Everything Amitai Etzioni Gets Wrong about Liberals, Libertarians, and Drones

There I was, enjoying some left-over pasta and a diet Canadian Dry on my lunch break. “Time to read something,” I thought. So I browsed my favorites tab in search of something meaty to sink my teeth into–maybe a rant from Glenn Greenwald or a cool-headed rebuke from Conor Friedersdorf.

That’s when my eyes were greeted by the above image.

The piece is a #SlatePitch masquerading as intellectual analysis. Etzioni even created it as a pseudo-listicle, remarking right from the start on how there are “Seven factoids about drones” that “cannot stay aloft.” Here they are as I understand them:

  1. Critics care less about reeling in the “imperial presidency” than simply getting rid of drones altogether.
  2. Critics claim drones are not subject to Congressional oversight but in reality they are.
  3. Critics think only “imminent threats” should be legitimate targets, but really the test should be one of “reliability.”
  4. Critics think “terrorists” should be tried in civilian courts, but come terrorists are terrorists and often not even American citizens, and so shouldn’t be afforded civilian legal proceedings.
  5. Critics think drone strikes help terrorists organizations recruit more members, but would-be terrorists already “loathe the United States for a thousand other reasons.”
  6. Critics don’t realize that drone strikes are the superior means of killing terrorists, not least of all because they “have the potential of being carefully reviewed.”
  7. Critics worry that drones make waging war easier, but they don’t realize that without drone strikes we would have to send ground troops instead.

It’s really quite amazing. Even now I can imagine the ridicule my rhetoric professors would have heaped on me if I had ever turned in a short essay like this one.

Etzioni’s post requires a simple format: critics say X, but actually Y, wherein Y directly contradicts not only X, but also what X was premised on. Unfortunately Etzioni’s piece fails to do any such thing. Well it does try in the beginning. But as the empirical evidence falls out from underneath, the George Washington professor is forced to increasingly employ skepticism and poor reading comprehension rather than resolute facts (e.g. “It is difficult to reach conclusive judgments, as neither critics nor proponents…are actually there to observe the effects…”*)

In light of that point, I’ll work backwards through Etzioni’s claims since the ones he ends on are undeniably weak, and thus less worthy of other people’s time and attention.

You might have thought I was being unfair when I paraphrased number seven, but you’d be wrong. Writes Etzioni, “[C]ritics worry that drones make going to war too easy.”

“In response one must ask: Would the people involved in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and now in Africa be better-off if terrorists were killed in “hot” blood — say, knifed by Special Forces, blood and brain matter splashing in their faces? Would the world be better off if our troops, in order to reach the terrorists, had to endure improvised explosive devices blowing up their legs and arms and gauntlets of fire from AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers — traumatic experiences that turn some of them into psychopath-like killers?”

“Beyond such considerations,” Etzioni continues, “there is so far no evidence that the extensive use of drones has made going to war more likely or its extension more acceptable.” And then the kicker, “Anybody who has followed the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq despite the recent increase in drone strikes should know better.”

The costs to human soldiers is precisely what makes drone warfare so preferable–it reduces the costs of waging war for those who wage it! Etzioni is actually going out of his way to point out how much easier drone strikes are…which is exactly why critics think they make war easier, and thus going to war easier.

Take a brief look at the number of countries in which the U.S. engages in (or reserves the possibility of engaging in) drone warefare and the point becomes numbingly obvious. The point isn’t that we would have invaded Yemen if drones were not available–the point is that we probably wouldn’t have bombed it at all.

“Factoid” six is just as laughable. Etzioni contends that drone strikes are much more easily reviewed then man-led missions. I would tend to agree. the potential for greater review is not the same thing as actually being more reviewed, or of those reviews being made available to the public, or even their elected representatives. Boots leave a footprint, drones do not, which is why the latter is infinitely more easily kept secret whereas transparency has a way of finding the former.

I don’t want to belabor point five, other than to mention the arrogance in claiming (without any evidence) that foreign troops and foreign international relations professors know more about how locales feel about drone bombings than the locales themselves. Last week Farea al-Muslimi went before Congress and claimed just the opposite of what Etzioni says. Judge for yourself who you think is more credible on this question.

But to Etzioni’s concern, it’s important to point out that just as Americans’ can become outraged about terrorist attacks that happen outside of their country, it’s just as understandable that people living in Egypt would take as much issue with drone strikes in neighboring countries (the author claims that evidence of anger over drones in Egypt, despite the fact that no drone strikes have occurred in Egypt, is evidence of no link between drone warfare and increased sympathy for terrorist groups)

. Etzioni presents no evidence to demonstrate that drone strikes are making the U.S., let alone the world, a safer place, and none even to show that they aren’t increasing the number of people who harbor hatred toward the nation who conducts them.

On the fourth factoid I think Etzioni is confusing two sets of different concerns. One is requiring that Americans suspected of terrorism be tried in civilian courts, and be captured rather than killed. The other has to do with how the determinations that X person abroad is a terrorist even get made, and whether they are “on the battlefield” or not.

Apply Etzioni’s reasoning to the U.S. and you can see just how absurd it is. Imagine China finds a group of individuals living in the U.S., who are U.S. citizens, engagied in political organizing overseas. This group is in contact with several individuals in China, and is actively encouraging those people to take violent action against their government. China monitors these communications, discovers a plot, finds out that some of the individuals were planning on traveling to China to join in the fight, and then has a drone fly overhead and fire on the building where the American agitators are conspiring.

Why wouldn’t China try to capture them first? And why wouldn’t it be expected to go through normal international channels first rather than acting unilaterally on its own? If Etzioni can explain that seeming double-standard, I’ll be impressed. That he doesn’t even recognize its existence is overwhelmingly saddening.

Point three is where Etzioni arbitrarily asserts an alternative standard for declaring a lethal strike. I’m not an expert on the rules of engagement or international law, and apparently neither is Etzioni since he cites no actual statutes to help make his case. My excuse is that I’m still on my lunch break, but I assume Etzioni wrote his post for The Atlantic over more than an hour, and had ample opportunity to, like, google something.

As with most “War on Terror” apologism, Etzioni isn’t willing to nail down what different terms like “imminent threat” mean, preferring instead to substitute in new and equally ambiguous ones. We only kill people who are “reliably” terrorists (reliability [noun]- def: the probability of the U.S. killing someone for being a terrorist).

Number two comes in under the “I don’t give a Sh**” heading. I am not exclusively a critic of Obama when it comes to drone strikes. Congress is nearly as responsible for the program as the President–less only because Congress is a body of individuals rather than a single person, and thus moral responsibility, culpability, and political power are more diffuse within it. But yes, we could all stand to criticize the war-mongering of Congress more.

And finally the first little bit of contrarian trollage.

Etzioni clearly has a very narrow view of what the “imperial presidency” is. He seems to regard it as something purely concerned with extra-legal behavior. That is, because Obama has some poorly defined authorization to wage war whenever and where ever he feels like, he’s not acting like an aggressive executive (nevermind every other realm of public policy in which the President browbeats Congress, sidesteps state governments, etc.)

“If the critics’ concern was merely that this resolution might not apply to those who are not card-carrying members of al-Qaeda — and that Obama was thus overstepping the resolution’s bounds — they would focus their efforts on urging the president to return to Congress and ask for a new resolution with slightly more inclusive wording. He wouldn’t need to worry; even the much-divided Congress would approve what it takes to stop terrorist, in particular after the latest attack in Boston. However, this is hardly what critics call for, revealing that their true motive is to curb the use of drones rather than find ways to dot the i’s and cross the t’s when it comes to their use.”

Again, Etzioni seems to want to prove his point that critics are incoherent by mixing and matching their disparate goals and reasoning until his caricature is correct. Some people do think Obama should lobby Congress to revoke the extravagant war powers it game his office after 9/11. Other people are only calling for more transparency–for them the issue isn’t that the U.S. engages in drone strikes against people in other countries with which we aren’t at war, but that we do so in secret without an explicit and transparent regulatory regime that circumscribes the policy.

Those are, obviously, not overlapping groups, and yet Etzioni treats this manufactured hypocrisy (in so far as he presents no examples of one individual maintaining both claims simultaneously) as if it means something, when really all it means is that he’s a clowning around and has no qualms about wasting his readers’ time.

Etzioni clearly has no intellectual integrity, or else doesn’t have the intelligence to realize he’s conflating topics and collapsing important nuances rather than elaborating on and clarifying them. The fact that The Atlantic published his piece, and decided to feature it on the front page, is only further evidence of the site as a whole having no real editorial integrity.


*”Instead, we often have to rely upon reports from locals, who are notoriously unreliable. Contrary to these claims, the military insists that they take all possible precautions, and those on the front lines report that that the review process is rigorous to the point of causing delays that allowing terrorists to escape. Moreover, even if these claims are true, drones at least have the potential of being carefully reviewed; this cannot be stated about other means of warfare.”

Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, gamingvulture.tumblr.com. And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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13 Responses

  1. Barry says:

    More and more I’m of the opinion that the Atlantic should simply be shut down. There’s some good stuff, but so much bad stuff that it’s a net negative.

    BTW, ‘The piece is a #SlatePitch masquerading as intellectual analysis.’. I think that we all need to mock Slate with ‘#SlatePitch’ more and more, since they oh so much deserve it.

    I think that if Kinsley ever get forgiveness for working for Peretz, he will still go to hell for starting up one of the early ‘big time’ webzines, and making it all about the same contrarianism and lying that the New Republic made so famous.

  2. George Turner says:

    I hate to disagree, but drones allow us to kill roughly the same number of people at a wedding or coffee shop while emitting far less CO2 than a conventional attack aircraft would, which helps lessen our impact on the environment.

    From an economic perspective, they allow us to kill more Middle Easterners per barrel of oil we buy from Middle Easterners.

    *insert two rows of graphics with black cylinders juxtaposed against black silhouettes from mens room doors to illustrate terrorist corpses per barrel*

    Drone pilots and maintenance crews also get to work in more controlled environments so they don’t get as sweaty, which reduces the amount of precious fresh water resources the military has to consume for laundry services, along with environmentally damaging phosphate detergents.

    I’m sure there are many other reasons to favor the use of drones, but I think I’ve touched on some of the biggest.

    • Dan Miller says:

      Argument by mockery is a cheap tactic. If you think that environmental concerns aren’t important, than make an actual claim that this is so–and prepare to get shot down in comments, because any argument you could make on this topic would be laughable. Alternatively, remain silent on the topic, or adopt a more reasonable viewpoint.

      • Barry says:

        “Argument by mockery is a cheap tactic. ”

        Cheap tactics for cheap minds.

    • George Turner says:

      Mockery may be cheap, but it’s often the most effective tactic, not to mention quite entertaining in skillful hands. Mark Twain was a master of it. ^_^

      Fuel efficiency in war is only important regarding impacts on logistics, which can easily become critical (Rommel in the desert, Japan’s lack of strategic petroleum, etc). The difference in emissions between a drone and a jet, per pound of payload delivered, would probably be swamped by all the people driving cars to an anti-drone protest.

      However, drones have only a narrow range of usefulness. In a big war they require establishing absolute air superiority or they become target drones for enemy pilots and AA crews. In a small war where we have established a ground footprint, it would be just as easy to just park cameras on the ground to continuously monitor hot spots and supply routes. A camera in a treetop and an extended-range mortar with a guided munition can do the same job. They’ve proven useful in the very odd terrorist hunt we’re engaged in, but that usefulness is probably a reflection of politics and fighting in failed states with no effective government and police forces (Libya, Waziristan, Yemen). So the geo-political area where drone warfare is viable and useful is probably pretty narrow.

      The time window between when drones first became workable and when advances in cheap semi-conductor lasers will turn drone-zapping into a sport is probably not that wide. They’re small, generally slow, subject to jamming and spoofing, carry only a tiny payload (one or two small target’s worth), and are packed with fuel behind a very thin airframe, usually a plastic composite. They don’t fly self-protective formations and aren’t packed with radar jamming, chaf, and flares, nor do they hug the ground and fly nap of the earth (which would render them almost useless for observation). They’re laser or SAM bait.

      BTW, the Navy is testing new anti-drone lasers because it’s not cost effective to shoot a multi-million dollar anti-aircraft missile at a cheap drone built out of foam and fiberglass and powered by a glorified model airplane engine.

  3. Creon Critic says:

    Etzioni’s criticism number two is absolutely right (and by extension points one and six are stronger than you offer). Critics of the drone program frequently make their case by claiming that there is not congressional oversight. Glenn Greenwald writes of “no checks of oversight of any kind”, “zero transparency and zero accountability”, “The power of accuser, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner are all consolidated in this one man, and those powers are exercised in the dark”. The League’s own Jason Kuznicki wrote, “We know that no one gets to review [the President’s] decision. Ever.” Were Greenwald and Kuznicki’s claims true then critics of the drone program would have a much stronger case on the “imperial presidency” front. But the claim of no oversight is false; the LA Times reports, “The lawmakers and aides with the intelligence oversight committees have a level of access shared only by President Obama, his top aides and a small number of CIA officials.” In writing,

    the potential for greater review is not the same thing as actually being more reviewed, or of those reviews being made available to the public, or even their elected representatives. Boots leave a footprint, drones do not, which is why the latter is infinitely more easily kept secret whereas transparency has a way of finding the former.

    You come awfully close to repeating the very error Etzioni points out.

    • Ethan Gach says:


      I don’t have time to read the LA Times piece (but will once I get home)–can you confirm whether it specifically references the Obama’s “Kill List” which is what Greenwald is talking about? (Also see above link and give me your thoughts).

      • Creon Critic says:

        I don’t think it is reducible to just targeting, here’s the Times again (emphasis mine),

        In addition to watching video, the legislative aides review intelligence that was used to justify each drone strike.

        They also sometimes examine telephone intercepts and after-the-fact evidence, such as the CIA’s assessment of who was hit.

        “We receive notification with key details shortly after every strike, and we hold regular briefings and hearings on these operations,” Feinstein wrote…

        “Committee staff has held 28 monthly in-depth oversight meetings to review strike records and question every aspect of the program including legality, effectiveness, precision, foreign policy implications and the care taken to minimize noncombatant casualties.”

        It is hard to see how legislators and their aides looking at the intelligence used to justify a strike possibly matches up with the idea Greenwald offers of “zero transparency and zero accountability”. There is both transparency and accountability for targeting to the intelligence committees.

        As for the Reuters piece, it seems that more has come out since then, the Washington Post’s “Plan for hunting terrorists signals U.S. intends to keep adding names to kill lists” comes to mind, and ProPublica’s “Everything We Know So Far About Drone Strikes” also an excellent jumping off point to other resources. This was my comment to Jason’s piece and I haven’t seen anything that’s spectacularly upset my position,

        The organic process of presidential claims of power, Supreme Court and congressional checks, or lack of checks, then partial checks… it is disconcerting. Personally, I’d like a blue ribbon commission with pretty open terms of reference to take stock of the AUMF, post-9/11 US behavior, and offer advice as to where to go from here. Put a great deal of the processes that’ve gone before and are ongoing under greater scrutiny and explicit legal footing that has been congressionally approved. But as things stand, it doesn’t serve to totally overlook a series of developments that have occurred thus far that gesture in the direction of the kind of oversight you’d prefer.

        For you, apparently, these steps still fall well short of the mark. Fair enough. They fall so far short as to disqualify Obama from receiving your vote. Also, fair enough. But I do want to put into the discussion the fact that the people involved, Obama, the Intel Committee, bureaucrats in the security services, they aren’t oblivious to the concerns outlined. They too are familiar with the principles of the republic, and I’d guess that subverting the republic isn’t their goal. They’re professionals dealing with difficult questions, the defense of the realm and civil liberties are hard stuff. They don’t deserve rapturous applause but they don’t deserve a shower of rotten vegetables either.

    • Ethan Gach says:

      I also assume you disagree with these people from the LA Times article:

      “The lawmakers expressed concern that signature strikes could kill civilians. They added: “Our drone campaigns already have virtually no transparency, accountability or oversight.”

      • Creon Critic says:

        Yes, it is safe to say I disagree with Dennis Kucinich on foreign policy / national security issues; he organized that letter. Signature strikes may be questionable, but I definitely disagree with the statement, “Our drone campaigns already have virtually no transparency, accountability or oversight.” For what its worth, maybe not much at all, quickly looking over the other signatories of the letter, I think only Luis Gutierrez is on an intelligence committee.

  4. George Turner says:

    Somewhat off topic (other than airplanes and Afghanistan), but here’s a dash cam Youtube video of a cargo 747 that crashed today taking off from Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, killing seven. Witnesses suspect the cargo shifted rearward on takeoff. Seeing an out of control climb and deep stall is something that probably haunts the nightmares of people who live near airports.

    I now return you to our regular programming.

  5. James K says:

    This is a great piece Ethan.

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