The President Head Fakes on Lethal Drone Strikes and the War on Terror

Nothing in the President’s speech hasn’t been said before, and with much more force and a greater sense of commitment. His sprawling meditation on the threat of terrorism was less a grand vision for where terrorism fits into the rest of the President’s responsibilities and the nation’s challenges, and more a doubling-down on the global paradigm left over from the Bush years.

The war on terror cannot go on indefinitely, but it is nevertheless a real war which can be fought, and concluded, instead of an semantic impossibility. And this war must not be boundless, even if we must be willing and allowed to wage it wherever and whenever the President thinks it’s necessary. We must encourage democracy in other countries, except the ones whose dictators are already friendly towards us.

This is not a dramatic shift in policy–it’s the slow but determined institutionalization of it. The President wants the AUMF limited at such a time as he deems it feasible, but not thrown out altogether. His words say the decades long war(s) the country has been embroiled in must come to an end, but everything he proposes would allow it to continue in a less visible, less costly form for several decades to come.

And yet I suspect that because the nation’s response to global terrorist threats over the past decade have set such a low bar when it comes to transparency, honesty, and principledness, that many feel the “new” course charted in the President’s speech is more groundbreaking and praiseworthy than it actually is.

Of course it’s not though. Rather the President’s speech last Thursday proved to be an exemplar in bad-faith argumentation, expedient illogic, and some combination of ignorance, disingenuousness, and effortless condescension.

More than anything else, the President’s speech focused on justification. It was literally a litany of excuses, some more compelling than others. As he himself points out in the speech, the shift of the “Global War on Terror” from a series of land occupations to a series of discrete airstrikes (often predicated on intelligence resources and military capabilities yielded by those ground wars), raises many questions. The much less visible, much less transparent bureaucracy of lethal drone strikes, while expanded during the President’s first term in office, remains as nebulous, both legally and morally, as anything that occurred as a result of torture policy during the Bush Administration.

“As was true in previous armed conflicts,” Obama said, “this new technology raises profound questions – about who is targeted, and why; about civilian casualties, and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under U.S. and international law; about accountability and morality.”

And what answers does he have to these “profound” questions? First, he asserts that the program has been indisputably “effective.” Evidence for this is limited to a couple words gleaned from UBL’s compound and classified information. “Don’t take my word for it,” the President says, before only moments later requiring we do just that,  “Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.” But what about the lives they take?

After all, the President admits that the civilian casualties, of which there have been thousands, will haunt him and his staff forever. And though he acknowledges this is cold comfort to those already killed accidentally in strikes, and their friends and families, the American people should, he seems to believe, be reassured when he falsely claims that “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.”

That is, of course, a lie, remarkable only for how brazenly the President it asserts as anything but. Any analysis based on prior lethal strikes would allow the administration to approximately predict just what the likelihood would be of civilian casualties. And most drone critics have never even asserted that the “highest” standard the President lies about applying should in fact be used. Rather many of them have maintained that the value of the target, and the threat he or she poses, must be proportional to the potential for innocent men, women, and children to be killed as well.

But the President claims that his drone policy for the last four years has been proportional, and also one of self-defense and last resort, and therefore just. Make no mistake–the President maintains that his policy of lethal drone strikes is just! He has done his own calculus, using information which only he is privy to, and arrived at the following conclusion,

“I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties – not just in our cities at home and facilities abroad, but also in the very places –like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu – where terrorists seek a foothold. Let us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.”

This is both insulting and incredibly offensive to anyone who takes these issues seriously and to anyone who takes the tragic loss of life as seriously as the President himself claims to. The shoddy logic of false dichotomies and frail strawmen is not befitting of an enlightened democracy, the elected official who speaks to them, or the office he holds.

By the President’s own admission, the focus of the national security apparatus should be on those individuals aimed at committing terrorist acts in America, and perhaps its allies (he remains vague on which geographically located plots we have a commitment to actively seek out and prevent). So it is far from clear that the terrorists we blow up are the same ones that would have tried to blow up the people we accidentally blew up already. That is part of Obama’s defense though.

The rest of his argument is that doing nothing is not an option, even if its the only option besides doing what he’s currently doing. This is the thoughtful scholar that those at the New Yorker and elsewhere praise for being more nuanced and cerebral than his predecessor. If we are to take his speech seriously, we must come to the conclusion that Obama’s moral imagination is no more complex than the binary choices explored in video games and comic books. No evidence presented before or after that paragraph does anything to try and substantiate the President’s argument that his path is the best path; the only path.

Which should reinforce an even more important point: little in the President’s speech outlined why the path going forward will be any different from the one he already followed in the previous four years. He spent 7,000 words defending his policies and reworking the rhetoric surrounding them because they will be more or less the same ones he abides by in his second term.

The President paid lip service to the allure of drone warfare and its potential for abuse, reminding us that a President could be tempted to see it as a cure-all, just before he then reminds us that THIS President will not. The President claims that “For this reason, I’ve insisted on strong oversight of all lethal action.” Another clear lie. Unless the President has a dramatically different understanding of what effective oversight means. Which might be the case given how easily these oversight sessions have been analogized to playing with baseball trading cards.

So the President has always insisted on strong oversight, always utilized lethal strikes as a last resort and only when absolutely necessary, and there have never, ever been any mistakes. This will also be the policy going forward, according to the President, as he seeks to codify these rules and procedures in case anyone didn’t believe him, and/or the next administration is not as enlightened as this one (because rules instituted during one presidency can’t be undone by another, except when they inevitably are).

In addition, as the Christian Science Monitor reported just after the President’s speech,

“But, Obama added, this new policy ‘codified’ rules that the White House has developed over four years. He didn’t say ‘changed’ in this context. The guidance itself is classified, so the public does not know exactly what it says. And other sections of the president’s speech that referred to drones were so carefully worded as to be ‘opaque,’ according to one expert.”

Let’s turn for a moment to observe the President’s equally tortured logic on the issue of due process,

“a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America – and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens; and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot – his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team.”

The only way the President’s analogy works here is if Anwar Awlaki was shooting innocent people in a crowd, and he were killed by a SWAT team sent to detain him. Of course, that wasn’t the case. In such circumstances he would not have been killed by a lethal drone strike as he actually was because innocent people in the crowd probably would have been injured as well.

And if Anwar Awlaki were killed in the U.S., by a SWAT team, in any set of circumstances in which he wasn’t holding a gun and pointing it at someone, there would have been a full investigation, there would have been judicial review–so really I don’t know what the President is trying to say here.

Just like I have no idea what he means when he says the “high threshold that we have set for taking lethal action applies to all potential terrorist targets,” and that this high “threshold respects the inherent dignity of every human life.” What does it mean to have the utmost respect for the dignity of human life when you accidentally kill thousands of men, women, and children, as well as three other American citizens?

Finally, there’s the issue of where the extremism that renders so many people’s lives, in practice at least, undeserving of basic dignity and the rule of law, comes from. According to the President, the ideology that fuels terrorism doesn’t “arise in a vacuum.” Rather there is,

“a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West, and that violence against Western targets, including civilians, is justified in pursuit of a larger cause. Of course, this ideology is based on a lie, for the United States is not at war with Islam; and this ideology is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, who are the most frequent victims of terrorist acts. Nevertheless, this ideology persists.”

Toward the end of the President’s speech though he contradicts this explanation, explaining that part of the counterterrorism strategy must include “addressing underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism.”

“This means patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya – because the peaceful realization of individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremists. We must strengthen the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist elements – because the end of a tyrant must not give way to the tyranny of terrorism. We are working to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians – because it is right, and because such a peace could help reshape attitudes in the region. And we must help countries modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship – because American leadership has always been elevated by our ability to connect with peoples’ hopes, and not simply their fears.”

Unfortunately, the President didn’t offer an explanation for why other countries ruled by U.S. backed dictatorships shouldn’t also be included in that list of places where we must support the transition to democracy. And certainly it has been a matter of U.S. policy for some time now to assist countries in becoming better educated and more economically prosperous. Hasn’t the Obama administration been doing this all along?

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10 thoughts on “The President Head Fakes on Lethal Drone Strikes and the War on Terror

  1. At one point in this exaggeratedly polemical post, the author seems to suggest that the President is some kind of moral simpleton for not considering some alternative policy:

    The rest of his argument is that doing nothing is not an option, even if its the only option besides doing what he’s currently doing. This is the thoughtful scholar that those at the New Yorker and elsewhere praise for being more nuanced and cerebral than his predecessor. If we are to take his speech seriously, we must come to the conclusion that Obama’s moral imagination is no more complex than the binary choices explored in video games and comic books. No evidence presented before or after that paragraph does anything to try and substantiate the President’s argument that his path is the best path; the only path.

    It’s not clear to me why it matters what someone at the New Yorker or elsewhere may have said about the President personally. I would be more interested in even a few words explaining what an alternative “path” might be, so that we could compare it to what the President is embracing, a policy that has been taken by others, and I think justifiably, as a further winding down of the post-9/11 state of war, including enhanced constraint on the actual exercise of executive discretion. “More morally imaginative” doesn’t strike me as much to go on, especially when some critics are quite clear about their preference for “doing nothing” or “doing nothing and rolling back, too.”

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    • Well, one obvious set of alternatives to drone strikes would come from asking what prior administrations would’ve done, since our current use of drones comes from the historical accident of drone development. In their absence, we’d have to build good intelligence networks and be trustworthy partners the governments that are dealing directly with the terrorist threat from inside their own territories. The situation would be analogous to the way we used to help anti-communist government forces around the globe, sometimes even getting us involved in proxy wars against communist insurgents.

      One of the complaints about the current policy is that although we blow up a few terrorists who want to target the US directly, we’re not really making progress at helping moderate governments resist the pressures of radical Islam, and in many cases the greater problem is getting worse as we bungle transition after transition, sometimes for shameless partisan advantage, as we did in Libya when we threw its new president under the bus and ran away.

      We were handling major power transitions much better under Reagan and Bush during the Cold War and its aftermath, both helping reformists in Eastern Europe and encouraging right-wing dictators who’d been on our side to take early retirement. To do all this we had to be very actively engaged with other countries, working to keep pressure on violent revolutionaries, insurgents, and terrorists, while trying to isolate countries where we failed. In some cases losing a government to communist dictatorship probably made us safer against terrorist strikes because we could then hold the government accountable (you blow up our disco, we blow up your family, oh great leader).

      The drone strikes make it to easy for our policy to remain in a nebulous limbo, where we can get by without either supporting or opposing the governments and social forces producing terrorism and just treat terrorists as a bunch of crazy, interconnected lone-wolves, managing the threat as if it was a bunch of problem grizzly bears in Yellowstone that occasionally need to be relocated or put down. That kind of policy never has an ending because it doesn’t require changing our behavior or that of the bears.

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      • Exactly. As Obama and everyone on the left point out, torturing terrorists disfigures who we are as a people, yet we need the intelligence, which is something we don’t get from a drone strike. But we use the drone strikes for terrorists who are in an area where it’s dangerous to send troops to capture them. So obviously, we should use robots to gather the intelligence on terrorist whereabouts, then use more robots to capture the terrorists (no more drones blowing up in cafes), and then use other robots to do the torturing. Our hands stay clean.

        So with a combination of Imperial probe droids, Trade Federation battle droids, and Imperial interrogation droids that make cool “whoop whoop” sounds as they hover, needle-ready, between the prisoners’ holding cells, we can regain the moral high-ground without sacrificing effectiveness or efficiency.

        That, or maybe something else.

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    • CK, I’m curios what in your eyes makes the above a polemic.

      Also, “including enhanced constraint on the actual exercise of executive discretion.”
      Could you elaborate on that?

      As to alternate courses of action…action is something I view as a continuum. As such, potential courses of action include drone strikes only for targets of a certain value, no signature strikes, strikes executed in accordance with some international or IN construct. It could also include any level of only manned missions to apprehend in conjunction wit.h local authorities, as well as some degree of only the Presidents soft power agenda

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      • Well, you addressed your audience like you were standing on stage talking into a mic, mounted on a pole – a polemic. Not to be confused with a boom mic, which is where you’re acting like you’re having a normal conversation and a sound guy is holding a boom mic over your head. (You will now see the incorrect definition and pronunciation of “polemic” for the rest of your life.)

        Anyway, it was a well written piece about a speech that’s come in for all kinds of deserved abuse. Among the shorter take downs I’ve read in news outlets, one summed up the whole speech as “We must stop me before I kill again,” and another was “We must place new limits on Presidential power – just as soon as I leave office.” Others, like yours, were far more detailed and focused.

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      • What makes the post in my view not merely polemical but excessively polemical is typified in the lines I quoted by the personalized denunciation of the President, a motif throughout the piece – as though even considering the President’s position on its own terms would be somehow unworthy of us. The trademark of the polemic or the excessive polemic is the determination to put the opponent and the opponent’s argument in the worst possible light, in the interest of destroying both together, rather than in the best possible light, in the interest of a fuller understanding.

        Politics without polemics is probably impossible: We can’t argue against someone else’s position without implying some failing on the part of those who adopt it, but a civilized conversation or honest dialogue begins with assuming that either of us or both of us could be wrong, both wrong in different ways, wrong next time if not this time, and perhaps most of all that either side’s logic might prove superior, and, if so, that those on the other side would be compelled by force of reason alone to yield to it. The tactics of diminution of the opponent and the opponent’s argument through prejudicial summary, ridicule, ad hominem, insistent reliance on claims maximally unfavorable to the opponent’s position that the opponent has directly contested, and so on, all make that civil conversation less likely, in part by raising the cost even of considering it.

        The alternatives you describe are all alternatives that I believe the President himself has offered to explore. Predictably, the mere offer has been taken by rightwing critics as a declaration of surrender. Was just talking with one such critic yesterday. It may turn out that an honest investigation of those alternatives or potential alternatives will discover the same problems, conceptual and political, that the President has encountered. For instance, “no signature strikes” might sound like a good idea, but every strike against an enemy that seeks to hide is finally a signature strike, a strike based on a best guess as to the identity of the target. The hit on Bin Laden was clearly a signature strike under any useful definition of the term. To expect the President or anyone who approved of the Bin Laden attack to forswear all signature strikes as morally reprehensible is therefore at a minimum unrealistic.

        That would be a conceptual problem that also bleeds into a political problem. The biggest political problem (that also happens to relate to conceptual problems) facing both the President as well as his critics from the anti-drone, anti-militarization libertarian-left coalition may be that residual popular support for a militarized and therefore inherently executive-discretionary approach to so-called terrorism may still be very high, and may be much higher the morning after any successful terrorist attack. Democracy is not a suicide pact, and it’s especially not a mass political suicide pact.

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  2. Ethan, an excellent post. Polemical to be sure, but the polemic is just a tool, appropriate for some uses and not others. It’s appropriate here. CK asks us to work toward fuller understanding, but that’s a mutual task, and one that cannot be engaged in with those who actively lie, whose purpose is to actively obscure the truth. Would we seek a fuller understanding with the authors of Mein Kampf or The Turner Diaries? No, the only way to deal with them is to expose the lies on which they are built. While President Obama is no Hitler, no Pierce, his claims are no less built on lies, however democratically popular those lies are.

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