It’s Time to End the War or Regulate the Drones

drones_cescaContrary to what some readers might think, I haven’t categorically supported President Obama’s predator drone program. I haven’t furiously opposed it either because, honestly, I haven’t necessarily believed drones are the dystopian Killbots they’re made out to be by the loudest opponents of the technology. It’s safe to say I’ve been frustratingly ambivalent about drones, which, in case you’re curious, is a great way to be falsely labeled a Drones Superfan. Even though I’m far from it.

And as you might know, I’ve tossed around some strong words about writers and bloggers who curiously prioritize the drone program over everything else, giving it disproportional weight and attention over the lengthy roster of positive administration accomplishments. Those views haven’t changed, and I stand by everything I’ve written.

But I must say, the newly leaked Justice Department “white paper,” revealed exclusively by NBC News’ Michael Isikoff, is pretty disturbing. The memo, titled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qa’ida or An Associated Force,” lays out a fairly comprehensive 16-page justification for using predator drones to kill U.S. citizens who are suspected of being terrorist leaders. The memo states that the drone attacks “must be conducted according to ‘law of war principles.'”

So war is the context.

Of course we’ve been aware of the administration’s use of drones against American citizens since the targeted assassination of American-born operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, but that particular attack seemed like an isolated incident. This eery document makes it a matter of general drone policy during a perpetual war and puts into black-and-white language a sort of self-absolution that reminded me of the Bybee Memo, written by Bush administration legal counsel John Yoo who created a specious legal justification for the use of torture against suspected terrorists.

After reading the memo, I’ve reached the conclusion that one of two things must happen: either we end the war on terrorism and rescind the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, or we place serious restrictions on how drones are to be used in perpetuity.

Before we continue, some history. Whether deliberately or accidentally, presidents from Lincoln to Roosevelt have attacked and killed American citizens under the umbrella of either a congressionally-declared war or during a crisis of open rebellion with a massive rebel army gathered across the river from Washington, D.C. Clearly, the war on terrorism is a new kind of warfare with distinct characteristics, but the fact remains that under the banner of war, American citizens operating as militaristic enemies of America and plotting attacks against our interests are, in a broad sense, not unlike Confederate soldiers or American citizens living in Italian cities during Allied bombing campaigns. There’s no reasonable justification for not attacking the Confederate Army (Lincoln considered them American citizens), and there’s it’s difficult to know how World War II would’ve ended without engaging in total war against civilian populations.

But those wars were finite, with clear goals and well-defined endings. The war on terrorism appears to be perpetual, as there will always be terrorists no matter what we do or how many drones we launch. Therefore there’s no justification for an endless war in which American citizens can be targeted for execution. And this memo makes a case for such a plan: killing anyone who’s accused of committing or plotting to commit a crime in a vaguely-defined war.

If the administration opts to continue this policy, it should be compelled to lay out a timeline or clear ending to this war and thus an end to the president’s war powers enabling his use of drones against citizens, as was the case with Lincoln and Roosevelt. Or, if this is to be an ongoing process, like law enforcement, then we have to treat it accordingly and place restrictions on what techniques can be used, just as we do with law enforcement and due process. Specifically, the president shouldn’t be allowed to kill citizens without due process outside the confines of a declared war with a stated ending.

Anything short of this action will allow the administration — and, more menacingly, future administrations — to retain massive, unaccountable and extrajudicial executive power that could be used in far more dangerous ways, and into the foreseeable future. The notion that executive officials, including the president, could endlessly (and I underscore endlessly) hand down death sentences against American citizens ought to be shocking to anyone regardless of how they feel about the president’s accomplishments or his level of greatness.

I totally understand the justification for drones as a weapon: chiefly that they prevent the deaths of American soldiers and pilots. On the surface and used with extreme discretion, it sounds like a safe way to hit back against an opposing military force. But a risk-free weapon (price tag aside) must be used sparingly because common sense tells us that the temptation to abuse such a risk-free privilege is so great that the lure of its convenience could very easily spiral out of control into the unthinkable. A predator drone is an amazing example of American military technology, but it should be used with equally amazing discretion — used as sparingly as a piloted aircraft or a battalion of soldiers. And so there must be legally-imposed restrictions on how they’re used, otherwise it’s easy to see how the use of drones could expand into all varieties of constitutionally unsavory areas, and I’m sure a clever team of White House lawyers could fashion a slippery justification for each one.

I also understand that it’s sometimes impossible to put this sort of toothpaste back into the tube, especially after eight years in which some Bush administration officials were literally crying in public while trying to scare us about the threat of another terrorist attack on American soil. Consequently, too many Americans have been programmed to have a whatever-it-takes attitude when it comes to anti-terrorism efforts. That’s why a considerable cross-section of us have acquiesced to body scanners, FISA eavesdropping and all the rest of it. Thus, the administration had to decide which Bush-era policies it wanted to roll back (torture, Iraq) and, in order to do so, it also had to maintain vigilance on terrorism. Yet even though the president killed Bin Laden and has used drones to kill American citizens with connections to al-Qaida, large chunks of the frightened citizenry have labeled him an al-Qaida sympathizer. No matter what he does there will be lots of very loud hooples who can’t get beyond Hussein the Secret Muslim Who Wants Sharia Law. It’s a no win situation, so why not do the right thing?

Today — right now — we’re passing through the point of no return on the war on terrorism, and it’s urgent that we at least try to wrap things up. Otherwise, we’re going to careen recklessly into a very, very dark and unconstitutional place. This president — the president who killed Bin Laden and shattered much of al-Qaida’s leadership — has the power and anti-terrorism political capital to end all of this madness. If we’re lucky, the leaking of the drones memo will be the inciting incident that leads us back to a place where endless war is quaint artifact of an overzealous and fearful time in American history.

This is also an opportunity for the administration to make a statement about the use of over-the-top violence to solve problems. I’ve been writing extensively about ways to curb gun violence in America, and so as I read the drone memo, I couldn’t help but to think that if the president places deliberate restrictions on how America exercises its deadliest assault weapons, in this case drones, it would be a grand step in the direction of rolling back our gun culture. Perhaps if our leadership is less bellicose, then maybe, over time, so will we.

Enhanced by Zemanta
  • SlapFat

    This is a much more balanced take on the subject of drone use than I thought I was going to read. I’m completely for tapering down the use of drones since they kill so many civilians by accident, but this piece definitely manages to take careful footing regarding the points it makes.

  • http://twitter.com/rzn2blv rzn2blv

    “Today — right now — we’re passing through the point of no return on the war on terrorism, and it’s urgent that we at least try to wrap things up.”

    We passed through the point of no return long ago. The idea that we can “wrap things up” is outdated. There is no V-Day in this one. There is no point in which terrorists stop planning attacks on American soil and around the world. If we have to choose between the use of drones or another 9/11, is there a choice? Luckily Obama also believes in diplomacy and many other means of lessening the threat to Americans. But there is no mistaking that he is responsible for the safety of Americans and he takes that responsibility very seriously. In his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize he clearly stated he believes war is necessary. War is a necessary means to peace. So while it is impossible to “wrap things up” I agree there is much due diligence to be done to determine how best to give those with the knowledge the ability to make expedient decisions when necessary while also ensuring a check and balance on the decision making. This is incredibly complex stuff without a simple answer and certainly doesn’t warrant a glib summation. I’m just glad I’m not prez and soo grateful that Obama is.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.latona David Latona

    Great article, Bob. I agree with the fact that this isn’t a black-or-white issue, but a complex moral situation that has to be viewed through different angles, not just blind acceptance or Greenwald-style hysteria. I also concur that the root of all this is the absurd concept of the “War on Terror.” You can’t fight against an abstract “enemy” which is actually a method, an unconventional political tool to gain power; it isn’t the Confederacy or the NS-German military, but an unbeatable psychosocial structure that can spring up any time, anywhere. In the case of Islamist terrorism, which isn’t the only form of terrorism, it is in part fueled by those same drone attacks and W’s sickening use of systemic torture… it’s unquestionable that drone strikes and Gitmo and so on are the best recruiting tool for the fundamentalist theists who manipulate submissive young people into killing themselves for the Glory of the Man in the Sky and the Umma. Drones have positive aspects, and we will grow used to the commercial versions in no time, but the Obama administration should revise it’s extremely flawed legal justification, and especially, the policy of automatically labeling any 14-year-old-plus male who happens to be near a target as an “enemy combatant.” Also, I shudder to think what the battlefields will look like once the whole world has caught up with the technology (and it will be very, very soon), if “battlefields” were to continue to exist as we define them now. And, of course Willard would’ve made a far more dangerous dronemaster, Republicans can’t be trusted with power on school boards, much less executive power after the travesty of the Bush years. I like Obama, but this pseudo-legalistic rationale for executing suspects while inflicting unavoidable “collateral damage” is wrong and it will be the one big blot on his otherwise pretty decent legacy (but, as you point out, I can’t think of a single American president who doesn’t have human blood on his hands; it seems like it’s part of the job requirements, plus you have the monolithic foreign policy mindset engrained in DC). Complicated issue, no doubt. I’m glad I don’t have to go to sleep at night thinking of the 8-year-old girl in Yemen who was at the wrong place at the wrong time… but you’re right, it’s either time to end the war or to severely limit and transparently regulate the drones.

  • joseph2004

    Anyone who’s aware of the clique of left-wing Progressive “voices” will notice that Cesca is just the latest among them to “admit” to having some (not much but some) discomfort over Obama’s long-running escalated use of drones and the inocents who are killed. Joan Walsh (who it would seem sits in on the same talking points meetings every week) recently admitted the same, saying that, yeah, she had reservations about the policy for some time. She admitted turning a blind eye to disturbing Obama national security policies prior to the election (now get this!) “because I knew President Romney would almost certainly pursue worse ones.”

    Tripe, Cesca, pure tripe. Maybe one of these days you’ll have a thought of your own. I’m sure the few of your “followers” who take you seriously are impressed by your “honesty.”

    • http://www.twitter.com/bobcesca_go Bob Cesca

      Fuck off. Name one other person who’s made the points I presented above — specifically regarding the danger of drone usage in endless war and the proposal that drones be regulated or the AUMF be rescinded.

      • Chris

        Wow Bob… THIS is why America doesn’t subscribe to your liberal views. Is the Daily Banter aware of your language? Seriously? This is professional? You’re the typical liberal idiot who, when people don’t agree with you, you come out LASHING, stomping your feet, and (wait for it… ’cause here come the labels) name calling. “Pathetic”, “wingnut right”. You’re a disgrace, and I think many people side with me when we say we simply pity you.

        • http://twitter.com/SugaRazor Razor

          Fuck off, troll.

        • http://www.twitter.com/bobcesca_go Bob Cesca

          You’re participating on an internet discussion forum and you’re dainty about language? Please.

          • Chris

            Dude, you’re an idiot. I’ll leave you guys to your bro-mance. See you in the funny papers…

          • http://twitter.com/BarryBummer Barry Bummer

            Relax, guys. Chris comes from a world where calling someone an unprofessional, disgraceful, liberal idiot ISN’T considered name-calling. So you can see he’s at a bit of a disadvantage.

          • Victor_the_Crab

            In other words, he’s projecting. Typical of morons like himself.

          • Chris

            Wow, wait until I tell people I have finally figured you guys out. You stroke and pet each other until you finally believe yourselves. They’re not going to believe it. I’ve discovered the secret. And actually by simply calling someone just a plain “liberal” IS an insult from our end. LOL.

          • Victor_the_Crab

            Do tell us where your uncle touched you when you were a child. It’ll be the first step on the road to your recovery.

          • Chris

            Come on… you can do better than that. That’s so very childish, and not witty at all. I know you have got to have more intellect than that.

          • Victor_the_Crab

            Hard to open up, hmm? I guess it’s much worse than I imagined. That would explain your awful anti-social behavior here. I’ll leave you alone now so that you can get the help you need to be a better person and a contributing member of society. Buh-bye!

        • Praeus

          Classy…joseph2004 lashes out at Bob, who responds in kind, and then you pretend to take the moral high ground. I would find such arguments more compelling if people didn’t feel the need to pepper their arguments with ad hominem attacks.

        • http://twitter.com/gussiejives Gussie Jives

          Yeah, fail. If you complain about tone, you’ve lost the argument.

          • Chris

            Yeah, I don’t think so. Dude, take your Junior College Rhetoric 101 class over again. You got a D -

          • http://twitter.com/gussiejives Gussie Jives

            You had to take a class on that, eh?

          • Chris

            Dude, that was stupid. Don’t jump in the middle of a parent schooling children and expect to be witty. Fail.

          • http://twitter.com/gussiejives Gussie Jives

            Hey, it’s your ridiculous rhetorical flourish.

          • Chris

            If that’s how you want to label your remarks, that’s up to you. I’m not judging.

      • joseph2004

        It’s too easy, Bob. You’re a “pure partisan,” which means you set yourself up. If I thought there was an iota of middle ground in your thinking, I’d be less inclined to challenge you every so often.

        The “pure partisan” is the most vulnerable to hypocrisy. In its most basic form, vitriol is reserved for the actions of someone else, but when its
        your guy, well, it’s all for a good cause.

        That’s the partisan trap, and it’s what makes you laughable. You’re not about doing what’s best for America and Americans. You’re about winning. Your sidekick Ashby puts that approach on display day in and day out.

        So yeah, you took a stand on the drone thing, but only grudgingly and belatedly.

        Your overall approach, however, as exemplified by your blog (and those you have invited as “content” providers) is overtly hostile, is designed to
        appeal to adolescents, and is not at all representative of anything moderate, fair-minded people (liberal or conservative) would consider helpful in this age of political bickering.

        So sorry.

        • http://www.twitter.com/bobcesca_go Bob Cesca

          You don’t make any sense. Because I didn’t rip the president to shreds from day one as being a drone-striking baby-killer, etc, etc, that means I’m not moderate or fair-minded? Whah???

          • Chris

            Oh my Lord, you’re delusional. You really DO believe yourself, don’t you!

        • http://twitter.com/gussiejives Gussie Jives

          Dude, Bob is demanding regulation of the drone strikes, that is the epitome of finding fair-minded middle ground.

          • Chris

            I’m not saying that I don’t agree with the regulation. What I don’t like is his typical liberal “Let’s point this all at the right side” point of view. After all, it’s the left’s president who wants this crap.

          • http://twitter.com/gussiejives Gussie Jives

            Seeing as it is a neoconservative policy position, yeah, it’s dismaying that Obama is continuing it, but this doesn’t make Bob a “partisan” just because his criticisms are not as vociferous as you demand.

    • Benthedailybanter

      Joseph, what exactly is wrong with Walsh saying she knew Romney would have pursued worse national security policies? Of course he would have done. This is the real world my friend, where small changes in Washington result in meaningful results on the ground. Relentless attacks on Obama for a single issue is completely pointless. What is your solution? Impeach Obama? Great idea. If Romney had got in, we’d most likely be at war with Iran and possible Russia and China. I’m completely opposed to the use of drones and think it’s illegal and immoral. I write about it every now an then, but there are a ton of other things going on that the libertarian left ignore – particularly the overt attempts by the Republicans to destroy what is left of the government. I mean, Bob is AGREEING WITH YOU for christ’s sake. What’s your problem?

      • Victor_the_Crab

        You have to excuse joey moron, ben. It’s obvious he’s living proof an abortion can fail. He pops up from time to time over at Bob’s blog spouting his usual right wing yargle bargle, and then we all play whack-a-troll.

      • Christopher Foxx

        Yes, but Bob isn’t agreeing vehemently enough. So clearly he’s opposed.

    • http://twitter.com/gussiejives Gussie Jives

      …because Romney would have pursued worse ones?

      Listen, if you voted Gary Johnson, fantastic. But your conscience is not squeaky clean by any stretch. Your tax dollars still fund those drones, so unless you haven’t paid your taxes, you are just as guilty as the rest of us (and I’m including myself, a Canadian, because of my idiot PM’s support for anything militaristic).

      Barack Obama is the lesser evil compared to damn near any Republican. So yes, his re-election was a damned important one, one that might not have happened if we were collectively screeching about drones 4 months ago. Like Bob says, you have to be SMART about your accountability demands.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1655290390 Steven Skelton

    Change the name “Obama” to “Bush” and you wouldn’t be frustratingly ambivalent.

    • http://www.twitter.com/bobcesca_go Bob Cesca

      Wrong. Did you even read what I wrote? I literally compared the drone memo with the Bybee Memo.

  • http://twitter.com/SugaRazor Razor

    Excellent piece, Bob. The people who insisted they wouldn’t vote for Obama because of Drones could’ve elected Romney, who wouldn’t give a shit what people thought about their usage. It’s important to elect people like Obama, then hold their feet to the fire on the issue, but not in a “DO THIS OR WE WON’T VOTE!” sense, as the GOP banks on that.