Sunday, November 25, 2012

Terror and injustice: Obama Administration considers rules for drone campaign

By Michael J.W. Stickings

The big story today -- and obviously I'm not including the Steelers' embarrassing loss to the Browns (let's talk no more of that) -- is the revelation that the White House is working to establish rules governing drone strikes:

Facing the possibility that President Obama might not win a second term, his administration accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials.

The matter may have lost some urgency after Nov. 6. But with more than 300 drone strikes and some 2,500 people killed by the Central Intelligence Agency and the military since Mr. Obama first took office, the administration is still pushing to make the rules formal and resolve internal uncertainty and disagreement about exactly when lethal action is justified.

Mr. Obama and his advisers are still debating whether remote-control killing should be a measure of last resort against imminent threats to the United States, or a more flexible tool, available to help allied governments attack their enemies or to prevent militants from controlling territory. 

This was always an obvious problem, a gaping hole in Obama's drone war. Leave aside for a moment the question of the justice/injustice of the drone strikes themselves. The president has used unchecked executive authority to use drone strikes to conduct America's nebulous war on terror. This has left the door wide open for excess and abuse -- and indeed, 2,500 dead and countless more injured, including innocent civilians (however much the CIA may try to avoid such collateral damage), seems to point to both.

Now, here's the more partisan part of the problem: Many on the left were criticial of the abuses of the Bush-Cheney regime but then went silent when Obama took office. (Needless to say, there have been notable exceptions, including Glenn Greenwald.) And so Obama has been able to get away with this not just because Americans generally seem to be comfortable with the drone war (because they don't know the specifics, because all they know is that "bad guys" are being killed, because the deaths of innocent civilians in faraway places like Pakistan don't register, because the value of an American life is so much more significant than the value of a non-American life) but because far too many of his own supporters have been enablers, whether actively supporting his drone campaign or passively refusing to criticize it. (I would note, if I may, that while we have been ardent supporters of the president here, we have frequently been critical, particularly of his national security policies.) And what these supporters seem to have forgotten is that at some point a Republican will be in the White House again. Do they really want this future Republican -- and it could have been Romney -- acting with the same unchecked power as Obama has these past four years? Didn't we have enough of that with Bush and Cheney?

But, of course, Obama wasn't going to be in the Oval Office forever. And so... then what? We all saw this coming, did we not? Or at least should have. I would say that this is better late than never, but the fact remains that Obama has waged his drone war largely unchecked throughout his first term. It's like he wanted one rule for himself (that rule being no rules) and now wants a different rule for his second term and his successors (that rule being rules he himself approves). But isn't the precedent he is setting a troubling one? He's basically saying that as president he can do whatever he wants. What's to stop a future president from acting on his or her own, according to his or her own rules? Does Obama really think that codifying rules for the drone war will effectively constrain future presidents?

Now, as to the justice/injustice of the drone strikes... Again, I have always found them troubling, and largely indefensible. A case can be made for the limited use of drones, perhaps, but the excessive and abusive conduct of the drone war under Obama has been something else entirely. For the ugly details, see this pre-election piece by Conor Friedersdorf. (I didn't agree then, and don't know, that this was enough not to vote for Obama, but his points about the drone campaign were, and remain, important.)

Clearly, rules are needed, because whether we like it or not the use of drones is here to stay, especially in a new world with violent non-state actors out to harm America and its allies and interests. But what is also needed is for the rules to be made public so that violations can be identified, so that there can be a meaningful public check on presidential power in this area (in addition to a central role for Congress). More than that, though, what is needed is a broad public discussion of the drone campaign generally -- of the rules that would govern it but even more fundamentally of the attacks themselves. The president may want to wage this war, but do Americans generally? Are they comfortable with it, and with how it's being waged? Regardless of your partisan leanings, do you really want the president acting largely on his own to determine who shall die at the hands of this vehicle of American militarism? And what about the international community? Does it matter what the rest of the world thinks? Does it matter what, say, Pakistan, thinks?

Let's have an open and honest discussion free of jingoism. Let's have some rules -- again, better late than never. Let's think again about the Constitution, which seems to have been lost in the violence of America's warmongering. And let's hope that America can actually conduct itself on the world stage, in this regard as in others, with humanity and justice. The alternative is simply not acceptable.

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