War by Drone

Conor Friedersdorf's attack on the Obama Administration's drone campaign makes strong points. The Stanford/NYU study he reviewed previously, Living Under Drones, should be widely read. Friedersdorf thinks the policy is outrageous and indefensible.

Obama terrorizes innocent Pakistanis on an almost daily basis. The drone war he is waging in North Waziristan isn't "precise" or "surgical" as he would have Americans believe. It kills hundreds of innocents, including children. And for thousands of more innocents who live in the targeted communities, the drone war makes their lives into a nightmare worthy of dystopian novels. People are always afraid. Women cower in their homes. Children are kept out of school. The stress they endure gives them psychiatric disorders. Men are driven crazy by an inability to sleep as drones buzz overhead 24 hours a day, a deadly strike possible at any moment. At worst, this policy creates more terrorists than it kills; at best, America is ruining the lives of thousands of innocent people and killing hundreds of innocents for a small increase in safety from terrorists.

I can't get to Friedersdorf's level of certainty that the policy is evil, but he's pulled me in his direction.

How to think this through? If drone attacks are counterproductive from a security point of view -- because they kill the wrong people and stir up hostility to the United States -- then we needn't spend much time asking whether they're legal or moral. If they don't work, no dilemma arises. But do they? I don't know and the truth is, neither does Friedersdorf. At best, he says, the increase in safety is small. That might be true but how are we supposed to know? The dangers of blowback are clear, but with little or no public information about the targets, outsiders can't judge whether the campaign is making Americans safer.

The question of legality is complicated because there are so many variables: context (is this an "armed conflict" in the legal sense?); the decision-making process (how were the targets chosen?); necessity (were there alternatives?); proportionality; and so on. Legality matters but it shouldn't be the main concern. Lawyers can't tell us what's just or right. If I thought the drone war was immoral and legal, I'd say let's not do it. If I thought it was moral and illegal, I'd say let's change the law.

In principle (I don't know if Friedersdorf would agree) the drone attacks could be moral, but the net security gains have to be very impressive. If the targeting is as poor as Friedersdorf thinks and the execution as imprecise, then it's hard to see how the policy could be justified. If "signature targeting" as described in the Stanford/NYU report is really going on -- that is, not attacking known terrorists but striking on the basis of "behavior patterns" observed from high altitude -- I'd need a lot of persuading that this wasn't recklessness to an immoral degree (as well as being most likely illegal, by the way).

Needing to be persuaded is really the point. This is a morally questionable policy at the very least, and the burden of justifying it lies with the administration. The White House should be asked hard questions and forced to be a lot more forthcoming with the facts. Friedersdorf is right about that and there really shouldn't be any debate about it.

But the administration proceeds as though the policy requires no justification. Instead of justifying it, the White House calmly boasts about it. Republicans won't hold the administration accountable on this (needless deaths in Waziristan aren't high on their agenda) and, as Friedersdorf says, Democrats won't do it either.

I don't see many Obama supporters feeling as reluctant as the circumstances warrant.

The whole liberal conceit that Obama is a good, enlightened man, while his opponent is a malign, hard-hearted cretin, depends on constructing a reality where the lives of non-Americans -- along with the lives of some American Muslims and whistleblowers -- just aren't valued. Alternatively, the less savory parts of Obama's tenure can just be repeatedly disappeared from the narrative of his first term, as so many left-leaning journalists, uncomfortable confronting the depths of the man's transgressions, have done over and over again.

Well, Democrats have an election to win, and they're just loving the idea that Obama, the progressive constitutional lawyer, healer of global wounds, turned out to be a tough guy after all.

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