Obama Supporters Know His Drone War Is Indefensible

But the seductiveness of a leader using violence to slay the nation's enemies causes them to celebrate it anyway.

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Among President Obama's defenders, there is a certain schizophrenia about his drone campaign. On one hand, it makes them uncomfortable, what with all the dead children. On the other hand, they want to credit Obama with waging war on Al Qaeda much better than his predecessor. Mark my words: His kill stats are going to be part of his impending reelection campaign. But deep down, even Obama's staunchest supporters know his policy is indefensible.

Take Andrew Sullivan.

Over at The Dish, he directs our attention to this quote:

The news that Abu Yahya al-Libi, the No. 2 leader of al Qaeda, is now confirmed to have been killed in a CIA drone strike in Pakistan's tribal region along the border with Afghanistan further underlines that the terrorist group that launched the 9/11 attacks is now more or less out of business. -- Peter Bergen.

Sullivan appends this commentary:

What Bush failed to do in eight years, Obama has accomplished in three. He did it without torture. And he accomplished exactly what he said he'd accomplish. Think back for a few minutes to a decade ago. Imagine George W. Bush achieving what Bergen has now noted. Would a re-election even be in doubt? Or would he already be on Rushmore?

That's pretty straightforward. Obama's kill stats make him better than Bush, he's fulfilled his campaign promises, and he deserves reelection on that basis. But let's look at those claims a bit more closely. For starters, Sullivan fails to note the very next paragraphs in Bergen's essay, which says this: "Under President Barack Obama, CIA drone strikes have killed 15 of the most important players in al Qaeda, according to a count maintained by the New America Foundation (a nonpartisan think tank where I am a director). Similarly, President George W. Bush also authorized drone strikes that killed 16 important al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan while he was in office." So apparently Bush would not be on Mount Rushmore if he achieved what Bergen noted.

A bigger problem, though far from the biggest, is the notion that Obama has "accomplished exactly what he said he'd accomplish" while waging the war on terrorism. He has, it's true, killed Osama bin Laden, along with other people ranging from Al Qaeda operatives to innocent children. He also ended the war in Iraq on President Bush's timetable and surged troops into Afghanistan. And he signed an executive order barring torture, the most depraved practice of his predecessor.

But Obama hasn't eliminated Al Qaeda -- how many more number twos will die in the next year? -- and his foreign policy as a whole has strayed dramatically from what he promised. That is obvious. And you don't need to take my word for it. As Sullivan himself once noted, "those of us who fought for Obama's election precisely because we wanted a return to the rule of law were conned." And "the perverse truth is that, in some ways, the Obama administration is in greater violation of Geneva than even the Bush-Cheney administration." This is worth noting too:

Aggressively trying to prevent torture victims from having their day in court merely using unclassified evidence is active complicity in the war crimes of the past. And such complicity is itself a war crime. Either we live under the rule of law and the Geneva Conventions, or we don't. And when Obama says we don't -- as he unmistakably is -- the precedent he is setting all but ensures that torture will come again, that there will never be consequences for it, and that the national security state can cloak itself in such a way that the citizenry has no way of penetrating its power. Bush and Cheney remain the real culprits here; but watching Obama essentially surrendering to their trap is a betrayal of a core rationale for his candidacy.

Sullivan also said this about a different promise Obama broke:

Many of us supported this president because he promised to bring back the constitutional balance after the theories of Yoo, Delahunty, et al put the president on a par with emperors and kings in wartime. And yet in this Libya move, what difference is there between Bush and Obama? In some ways, Bush was more respectful of the Congress, waiting for a vote of support before launching us like an angry bird into the desert.

Despite all these misgivings, it's the drone aided kill-stats to which Sullivan always comes back, as if our president's cool competence has allowed him to end the terrorist threat by remote controlled aircraft. But it really doesn't make sense to extol Obama every time a drone kills an Al Qaeda operative. There's no shortage of politicians who, if elected president, will give the CIA permission to fire on suspected terrorists in various foreign countries. Herman Cain would give that order. So would Rick Perry. Sarah Palin might even let drone operators practice on wolves. Would they be serving America's best interests in doing so? I don't think so. Neither does Jane Mayer. Nor Jeremy Scahill. Nor various anonymous officials quoted in The New York Times, who think we're creating more terrorists than we're killing. You'd think, reading the excerpt above, that Sullivan disagrees, and thinks Obama's kills have made us safer. Why else extol him for accomplishing what Bush didn't? The implication is that the cost of his drone strikes have been worthwhile.

But on reflection, Sullivan knows better than to presume that.

In fact, what I find most confounding is that Sullivan praises Obama for his drone kills, even though he himself has grave doubts about the strategy. Sullivan thinks that Obama's drone war in Yemen is illegal and dangerous. He's at least uncomfortable with our strikes in Pakistan too. As he put it:
The drone attacks into Pakistan are mighty close to warfare, it seems to me. There comes a point, in other words, at which a military kinetic action becomes a war. Drones are particularly dangerous instruments in this respect. They allow a president to pick war at will, and placate the public with no military casualties. This is precisely what the Founders were scared of. We have created a King with an automated army, and no Congressional or public check outside of elections, when the damage may have already been done.

Maybe the line between targeted anti-terror strikes and de facto, ongoing warfare is hard to define. Sometimes, the executive may need to act urgently and unilaterally to counter an imminent military threat. But we are so far away from that now it's almost irrelevant. I guess ongoing, routine military attacks constitute war in my book. 
A bit later in the same post (emphasis added):
I do think the military/CIA distinction matters. One thing I've learned this past decade is that the CIA is pretty much its own judge, jury and executioner. It is much less accountable to the public, more likely to break the laws of war and destroy the evidence, more likely to do things that could escalate rather than ameliorate a conflict. To read that the CIA has been given a green light to do what it wants to do in Yemen with drones seems to me easily over the trip-wire for war that requires Congressional buy-in.

Technology has made this more problematic. If the CIA, based on its own intelligence, can launch a war or wars with weapons that can incur no US fatalities, the propensity to be permanently at war, permanently making America enemies, permanently requiring more wars to put out the flames previous wars started, then the Founders' vision is essentially over. I think it's a duty to make sure their vision survives this twenty-first century test.

So what to make of all this?

I'd say it's evidence of humanity's unfortunate ability to be seduced by leaders exercising violence, even when we think that violence is immoral, illegal, and imprudent. Sullivan is, after all, celebrating Obama's drone kills and suggesting that they're part of why he deserves reelection. And yet, in more considered moments, he asserts that the drone campaign (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.

Posts like the one Sullivan wrote, associating Obama's kill stats with his reelection and place on Mount Rushmore, are exactly the sort of thing that gives Obama a political incentive to continue the drone policy Sullivan thinks is illegal, imprudent, and a threat to the American way. I should note admiringly that almost every anti-drone argument has been linked previously on The Daily Dish.
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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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