The President Head Fakes on Lethal Drone Strikes and the War on Terror


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, And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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10 Responses

  1. Avatar CK MacLeod says:

    At one point in this exaggeratedly polemical post, the author seems to suggest that the President is some kind of moral simpleton for not considering some alternative policy:

    The rest of his argument is that doing nothing is not an option, even if its the only option besides doing what he’s currently doing. This is the thoughtful scholar that those at the New Yorker and elsewhere praise for being more nuanced and cerebral than his predecessor. If we are to take his speech seriously, we must come to the conclusion that Obama’s moral imagination is no more complex than the binary choices explored in video games and comic books. No evidence presented before or after that paragraph does anything to try and substantiate the President’s argument that his path is the best path; the only path.

    It’s not clear to me why it matters what someone at the New Yorker or elsewhere may have said about the President personally. I would be more interested in even a few words explaining what an alternative “path” might be, so that we could compare it to what the President is embracing, a policy that has been taken by others, and I think justifiably, as a further winding down of the post-9/11 state of war, including enhanced constraint on the actual exercise of executive discretion. “More morally imaginative” doesn’t strike me as much to go on, especially when some critics are quite clear about their preference for “doing nothing” or “doing nothing and rolling back, too.”Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      Well, one obvious set of alternatives to drone strikes would come from asking what prior administrations would’ve done, since our current use of drones comes from the historical accident of drone development. In their absence, we’d have to build good intelligence networks and be trustworthy partners the governments that are dealing directly with the terrorist threat from inside their own territories. The situation would be analogous to the way we used to help anti-communist government forces around the globe, sometimes even getting us involved in proxy wars against communist insurgents.

      One of the complaints about the current policy is that although we blow up a few terrorists who want to target the US directly, we’re not really making progress at helping moderate governments resist the pressures of radical Islam, and in many cases the greater problem is getting worse as we bungle transition after transition, sometimes for shameless partisan advantage, as we did in Libya when we threw its new president under the bus and ran away.

      We were handling major power transitions much better under Reagan and Bush during the Cold War and its aftermath, both helping reformists in Eastern Europe and encouraging right-wing dictators who’d been on our side to take early retirement. To do all this we had to be very actively engaged with other countries, working to keep pressure on violent revolutionaries, insurgents, and terrorists, while trying to isolate countries where we failed. In some cases losing a government to communist dictatorship probably made us safer against terrorist strikes because we could then hold the government accountable (you blow up our disco, we blow up your family, oh great leader).

      The drone strikes make it to easy for our policy to remain in a nebulous limbo, where we can get by without either supporting or opposing the governments and social forces producing terrorism and just treat terrorists as a bunch of crazy, interconnected lone-wolves, managing the threat as if it was a bunch of problem grizzly bears in Yellowstone that occasionally need to be relocated or put down. That kind of policy never has an ending because it doesn’t require changing our behavior or that of the bears.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to George Turner says:

        “one obvious set of alternatives to drone strikes would come from asking what prior administrations would’ve done”

        We know what prior administrations would’ve done. They would have done exactly the same thing, albeit with the technology available to them at the time.

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

        And as GW Bush remarked, “I’m not gonna fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt.”Report

      • Avatar Kimsie in reply to George Turner says:

        So you’re against drone strikes, and pro torture, so long as we don’t get our own hands dirty?Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

        Exactly. As Obama and everyone on the left point out, torturing terrorists disfigures who we are as a people, yet we need the intelligence, which is something we don’t get from a drone strike. But we use the drone strikes for terrorists who are in an area where it’s dangerous to send troops to capture them. So obviously, we should use robots to gather the intelligence on terrorist whereabouts, then use more robots to capture the terrorists (no more drones blowing up in cafes), and then use other robots to do the torturing. Our hands stay clean.

        So with a combination of Imperial probe droids, Trade Federation battle droids, and Imperial interrogation droids that make cool “whoop whoop” sounds as they hover, needle-ready, between the prisoners’ holding cells, we can regain the moral high-ground without sacrificing effectiveness or efficiency.

        That, or maybe something else.Report

    • Avatar Ethan in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      CK, I’m curios what in your eyes makes the above a polemic.

      Also, “including enhanced constraint on the actual exercise of executive discretion.”
      Could you elaborate on that?

      As to alternate courses of action…action is something I view as a continuum. As such, potential courses of action include drone strikes only for targets of a certain value, no signature strikes, strikes executed in accordance with some international or IN construct. It could also include any level of only manned missions to apprehend in conjunction wit.h local authorities, as well as some degree of only the Presidents soft power agendaReport

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to Ethan says:

        Well, you addressed your audience like you were standing on stage talking into a mic, mounted on a pole – a polemic. Not to be confused with a boom mic, which is where you’re acting like you’re having a normal conversation and a sound guy is holding a boom mic over your head. (You will now see the incorrect definition and pronunciation of “polemic” for the rest of your life.)

        Anyway, it was a well written piece about a speech that’s come in for all kinds of deserved abuse. Among the shorter take downs I’ve read in news outlets, one summed up the whole speech as “We must stop me before I kill again,” and another was “We must place new limits on Presidential power – just as soon as I leave office.” Others, like yours, were far more detailed and focused.Report

      • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to Ethan says:

        What makes the post in my view not merely polemical but excessively polemical is typified in the lines I quoted by the personalized denunciation of the President, a motif throughout the piece – as though even considering the President’s position on its own terms would be somehow unworthy of us. The trademark of the polemic or the excessive polemic is the determination to put the opponent and the opponent’s argument in the worst possible light, in the interest of destroying both together, rather than in the best possible light, in the interest of a fuller understanding.

        Politics without polemics is probably impossible: We can’t argue against someone else’s position without implying some failing on the part of those who adopt it, but a civilized conversation or honest dialogue begins with assuming that either of us or both of us could be wrong, both wrong in different ways, wrong next time if not this time, and perhaps most of all that either side’s logic might prove superior, and, if so, that those on the other side would be compelled by force of reason alone to yield to it. The tactics of diminution of the opponent and the opponent’s argument through prejudicial summary, ridicule, ad hominem, insistent reliance on claims maximally unfavorable to the opponent’s position that the opponent has directly contested, and so on, all make that civil conversation less likely, in part by raising the cost even of considering it.

        The alternatives you describe are all alternatives that I believe the President himself has offered to explore. Predictably, the mere offer has been taken by rightwing critics as a declaration of surrender. Was just talking with one such critic yesterday. It may turn out that an honest investigation of those alternatives or potential alternatives will discover the same problems, conceptual and political, that the President has encountered. For instance, “no signature strikes” might sound like a good idea, but every strike against an enemy that seeks to hide is finally a signature strike, a strike based on a best guess as to the identity of the target. The hit on Bin Laden was clearly a signature strike under any useful definition of the term. To expect the President or anyone who approved of the Bin Laden attack to forswear all signature strikes as morally reprehensible is therefore at a minimum unrealistic.

        That would be a conceptual problem that also bleeds into a political problem. The biggest political problem (that also happens to relate to conceptual problems) facing both the President as well as his critics from the anti-drone, anti-militarization libertarian-left coalition may be that residual popular support for a militarized and therefore inherently executive-discretionary approach to so-called terrorism may still be very high, and may be much higher the morning after any successful terrorist attack. Democracy is not a suicide pact, and it’s especially not a mass political suicide pact.Report

  2. Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

    Ethan, an excellent post. Polemical to be sure, but the polemic is just a tool, appropriate for some uses and not others. It’s appropriate here. CK asks us to work toward fuller understanding, but that’s a mutual task, and one that cannot be engaged in with those who actively lie, whose purpose is to actively obscure the truth. Would we seek a fuller understanding with the authors of Mein Kampf or The Turner Diaries? No, the only way to deal with them is to expose the lies on which they are built. While President Obama is no Hitler, no Pierce, his claims are no less built on lies, however democratically popular those lies are.Report