Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Arguments that work - and don't work - in a discussion about drones

Arguments about the use of drones continue on the left. Most recently they have been spurred by an article in the New York Times about the Obama administration working on a policy for their use.

I have discussed before that I have misgivings about this issue. And its always hard for me to dive into the idea of creating "rules" for killing other human beings. But I also know its necessary if we're going to live in the world as it is - rather than as we want it to be. And so I take the news in that article as a positive step. It seems to me that its only those who are suffering from Obama Derangement Syndrome (ODS) that would criticize the administration for doing what they've been asking for all along.

And so in an attempt to actually have some discussion about this difficult issue, it strikes me that there are some arguments about the use of drones that work. And some that don't. To clear the field, lets start with the latter.

Arguments that don't work:

First of all, it doesn't work to focus on the drones themselves. They are simply a tool. And yes, the fact that killing can be done remotely is troubling. But if that's the issue, we should have had this argument a long time ago when war went from hand-to-hand combat to dropping bombs on people from the sky.

I'm definitely NOT an expert in the weapons of war, but it strikes me that the development of drones might be unique in current history in that they are first innovation to actually limit the number of people killed/injured by their use. That feels like a rather macabre kind of thing to point out. But still...

Secondly, the fact that drones kill innocent civilians is not an effective argument. Modern warfare has become ever more deadly to civilians. For example, estimates are that 35 million civilians were killed during WWII - more than the 25 million military personnel killed. The truth is that - as I said above - drones are actually effective in limiting the number of innocent civilians killed, as compared to other weapons of war.

Finally, as I've said before, civil liberties arguments are ineffective. No one has ever claimed that legal due process rules govern the killing of enemies during a time of war.

The argument that does work

This one can be summed up with one question: Are we at war?

Going back to where this all started, the Bush administration's response to 9/11 was to declare a "war on terror." That was the framing that too many Americans bought into. Immediately, Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force granting the President the discretion to "use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, groups, and individuals..." And we were off to the races.

One of the first things President Obama did when he came into office was to reframe it as a "war on al Qaeda." That narrowed the focus but also presented the administration with a challenge because it thwarted their efforts to use a legal framework for things like getting rid of Guantanamo and implementing civilian trials. Holding combatants indefinitely until hostilities cease and military tribunals are the tools of war.

When Eric Holder gave his speech on the legal grounds for "targeted killing," he did so on the basis of us being at war with al Qaeda and their affiliates. If we are going to argue against the use of drones - that is the central issue we must tackle. And we have two options for doing so:
  1. Argue against the idea of a "war on al Qaeda"
  2. Argue for rules governing a totally different kind of war than we have imagined in the past
It seems to me from the NYT article, that the Obama administration is engaging in the second option. It is instructive to know that there are those within the administration that don't agree on what the rules should be.
Mr. Obama and his advisers are still debating whether remote-control killing should be a measure of last resort against imminent threats to the United States, or a more flexible tool, available to help allied governments attack their enemies or to prevent militants from controlling territory.

Though publicly the administration presents a united front on the use of drones, behind the scenes there is longstanding tension. The Defense Department and the C.I.A. continue to press for greater latitude to carry out strikes; Justice Department and State Department officials, and the president’s counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, have argued for restraint, officials involved in the discussions say.
Later on in the article, they lay out the specifics of those fault lines.
But by many accounts, there has been a significant shift in the nature of the targets. In the early years, most strikes were aimed at ranking leaders of Al Qaeda thought to be plotting to attack the United States. That is the purpose Mr. Obama has emphasized, saying in a CNN interview in September that drones were used to prevent “an operational plot against the United States” and counter “terrorist networks that target the United States.”

But for at least two years in Pakistan, partly because of the C.I.A.’s success in decimating Al Qaeda’s top ranks, most strikes have been directed at militants whose main battle is with the Pakistani authorities or who fight with the Taliban against American troops in Afghanistan.

In Yemen, some strikes apparently launched by the United States killed militants who were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces. Some of those killed were wearing suicide vests, according to Yemeni news reports.
The degree to which the arguments of the Justice Department, the State Department and John O. Brennan are effective in combating the arguments of the Defense Department and the C.I.A. seems to me to be the key to the development of effective limits on ending this indefinite war. We can argue whether or not it should have been a war in the first place. But if we have concerns about the future of "targeted killing," I'd suggest that we now know where the real battle is being fought.

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