

But Junod concedes a key point: that killing the enemy is justifiable in a just war if every possible effort has been made to protect civilians; torturing the enemy isnever justifiable, moral or legal under any circumstances. So we are in a very different category from torture, and it merely confuses the issue to conflate the two. But he goes on to make a vital point:

[W]hen Sullivan asks what I consider an alternative to lethal operations, my answer is not any of the ones he provides: it’s not war or surrender. It’s anything that will provide a check and a balance to a power that no president before President Obama has wielded so confidently, and with such a busy hand. It’s the reintroduction of some semblance of democratic norms to a program that has left them far behind.

And that’s where I am more than happy to join Tom – and Conor – in believing that while the evidence, I believe, supports the morality of drone warfare compared with the workable alternatives, vesting all this judgment in the executive branch is not due process. And it is indeed dangerous as a precedent, especially given what Cheney did with expansive interpretations of executive power. Conor is dead-on about this:

If we’re presuming a world where a widespread campaign of drone assassinations is a given, I’d have him build various safeguards into the program that limit the unchecked power he now recklessly claims as the executive’s right. I’d have him anticipate the sorts of abuses that he worried about as a senator, demonstrating that he damn well understands them. I’d ask him to stop using the secrecy he has created to elevate defenders of his procedures and silence critics who express important misgivings.

Congressional and judicial scrutiny and buy-in makes sense to me. Urgent sense, actually.

(Photo: A model of an unmanned flying vehicle (UAV) protesting the use of drones is seen on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House on June 23, 2012 in Washington. By Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)