How Many Drone Deaths are we Cool With?

Taking a cue from Ryan, I’ll post my rant here so as not to disturbm the rest of the symposium. As per usual, nothing gets my heart rate up like a sloppy discussion of the “War on Terror” and how we are to carry it out.

Andrew Sullivan has never been more disingenuous (or deluded) than when discussing Obama’s foreign policy, and in particular the President’s secretive drone program.

When accused by Conor Friedersdorf of being inconsistent in how he judges the President for his use of drones, Sullivan responded at length.

 According to Friedersdorf, Sullivan believes that the program:

(a) violates the constitutional imperative to get Congressional permission for war;
(b) constitutes the use of a technology that inclines us to blowback and permanent war; (c) effectively ends the Founders’ vision;
(d) empowers an unaccountable and untrustworthy agency; and
(e) kills lots of innocent children.

Sullivan responds by…claiming that he doesn’t believe (a), at least not in the case of Afghanistan or Pakistan, where the use of force has been authorized by Congress since back in 2001. What this says about everywhere else drones have been used? Nothing.

In response to (b), Sullivan notes these far from conclusive studies which, while addressing the effect of killing leaders on the groups they belong to, does not address how the killing of civilians can contribute to the rise of new insurgent groups, let alone how this violence affects how the rest of the world views the U.S.

Then Sullivan pulls his real sleight of hand in response to (c), “What ends the Founders’ vision is religious terrorists from mountains in Middle Asia successfully invading and terrorizing major cities in the US and killing thousands.”

Hear I must quote at length:

“What frustrates me about Conor’s position – and Greenwald’s as well – is that it kind of assumes 9/11 didn’t happen or couldn’t happen again, and dismisses far too glibly the president’s actual responsibility as commander-in-chief to counter these acts of mass terror. If you accept that presidential responsibility, and you also realize that the blowback from trying to occupy whole Muslim countries will be more intense, then what is a president supposed to do? I think the recourse to drone warfare is about as reasonable and as effective a strategy as we can find. It plays to our strengths – technology, air-power, zero US casualties, rather than to our weaknesses: occupying countries we don’t understand with utopian counter-insurgency plans that end up empowering enemies Moqtada al Sadr and crooks like Hamid Karzai, and turn deeply unpopular at home. Given our country’s fiscal crisis, massive expensive counter-insurgency is no longer a viable option.”

The first part of that response is “9/11 changed everything” repackaged with a couple of qualifiers. No one need assume that 9/11 did not occur, or that our country, like all others, might be the victim of another large terrorist attack in the future, in order to still maintain that the drone program is illegal, unethical, or ineffective.

But Sullivan does, implicitly assuming that the best way to deal with 9/11 type threats is through a program of counter terrorism that’s based on secret drone strikes, when in fact that claim is exactly what he’s suppose to be substantiating.

Mentioning “Presidential responsibility” goes even further down this road. Sullivan offers a false dichotomy. If these threats exist he argues, we have either to choose drones or land occupations. What garbage.

And borrowing one of his favorite phrases, here’s the kicker, “Given our country’s fiscal crisis, massive expensive counter-insurgency is no longer a viable option.”

Ergo, we have no choice but to bomb them from afar. Yes, the President is responsible for defending the country. But nowhere does Sullivan explain, with any ounce of analytic rigor, why the drone program, while less costly than a land occupation, is the only means, or even the best means for protecting the country. Furthermore, even if though this is the President’s responsibility, the American public has the responsibility to scrutinize and question his actions. In other words, this argument from privileged authority insinuates that if we were the President, if we knew what he knew, if we knew what kinds of uncertainties he was dealing with, and if we were the singular individual who was morally responsible for whatever happens to the United States, we would do as he is doing.

This is problematic not only because the President and his Administration vigorously deny the public any evidence upon which to judge the goodness of his actions, or the cost-benefit analysis which motivates them, but also because none of us are the President, and the other half of asking us to recognize his role as Commander-in-Chief is to recognize our roles as citizens of this Republic, tasked with making sure our leaders do what is in our interest and the nation’s, and to do so within certain moral parameters (e.g. No torture, AND no wanton killing of civilians!)

What is even more agonizing though is how Sullivan feels the “Founder’s vision” (let us just assume for a moment some cohesive framework of ideas and principles) is most threatened by underwear bombers and airplane hijackers rather than the growing domestic police state and imperial aggression that these attacks elicit.

The Founder’s vision won’t collapse because of terrorist bombings, but because of our hysterical, disproportionate reactions to them. It is not because of 9/11 that we had enhanced interrogation techniques and went to war, and indefinitely imprison people and extra-judicially assassinate them, and spy and wiretap and lie. It is because of the same emotionally overridden logic that Sullivan employs here that we as a nation have done these things and continue to tolerate them.

 And this Swiss-cheese reasoning only continues. First, more assertions,

“What is coming next is a generation whose ideological positions are more virulent and who owing to the removal of older figures with clout, are less likely to be amenable to restraining their actions. And contrary to popular belief, actions have been restrained. Attacks have thus far been used strategically rather than indiscriminately. Just take a look at AQ’s history and its documents and this is blatantly clear.”

I’ll grant the possibility that Sullivan’s psycho-analysis might be true. But don’t see why it’s any more true than any number of other interpretations, predictions or equally ill-supported pontifications.

And then Sullivan admits another expert opinion into the equation, noting as a result with new found caution “[T]here does seem a danger, especially in Yemen, that drones may be focusing the Islamists’ attention away from their own government and onto ours.”

So “yes”, he says, “I’m with Conor on the need for more accountability and transparency on this.”

But how much more accountability, and how much more transparency? If Sullivan is really troubled by the developments on the drone front, why does he spend so much more time talking about torture, and celebrating the President for putting an “end” to it (read: outsourcing it)?

And then back to making nonsensical comparisons to land occupations,

“And remember the scale of civilian casualties caused by the Iraq war and catastrophic occupation: tens of thousands of innocents killed under American responsibility for security. The awful truth of war is that innocents will die. Our goal must be to minimize that. Compared with the alternatives, drones kill fewer innocents.”

Except that the only alternative listed is a land invasion. What are the other alternatives? Surely some of them include something other than invading Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia? And here Sullivan lets loose a most repulsive platitude: people die in war. Once again, he sidesteps any real debate and simply reasserts his position. We’re at war (with who, according to what criteria?) and innocents will die (but why, and how many?) and drones are the only/best way to minimize the number that do (oh, so that’s why, wait, what?)

Sullivan calls the Administration’s method for counting civilian casualties a cop-out, but it’s representative of the same phenomenon that underlies Sullivan’s specious discussion of the drone program. No one wants to actually get down in the dirt and deal with trying to answer the more complex issues: how many civilians is it alright to kill, how certain do we need to be before launching the missiles, how certain do we need to be that drones are the only/best way to make our nation more secure before we our justified in using them?

At the end of the day, anyone who wants to advocate drones, and maintain any kind of moral defense for doing so, needs to start counting bodies. But so far none of the advocates seem to be up to the task. Instead, like Sullivan, they’d rather chalk it off to “in war people die” and accuse people who ask the hard questions of naively “pretending.”

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29 thoughts on “How Many Drone Deaths are we Cool With?

    • I realize I’m just asking for a headache by engaging this question, but I’m curious — how many deaths is one living American soldier worth? How much more valuable is his life than the lives of whoever might be killed by an errant drone strike? I’m curious how you work your calculations.

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      • Russell

        I don’t have a specific number like 100-1 but I am not aware that the US is currently killing innocents in such large numbers that it is a problem. Drone strikes are carefully targeted to avoid civilian deaths. I don’t want the US to kill anymore folks than must be killed to get the job done.

        Do you really expect the US to conduct a war without any civilian deaths?

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    • How many deaths do you think it will take to do the job?

      Have a Pashtun friend, a reporter for BBC. Chatting with him the other day. He says, “When do you think the Americans will ramp up the war again? Bush ordered a lot of strikes but Obama’s ramped it up considerably. It might be time for some more, don’t you think?”

      He’s a sick dude. Black humour is one way of coping.

      I replied. “Yeah. If we really wanted to eliminate the problem, once and for all, we should just send in thousands of little robots to kill every living thing, men, women, children, goats, chickens. Just eliminate everything. Maybe save a few leopards and give it all back to them. Robo-shuhada.”

      It was a bit much, even for him. “You are an evil man” he shot back.

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  1. The larger question is: given any arbitrary tactic, it wouldn’t matter if it was drone strikes or packs of dingoes or dirty nuclear weapons — will this technique serve to defeat the enemy? Not merely kill a few of them, actually defeat them, eliminate a threat to our nation.

    Put aside the ethics for a moment. Dispense with all these sob stories. Even if they were all lies or all true, it just doesn’t matter. Does it serve to defeat the enemy, bring an end to the threat?

    Sadly, no. Drones fail this test. They do not eliminate the threat any more than popping a few antibiotics will completely eliminate an infection. Dr. Blaise here, he’s telling you not to start wars where you can’t conclusively defeat the enemy. If you start one of these things you’d better be ready to apply enough solution for long enough to eliminate the problem completely. If you’re too squeamish to do the needful, that geopolitical infection is only going to acquire immunity to your half-ass solution. And then, folks, you have a real problem.

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      • Simple answer: No. We have no geopolitical horse sense. I once had a Jordanian friend tell me, “Americans are schizophrenic. You build with one hand and destroy with the other. We love you guys, but we’re also afraid of you.”

        It’s not hard to figure out why. We’re raised on Ackshun Films and Vidiot Games, where some James Bond figure whips out his pistol and shoots a half-dozen bad guys and they fall out of the frame, dead as so many mackerels. Problem solved. On to Level 2!

        For us, it’s about the Big Kaboom. Nice sanitary wars, complete with negative FLIR video, the enemy reduced to a little black blip moving across the frame. In the soundtrack, controllers issue final commands, a blossom of black flame and the good guys hi-5 each other.

        That’s not where the story ends for the guys on the ground. After the drone flies off, they bury their dead and swear revenge on their graves. Problem gets worse. Want to really enrage a population? Bomb it from the air. Makes ’em feel helpless and afraid. Before the Blitz, there was talk of rapprochement with the Nazis at some level. Once bombs started falling on London, all such talk ceased. It was on to total victory.

        And that’s our problem, now. We don’t have a clue what total victory might mean. Our current conflict with Islamic jihad might go on for a century. Maybe more. Israel, for all its military prowess, defeated a few state entities in six days but they haven’t won the war on Islamic jihad in sixty years. When you’re in a hole that deep, stop digging. We won’t win this war, not this way, anyway. They’re still an enemy, still out to get us, maybe drones have a role to play in attenuating that threat, but this isn’t a shooting war any more. It’s a war of ideologies, a war for hearts and minds, a war where plinking a few gophers only makes things worse.

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  2. If you assume there is A Risk, and that Risk is great enough that Something Must Be Done, I actually don’t see an option other than flying killer robots – though I do see ways of bringing more transparency and accountability to that process.

    What’s an easier sell is that there is a Risk, but really nothing needs to be done about it. Your post implies that Something Must Be Done, but what we are currently doing is not the right Something. Am I misreading you? And if not, what are the alternatives to flying killer robots or invasion. (Please don’t say ‘More Diplomacy’. Please don’t say ‘Foreign Aid’.)

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    • Depends on your definition of Diplomacy I suppose. We might start by taking our enemies seriously. That would start with talking to them. The guys who are fighting us are also fighting the Pakistani government. Nobody’s ever defeated these guys in open warfare. Empires come and go, this tinhorn dictator sets up shop in the wreckage of his predecessor. The Pashtun outlast them all.

      Maybe we’re fighting the wrong enemy. These guys change sides more often than their underwear. If American promised the Pashtun their independence, they’d stop fighting us tomorrow. Neither Afghanistan or Pakistan would like it much. But they’ve both proven to be complete military morons, completely incapable of mustering up enough spinal calcium and gonads to fight. The Pashtuns, they fight.

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      • We’ve tilted at this ferris wheel before, but to add to what we’ve already said, not everyone’s on the Durand line anymore (or really ever was). Ya got the Yemenemies, al Shabab, and AQIM (who’s having the Best Week Ever with the Taureg declaring independence from Mali). Plus old favorites in Asia Pacific like JI, Abu Sayef, and MILF. And that’s only the “we want to Restore the Caliphate” enemies. Whole lot of other people just like to be ornery for ornery’s sake.

        But like I said, maybe we can just accept the moderate risk that somebody will do something bad and simply get out of not only Game of Drones, but any other Great Game.

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        • Oh sure. You weren’t around for Nefarious Commies hiding in every untrimmed hedge. Mais, alors, eet eez the same een evaray age, mon ami.

          I’m writing something about the growing irrelevance of the nation state. Sorta like how the Divine Right of Kings sorta fell from its pedestal after a few horrid centuries. The batting roster for the wars of those times featured a whole lot of designated savages, proxy warriors.

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  3. You might enjoy reading the Slacktivist posts on this, with the tag YNATKC: “You’re not allowed to kill civilians”.

    His answer: “If there is any possible way to achieve the intended effect without producing the unintended effect”, you’re not allowed to kill civilians. (Emphasis mine)

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