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:
- Critics care less about reeling in the “imperial presidency” than simply getting rid of drones altogether.
- Critics claim drones are not subject to Congressional oversight but in reality they are.
- Critics think only “imminent threats” should be legitimate targets, but really the test should be one of “reliability.”
- 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.
- Critics think drone strikes help terrorists organizations recruit more members, but would-be terrorists already “loathe the United States for a thousand other reasons.”
- 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.”
- 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.”