Much of the fallout surrounding Republican Senator Rand Paul’s attempt to raise awareness on President Obama’s drone program falls into two camps. One discussion, mostly amongst classical liberals and conservatives, is about the responses from Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain and the Wall Street Journal and raises questions about fissures within the Republican Party. The other, largely amongst progressives, focuses on the lack of support Paul received from Democrats and criticizes them for refusing to question the Obama administration. However, both of these responses miss what the backlash against domestic drones says about American political culture.
Recently The Washington Post published a blog about a recent Pew Center poll that found 56% of Americans answering "Yes" to the question: do you support "the United States conducting missile strikes from pilotless aircraft called drones to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia?" 68% of Republicans approved, as did 58% of Democrats and 51% of independents. Will public support of the President’s foreign policy shore up support for the President’s domestic policies? The answer is "no" and the reason for this lies in the concept of American exceptionalism.
American exceptionalism is the presumption that America’s values and political system are unique in the world and therefore should be universally praised and admired. As such, the U.S. is entitled to spread its unique qualities as if they’re gifts. The flip-side of this is that the unique qualities of those outside the U.S. are erased, leading to difficulty in empathizing with those who resist the gifts. Given exceptionalism's self-ordained mission to spread its values, international law often risks being sidelined. The clearest and most recent example of American exceptionalism manifesting itself in this way is, of course, the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq and the subsequent confusion when the invaders were greeted with IEDs instead of flowers.
So what does American exceptionalism have to do with reactions to the drone program? To start, the public outcry surrounding the program stems mostly from the recently leaked Department of Justice "white paper," which lays out the legal grounds upon which the U.S. can use lethal force against a U.S. citizen in a foreign country outside the area of active hostilities. Paul’s stance against drones asks a different but equally limited question: does the President have the authority to use a drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil? Questions about the killing of non-citizens and the international implications of a policy of targeted assassinations have largely been ignored.
Despite the weakness of his question, Senator Paul should be commended for at least taking issue with the drone program. What’s troubling, though, is his satisfaction at Attorney General Eric Holder’s simple "no" response. In line with the chauvinism embedded in the backlash to the DOJ "white paper," the implication of Paul’s question and his satisfaction is that the lives of non-U.S. citizen civilians living in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia register less than the lives of Americans.
As the Pew poll shows, the majority of the American public agrees with this notion. This is not to say that civilian lives do not register with the public. In fact, 53% of people polled said they are "very concerned" with endangering the lives of civilians. Of those who approve of the program, 42% say they are very concerned about civilian casualties. Their concern can be assuaged by the fact that the U.S. publicly states that drone strikes result in no more than single digit civilian deaths, but independent sources claim that of the 2,500-4,000 killed by American UAVs, hundreds, perhaps over a thousand, have been civilians. The discrepancy comes from the Obama administration’s method of counting casualties, which describes "all military aged males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent." It’s unclear what figures, if any, the people being polled were presented.
On the other hand, a scant 26% worry drone strikes could damage America’s reputation around the world. This is particularly troubling simply because it does damage America’s reputation abroad. On top of that, Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killing, summary, or arbitrary executions, said the drone program has the potential to disrupt 50 years of international law and may constitute war crimes. Considering the initial overwhelming public and political support for the illegal invasion of Iraq, this support for policies that amount to disdain for international law and human rights is nothing new.
That being the case, bipartisan public support for the President’s foreign policy says little about support for his domestic policy. Instead, it is indicative of ways the myth of American exceptionalism and its subsequent fetishization of citizenship limits public consciousness in ways no one presently in government seems willing to contest.