In his stand-up routine at the 2010 White House Correspondent’s Dinner, President Obama made the last presidential joke we are likely ever to hear about drones. "The Jonas Brothers are here. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But, boys, don't get any ideas. I have two words for you — predator drones. You will never see it coming."
Perhaps he could say the same about the controversy they’ve brought him.
Quite a few members of Washington’s policy elite are surprised by the backlash that these things have brought. To the traditionally jingoistic eye of the U.S. media, drones themselves could not possibly be controversial. Far from being a turning point in warfare, drones are merely new manifestations of the longstanding promise of unquestioned American military supremacy that the electorate is instructed to demand.
Advocates of peace are right to protest the accelerating frequency of the Obama administration’s use of drones. They are murderers of innocents and a blemish on the United States’ foreign policy. We should also recognize that on both of those counts they are in plentiful company. In fact, drones are no departure at all from the militarism that this country has always boasted.
The U.S. government is already killing people they deem — on sparse evidence — to be terrorists in many countries, but they’re operating in virgin legal territory. The white paper obtained by NBC News last Tuesday may one day describe illegal government action if a law is passed that directly addresses drone use. The paper is not a binding assertion of right, but rather, a summary of the legal parameters within which to defend the killing of Americans considered terrorists or terrorist "associates."
The definition is admittedly vague, but consider the issue without the drone factor. Imagine a land war in which American troops were ambushed. Imagine that our troops engaged them, defeated them, and found that among the enemy dead was an American citizen. Would there be any doubt that our soldiers, and by extension the government, had a right — a duty, even — to kill him? Would the untried execution of the ex-American citizen be the military’s failure to differentiate, or would it be immediately and ruthlessly ascribed to justice delivered to a turncoat? We all know the answer.
This scenario instructs us how uneasy the Obama administration must feel about using drones in the way that they have. If an American traitor were killed in combat, the public reaction would likely be closer to jubilation than introspection. The last thing on anyone’s mind would be demanding a legal defense from the administration for having committed an untried execution. We accept that killing an American who is seeking to kill us is just — unless the situation is ethically murkier than that.
There are two fundamental distinctions that together separate that scenario from the death of Anwar al-Awlaki (thus far the only American target, though not victim, of a drone strike) and his two American associates. One is a valid objection, and one I will present as more hidden and invalid: the factors of imminence and military overstep.
"The United States retains its authority to use force against Al-Qaeda and associated forces outside the area of active hostilities when it targets a senior operational leader of the enemy forces who is actively engaged in planning operations to kill Americans," claims the Justice Department’s memo. However, "the condition that an operational leader present an 'imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack…will take place in the immediate future." It doesn’t really require clear evidence of anything.
Therein lies the valid criticism of this policy. If a law were written requiring a burden of proof comparable to what the domestic justice system must provide, the only part of the memo that would be left is the discussion of foreign-state sovereignty. A law would effectively end the concern: it would be illegal for the government to kill anyone, let alone an American civilian, without proof that they were planning an imminent attack. If there was concern without proof of imminence or guilt, then they would have to apprehend the citizen some other way.
The administration, of course, claims that they do just that, and only resort to lethal force in exigent circumstances. The Atlantic reported that the government indeed has a high threshold for using lethal force by analyzing a number of terrorist cases. If that is the case, which makes sense, then President Obama should confront this white paper leak by proposing to legally codify the high rigor of his existing standard. The explanation provided in the paper — which, again, is not an indication of administration intent, but an exploration of the legal space — is certainly inadequate.
For the drone program to recover its moral credibility, it is crucial that this standard be required for all targets of drone violence, not just American citizens. The death of al-Awlaki and his cohorts is abhorrent in the context of the dozens of civilian deaths also caused by drones and the suppression of data about such civilians, either by labeling them "military combatants" or by plainly lying about their existence.
Even if a law required evidence or imminence to justify a lethal strike, there would still be public discomfort over the dangerously futuristic nature of the machines themselves. Read around the blogosphere on this topic, and you’ll find that a lot of the objection to the drone program has not to do with legality, but of the fact that our government uses flying killer robots. To me this is silly.
Everything that is a drone has existed for a long time. Remote-controlled surveillance machinery has existed for decades, and aircraft have carried weapons for even longer. A drone is those two things combined. Human judgment still controls them, for better or worse. What, then, is the objection?
Set aside for a moment the fear that they could be used against us; combat aircraft have been around for almost a century, and the closest most of us will ever come to them is an air show. Let’s return to the example of the ambushed American troops. A significant justification for killing the American enemy would be self-defense. Drones eliminate the immediacy of self-defense, since a soldier’s life is not put on the line to complete the operation. For "drone theory" to work, the obligation of self-defense must be accepted on a higher level.
Drones are nothing new technologically, but they are part of an even longer tradition of imposing the American military onto far-outmatched opponents. After raining Agent Orange onto innocent villagers in Vietnam and launching cruise missiles into Iraq, what is new about the ability to fire Hellfire missiles with no threat of taking casualties? The drone program thus far has not had a "Monica’s Missiles" moment, one of the most abject abuses of American power in our history. "Shock and Awe," delivered so enthusiastically at the time, generated many times the carnage of the drone program, to say nothing of Bush’s criminal invasion of Iraq itself. To say nothing of Grenada. To say nothing of the atomic bombs — rationale aside.
President Obama is not yet a war criminal. Those who view last week’s white paper leak as proof that he is misunderstand it: if anything, it shows that the drone strikes of the past few years exist in a netherworld not yet touched by the law. To be legitimate and just, legally-enforceable constraints must be placed on when drone strikes are permissible, and a standard onto the reportage of casualties.
Despite the relative newness of these death machines, do not be deluded into thinking this is anything new. President Obama took over an incoherent and global war on "terror" with only missteps preceding him. It bears mentioning precisely once that we have had no significant terrorist attacks on our soil during his term.
Moreover, Obama’s done much to relieve this country of our decade-long military burden. But he also leads a nation that is, to some unavoidable degree, bloodthirsty, or at least complacent with the blood of others. It’s not a matter of immorality, but an unerring narcissism and insecurity in the American ethos that demands that we remain able to impose our will upon any part of the world at any time at very little cost. This nationalism is the virtue under which the administration has internally justified the death of anyone who would cause us to feel that cost. It’s the oldest justification we have, and the machines we use to do it are necessarily fierce enough to accomplish it.