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No debate about drones

October 24, 2012, at 1:41 AM
The U.S. Air Force's first "hunter-killer" unmanned aerial vehicle, the MQ-9 Reaper, is inspected in 2007.

The U.S. Air Force's first "hunter-killer" unmanned aerial vehicle, the MQ-9 Reaper, is inspected in 2007. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The two presidential candidates have had very little to say about the sleek weapons of war known to the military as Unmanned Arial Vehicles and the public as "drones." Other than an oblique counter-intuitive hedge — Mitt Romney said that Obama can't "kill our way out of this mess in the Middle East" — the Republican supports the policy in general.  

For those who follow this issue, the narrative is familiar. For those who haven't, here is a short and very messy summary:

President Obama inherited and vastly expanded President Bush's use of armed UAVs to target terrorists. The CIA has launched more than 200 strikes in Pakistan, targeting mostly Al Qaeda leaders and facilitators. The CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command have used armed UAVs at least 34 times in Yemen, with the not-so-secret permission and cooperation of the Yemeni government. The U.S. government doesn't officially talk about UAV operations outside warzones, but it insists that civilian casualties are much less than on-the-ground sources would have us believe. They won't provide evidence, however, and Congress isn't interested in asking public questions because the Armed Services and Intelligence committees of both chambers receive sufficient briefings. (This is a case of if everyone is in on the secret, then everyone buys into the rationale and has no real leverage to change policy.) 

Let's first pin down the questions. There are two, it seems, that must be asked. The first is: Do drone strikes work? That is, are they a necessary element of American national security policy? The second is: What are the legal and moral foundations underpinning their use?  

Proponents say that al Qaeda would be far more potent if drones weren't used, and that more American lives would be lost in trying to target these bad guys conventionally. More subtly, the UAV targeting provides a deterrent to asymmetric war-mongering and is the only real way to get inside the decision loop of transnational ideological terror cells. Real threats to America have been taken out using drones, proponents insist. As to the legal and moral foundations… well, necessity is the husband of many an Office of Legal Counsel opinion at the Department of Justice. The accountability is in the decision matrix, we are told, and that has to be classified because the bad guys can't know if they're on the list.  

Opponents say that drone strikes create backlash that feeds blowback; that drones facilitate the killing of innocents because "go" decisions don't have to account for the potential loss of American (read: "good guy) lives; that this type of warfare is fundamentally dehumanizing and reduces to almost nothing the value of innocent life that happens to be in the vicinity of the target; that in Pakistan in particular, the drones have radicalized more men and scared more children than otherwise would be radicalized and terrorized; the biggest moral indictment is that drone warfare is just too easy.

In case you think I've given short shrift to the "pro" argument, you should know two things: Those who support the use of armed UAVs really have a lot invested in the idea that they work and that there is no other way to get done what must be done. 

How will Obama get to a point of moral clarity on drone strikes? I don't think he can, unless he is willing to say a lot more about them. 

The Washington Post's Greg Miller has a good summary of the way that targeting criteria has changed. Whereas the Pentagon and the intelligence community had until recently separate processes to decide who gets on the target lists and when it's time to order weapons hot, the White House stepped in, and now, John Brennan, the counter-terrorism chief, chairs a weekly meeting where target packages offered up by the CIA and the Pentagon are considered. President Obama doesn't get into these details, but he now signs off on every strike outside an official battlefield. Pakistan remains the exception: The CIA's program is so well integrated into the agency's bureaucracy that the CIA director makes the final "kill" decisions.  

Here is a question to consider, and I don't have an answer. It seems to be that, in so far as a drone policy is a given, the least worst way to do it would be to have the president take responsibility for the process in precisely the way that Brennan is doing it. Opposing the expansion of these types of strikes is a swell position to take, but since both candidates are going to continue to use them, absent a massive and unprecedented shift in public opinion, it's useful to try and figure out how to "codify" (as the Post says) a targeting process that maximizes accountability at the top. In other words, you kinda want the president to be signing off on JSOC strikes, don't you, especially if you don't want JSOC to be striking nearly as often as they seem to do. You want the person who is accountable to the public directly to be signing off on secret policy. It is better (isn't it?) than having the CIA or the Pentagon civilian/military bureaucracies develop and execute these quasi-legal war plans on their own.  

Obama may well be known as (among other things) the drone war president. But if there are no other alternatives, then he damned well is going to make sure that the process he leaves to his predecessor is one that is not susceptible to legal challenge, is one that is perceived as legitimate by Congress and the American people, is internationally regarded as a necessary evil, and takes the basic morality of the practice as much into account as possible.

Plainly, I don't think the administration is (pardon the pun) remotely close to achieving these objectives.  

I do think that the president and his advisers have signed onto them as objectives, and that they are working the issue in the way that makes the most sense to them. 

How will Obama get to a point of moral clarity on drone strikes? I don't think he can, unless he is willing to say a lot more about them. 

He needs to acknowledge them. He needs to explain, in some detail, why he thinks they are the only alternative. He needs to take account of the evidence (as even many pro-strike proponents do) that there is a significant social cost to them in Pakistan, and he needs to do that publicly, too. He needs to explain, on the record, what CIA folks tell me and other reporters off the record. Doing so may mean that the government has to adjust some elements of its policy, but it will also probably mean that the policy will succeed on its own merits until a better alternative can be found. 

Right now, Obama says very little because the American public doesn't seem to care. Obama's peers care, The New York Times cares, and that means that the liberals on the National Security Council are aware of the consternation and are self-conscious about it. But since the mass of people broadly accept the idea, and because Obama believes that the policy is sound enough, there is nary a peep from the powers that be.

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