What Bush's Iraq War and Obama's Drone Strikes Have in Common

An opportunity to kill bad guys can blind presidents and their supporters to the costs and unintended consequences of their actions.

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While debating America's drone strikes, the Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan has been sketching his notion of the responsibilities presidents have to the United States. Opposition to the CIA's drone war "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," he writes. "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?"

In a subsequent post, he again invokes presidential responsibility, citing the raid that killed bin Laden. By Glenn Greenwald's logic, he argues, "bin Laden should still be sitting in his room, planning new assassinations and terror attacks. Does he think it's even halfway credible for any American president to have contented himself with that? Or is he not living on the same planet I am?"

This is flawed reasoning. It presumes that particular, aggressive military actions are prudent because to do nothing would leave a threat unaddressed. But actions have costs and benefits that must be compared. Do the drone strikes make us better off, despite the terrorists they create? Did the Bin Laden raid make us safer, despite contributing to the destabilization of Pakistan? Andrew Sullivan isn't grappling with these questions. He's presuming that the benefits outweigh the costs without a careful comparison. He's writing as if the president has a responsibility to act regardless of the answer.       

The United States generally, and Sullivan himself, have fallen prey to this kind of thinking before. As he wrote in 2008, grappling with what errors of analysis led him to support the Iraq War:

The deciding factor for me in the end was that I could never be ashamed of removing someone as evil as Saddam from power. I became enamored of my own morality and the righteousness of this single moral act. And he was a monster, as we discovered. But what I failed to grasp is that war is also a monster, and unless one weighs all the possibly evil consequences of an abstractly moral act, one hasn't really engaged in a truly serious moral argument.
I saw war's unknowable consequences far too glibly.

Four years later, Sullivan isn't weighing all the possibly evil consequences of the Obama administration actions he is defending, nor is he properly weighting the "unknowable consequences" of ongoing bombing campaigns in multiple foreign countries. This is evident because in place of arguments comparing costs and benefits, he is invoking the specter of another September 11, much like Rudy Giuliani did during the debate over Iraq, as if it militates for but never against aggressive action; and he is asserting that Obama has a responsibility to act as if that settles it. 

These are forms of thinking I remember well from 2003. Saddam Hussein is a bad man. He sponsored terrorist attacks on Israel. He used WMDs against his own people. He'd love nothing more than to harm America, and is likely stockpiling weapons. A president would be irresponsible, given all that information, to just let him sit in his palaces planning future mayhem. If you accept the president's responsibility to protect America what else would you have him do but act? To do otherwise kind of assumes 9/11 didn't happen or couldn't happen again.

Iraq, Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs. Throughout recent American history, such blunders began in part with arguments about how the president had a responsibility to do something. Even today, as experts in Israel and the United States insist that striking Iran's nuclear facilities would ultimately make the country more, not less likely to develop and deploy nuclear weapons, there are voices insisting that President Obama has a responsibility to order an attack on the country.

Sullivan understands the folly of a strike on Iran. How he can simultaneously write as if a presidential responsibility to act is sufficient to justify our present drone program I cannot understand. Nor do I see why he assumes that the bin Laden raid was worth the destabilizing effect it had on Pakistan, a matter on which I am agnostic, because as yet there's no way to know the answer.

Because Sullivan exposes himself to counterarguments, there are caveats built into the drone policy that he so often ends up defending. "Of course, we need to be incredibly careful to limit civilian casualties even further," he writes. "Counting every military-age man in the vicinity of a Jihadist as a terrorist is a total cop-out. We should see the real casualty numbers and adjust accordingly. But we also have to stop the Jihadist threat. It is real. And a president does not have the luxury of pretending it isn't."

But foregoing an aggressive act that does more harm than good is not the same as pretending that the jihadist threat doesn't exist. Core to Sullivan's mistake is his implicit conflation of those things. It's also frustrating that he grants that the present number of civilian casualties is too high, and that it's illegitimate to count all military age men in the vicinity of a drone strike as jihadists, yet defends the drone strikes anyway. His position isn't that they would be legitimate if they were reformed, and that he'll support them if that happens. He favors the policy now, despite those flaws. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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