Drone warfare

In President Obama’s State of the Union address, this line didn’t receive the attention it should have.

And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.

As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.

It’s difficult to imagine a more disingenuous statement.  “Kept Congress fully informed?” The Senate Intelligence Committee has been asking for months for some statement from the Justice Department justifying our use of unmanned drones.  Finally, two weeks before the SOTU, a few documents were shared. Some scraps.  That’s “fully informed?”

And really, aside from hard core civil libertarians like Glenn Greenwald, nobody much called him on it.  Drone warfare is one of the few bi-partisan issues in American politics.  Absolutely no politician wants to seem soft on terrorism, left or right.  Absolutely no one questions the notion that if we know who and where Al Queda leaders are, we’re not just allowed but obligated to shoot Hellfire missiles at them.

Except, oops: we’re also killing Americans.  Two American citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Kahn were killed in Yemen by a drone missile strike.  That is to say, without due process of any kind, two American citizens were killed in a missile strike that violated the sovereignty of a nation with whom we are not at war. To be sure, both men were aligned with jihadist groups, and had posted ferocious anti-American articles on jihadist websites.  But al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, a teenager from Denver without political leanings, was killed in a missile strike in Afghanistan.  And the media response to those deaths has been . . . muted.  And Republicans have been among the policy’s strongest defenders.

Even Charles Krauthammer.  I’m not sure conservatives have a more ferociously anti-Obama voice than Krauthammer, except for maybe Glen Beck or someone.  But even Krauthammer thinks the Obama documents justifying drone attacks are quite reasonable.  He agrees with the policy. Which, all by itself, would be enough to turn me against it.

Former Salon.com columnist, now affiliated with the Daily Guardian, Glenn Greenwald has been a lone voice in the wilderness, in his insistence that there does not exist a Constitutional rationale for the repeated violations of sovereignty of nations with whom we are not at war that essentially define the ‘war on terror.’  Greenwald can be tiresome on the subject.  On and on about it: ‘it’s unconstitutional to kill American citizens without due process, it’s illegal to launch missiles against the citizens of countries we’re not at war with.’ Nag nag nag.  Problem is, the man’s completely and absolutely right.

It also isn’t working.  I don’t question that drone attacks are far more surgical than attacks by conventional aircraft.  I know that drone operators follow very strict protocols intended to minimize collateral damage, to reduce (or even eliminate) civilian casualties.  I don’t doubt that no attacks ever take place unless really good intel suggests that we’re taking out an Al Queda leader.  I know that an argument exists that drones are particularly reprehensible, because they target people who can’t shoot back–that this changes the rules of warfare.  I’m immune to that argument.  Seems to me a surgically precise weapon that only takes out especially dangerous combatants without endangering our troops is a pretty awesome weapon.

It just doesn’t work.  Unmanned drones armed with Hellfire missiles are a tremendous weapon.  I understand why the President likes using them.  But they’re ineffective in the war on terror, in this sense: they create way more terrorists than they could possibly kill.  The United States is less popular in the Arab world now than at the lowest point in the Bush administration.  Arab youths like American television, they like American culture, they like the internet, they are inclined to like American constitutional values.  But they hate our policies towards their country.  Specifically, they hate drones flying over their country killing their people.  As would I, frankly, if the roles were reversed.

This has been true in poll after poll. This poll, in Pakistan shows that America had an approval rating of 39% shortly after Obama took office.  54% disapproved of American leadership, the rest were undecided.  Not great numbers, but not terrible either–the President was extended considerable good will, especially after his 2009 Cairo speech.  Today, our approval is at 4%.  92% oppose US policies.

It’s not just drones.  Our approval numbers dropped precipitously around May, 2011.  Gosh, what happened in May, 2011. Oh, right: we killed bin Laden.  And yes, I know that most Americans were too busy celebrating in the streets to notice Pakistani opinion polling.  But imagine it from Pakistan’s perspective.  The majority of Pakistanis, in 2011, hated bin Laden.  Did not support Al Queda.  But we violated their sovereignty.  We flew soldiers in with helicopters, and we shot a guy. Imagine if, I don’t know, Canada did that to the US.  (I know, that’s nonsense.)  We didn’t arrest him, we didn’t try to arrest him, we didn’t tell the Pakistanis that we knew where he was and would they please arrest him.  We flew in, and we killed him.

And imagine if that happened all the time, only instead of soldiers in a helicopter, it was this scary unmanned robot thing.  We don’t like unmanned robot killer things.  My wife and I just watched that reboot of Total Recall.  Not a half-bad sci-fi action flick, right?  But when did you know, absolutely know, who the bad guys were? When they started killing people using robot soldiers.  Conscience-less, fearless, terrifying robot killers.  And we’ve got ’em, and we use them, and then we wonder why the war on terror is going so badly.

America is supposed to stand for something.  America is supposed to stand for rule of law–not specious rationalizations for extra-legal and unconstitutional unilateral murder.  America is supposed to stand for peace, not that we have much, in our history, but we are supposed to go through the motions, at least.  We’re supposed to declare war, if we want to go to war, as per, say, Article One Section Eight of the Constitution. We’re supposed to obey international law, and participate in making it.

Right now, though, the war on terror seems to have a three part rationale.  Here’s what we’re saying to the rest of the world:  1) We’re America, and we can kill anyone, anywhere, if we think they’re a terrorist, a term which we unilaterally define however it suits us.  2) But you can’t.  3) Neener neener neener.

Two people in Congress have stood up against it.  John McCain, and Rand Paul.  I’m not ordinarily a fan of either man, and think either would make for a terrible President.  But on this issue, they’re right.  Good for them.

But here’s what really disturbs me.  I’m a liberal.  I’m a Democrat. There should be lots more liberal Democrats on that list.  I voted for President Obama, and was proud and happy to do so, because I mostly agree with his policies.  But I gave him a pass on the drone thing.  When it came time to vote, I held my nose and voted for Drone Guy.  And I’m not the only one.  As Joan Walsh from Salon.com points out, liberals tend to support drone warfare against their (my) better judgment, because it’s our guy’s policy. We’re–gosh, what’s the word for it?–hypocrites.

And that’s just wrong.  Liberals have an obligation to call out our fellow liberals if they’re wrong about something.  We’re pursuing a policy that is unconstitutional, violates our deepest values as a nation, and that also isn’t working.  At the risk of seeming soft on terrorism, I think it’s time to say ‘enough.’  We need to try something else.  For starters, let’s ground our drones.  Let’s stop violating the sovereignty of other nations.  Let’s respect international law.  Let’s cut it out. And then let’s see what happens.

Meanwhile, we have all these drones.  They’re expensive, and they’re really pretty amazing pieces of technology.  Let’s give ’em to the US Postal service.  Get mail delivered faster.  It’d be good for our economy anyway.

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