June 14, 2012
Drone Wars

So for whatever reason my news feed has been filling with comments and complaints about America’s drone war. It’s a lot of repeats, but the gist is clear: progressives don’t like drone war.

I’ve been struck by the confusedly intermixed arguments underlying these complaints. At least two seem to stick out to me, and I thought I’d take a moment to unpack them a bit. I doubt this will make my progressive followership happy, but it seems to me its usually better to have a clear grasp of ideas before building political action on them.

The first objection to drone war that I think needs thinking through is the notion of defining one’s enemy. Lots of critics argue that the US is not really killing enemies, or that even if the US is killing the people it intends to kill, the negative consequences of such killings will ultimately work against our interests. You can’t win for losing, in other words: in making war on some “other,” the United States remains isolated in political affairs and may indeed promote hatred of the US in the first place.

This objection, it should be noted, is a perfectly reasonable political objection to US policy. One can believe that the war on terror is misbegotten (as I do), and that US actions are making things worse rather than better (as I have mixed feelings about). But you should be clear: Barack Obama does not care that this is your opinion. He has made the decision, as the duly elected President of the United States, to employ American military power in this way to this end. He has exercised his political power to an end you find politically objectionable, and he does not appear to be losing any sleep about it.

I emphasize this point to say this: if you really think we need to change US policy, including drone war, then you need to work to ensure that someone other than Barack Obama or Mitt Romney is elected President in November. Gary Johnson would do well. Just shaking you’re finger and saying “don’t do that” isn’t going to change a damn thing.

A second set of objections to drone war derives from critics’ discomfort with the concentration of power it seems to manifest in the White House. In drone war, President Obama can seemingly kill anyone anywhere at will, all without due process or other check or balance — even US citizens. The ease of the use of drones — they are both easy to hide and don’t leave vast trails of devastation in their wake — makes it increasingly likely that presidents will become killing machines: Terminators-by-proxy.

Part of me is sympathetic to this argument: the notion that the President can have a “kill list” and the means to employ it with no checks and balances violates my sense of the what the Constitution was created for in the first place.

Yet part of me wants to ask: what the heck have you been paying attention to for the last 60 years?

Over the last 60 years the United States has transferred immediate control of its nuclear arsenal to the President and his designees. It has created a vast national security state of spies and operatives who have overthrown governments, assassinated enemies, and worked to destabilize political movements and political cultures. It has allowed the basing of hundreds of thousands of US soldiers near US adversaries, meaning that minor tensions risked global conflict. It has run untold airstrikes and interventions and occupations as it sought to shape global political outcomes in ways it finds desirable. It runs Guantanamo and Baghram and has tortured and used rendition to allow others to torture on our behalf. And it has done much, much more besides.

If you use your objection to drone war as a start of process of understanding, unpacking and working to transform US global military policy, more power to you. If all that bothers you is that the President can send drones to kill people, you need to get serious.

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    As a person who likes to consider himself pretty progressive, I believe being opposed to drone warfare is like being...
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    we need a new way. right now gary johnson presents an alternative. perhaps we need to be spending the next 5 months...
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