How Many Drone Deaths are we Cool With?
Taking a cue from Ryan, I’ll post my rant here so as not to disturbm the rest of the symposium. As per usual, nothing gets my heart rate up like a sloppy discussion of the “War on Terror” and how we are to carry it out.
Andrew Sullivan has never been more disingenuous (or deluded) than when discussing Obama’s foreign policy, and in particular the President’s secretive drone program.
According to Friedersdorf, Sullivan believes that the program:
(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.
Sullivan responds by…claiming that he doesn’t believe (a), at least not in the case of Afghanistan or Pakistan, where the use of force has been authorized by Congress since back in 2001. What this says about everywhere else drones have been used? Nothing.
In response to (b), Sullivan notes these far from conclusive studies which, while addressing the effect of killing leaders on the groups they belong to, does not address how the killing of civilians can contribute to the rise of new insurgent groups, let alone how this violence affects how the rest of the world views the U.S.
Then Sullivan pulls his real sleight of hand in response to (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.”
Hear I must quote at length:
“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.”
The first part of that response is “9/11 changed everything” repackaged with a couple of qualifiers. No one need assume that 9/11 did not occur, or that our country, like all others, might be the victim of another large terrorist attack in the future, in order to still maintain that the drone program is illegal, unethical, or ineffective.
But Sullivan does, implicitly assuming that the best way to deal with 9/11 type threats is through a program of counter terrorism that’s based on secret drone strikes, when in fact that claim is exactly what he’s suppose to be substantiating.
Mentioning “Presidential responsibility” goes even further down this road. Sullivan offers a false dichotomy. If these threats exist he argues, we have either to choose drones or land occupations. What garbage.
And borrowing one of his favorite phrases, here’s the kicker, “Given our country’s fiscal crisis, massive expensive counter-insurgency is no longer a viable option.”
Ergo, we have no choice but to bomb them from afar. Yes, the President is responsible for defending the country. But nowhere does Sullivan explain, with any ounce of analytic rigor, why the drone program, while less costly than a land occupation, is the only means, or even the best means for protecting the country. Furthermore, even if though this is the President’s responsibility, the American public has the responsibility to scrutinize and question his actions. In other words, this argument from privileged authority insinuates that if we were the President, if we knew what he knew, if we knew what kinds of uncertainties he was dealing with, and if we were the singular individual who was morally responsible for whatever happens to the United States, we would do as he is doing.
This is problematic not only because the President and his Administration vigorously deny the public any evidence upon which to judge the goodness of his actions, or the cost-benefit analysis which motivates them, but also because none of us are the President, and the other half of asking us to recognize his role as Commander-in-Chief is to recognize our roles as citizens of this Republic, tasked with making sure our leaders do what is in our interest and the nation’s, and to do so within certain moral parameters (e.g. No torture, AND no wanton killing of civilians!)
What is even more agonizing though is how Sullivan feels the “Founder’s vision” (let us just assume for a moment some cohesive framework of ideas and principles) is most threatened by underwear bombers and airplane hijackers rather than the growing domestic police state and imperial aggression that these attacks elicit.
The Founder’s vision won’t collapse because of terrorist bombings, but because of our hysterical, disproportionate reactions to them. It is not because of 9/11 that we had enhanced interrogation techniques and went to war, and indefinitely imprison people and extra-judicially assassinate them, and spy and wiretap and lie. It is because of the same emotionally overridden logic that Sullivan employs here that we as a nation have done these things and continue to tolerate them.
And this Swiss-cheese reasoning only continues. First, more assertions,
“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.”
I’ll grant the possibility that Sullivan’s psycho-analysis might be true. But don’t see why it’s any more true than any number of other interpretations, predictions or equally ill-supported pontifications.
And then Sullivan admits another expert opinion into the equation, noting as a result with new found caution “[T]here does seem a danger, especially in Yemen, that drones may be focusing the Islamists’ attention away from their own government and onto ours.”
So “yes”, he says, “I’m with Conor on the need for more accountability and transparency on this.”
But how much more accountability, and how much more transparency? If Sullivan is really troubled by the developments on the drone front, why does he spend so much more time talking about torture, and celebrating the President for putting an “end” to it (read: outsourcing it)?
And then back to making nonsensical comparisons to land occupations,
“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.”
Except that the only alternative listed is a land invasion. What are the other alternatives? Surely some of them include something other than invading Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia? And here Sullivan lets loose a most repulsive platitude: people die in war. Once again, he sidesteps any real debate and simply reasserts his position. We’re at war (with who, according to what criteria?) and innocents will die (but why, and how many?) and drones are the only/best way to minimize the number that do (oh, so that’s why, wait, what?)
Sullivan calls the Administration’s method for counting civilian casualties a cop-out, but it’s representative of the same phenomenon that underlies Sullivan’s specious discussion of the drone program. No one wants to actually get down in the dirt and deal with trying to answer the more complex issues: how many civilians is it alright to kill, how certain do we need to be before launching the missiles, how certain do we need to be that drones are the only/best way to make our nation more secure before we our justified in using them?
At the end of the day, anyone who wants to advocate drones, and maintain any kind of moral defense for doing so, needs to start counting bodies. But so far none of the advocates seem to be up to the task. Instead, like Sullivan, they’d rather chalk it off to “in war people die” and accuse people who ask the hard questions of naively “pretending.”