The Fake Catch-22 of Drone-War Apologists

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They express discomfort at the indefensible, then talk as if it can't be reformed without giving up on targeted killing entirely.

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There's a Columbia University grad who runs a Tumblr I follow called "The Political Breakdown." I can't remember why I started reading it, but I am glad I did. I am glad because of the post, "Breakdown: The Truth about Drone Strikes." What I love about it is how perfectly it captures the mindset of apologists for President Obama's drone war. The approach the blog takes is to summarize all the facts about a controversy. The summary on drones is pretty good. The anonymous author cites many of the same excellent sources that I rely upon, has a similar understanding of the facts, and reaches a conclusion that leaves me flabbergasted.

Could I take you through it?

While summarizing the facts, the author neutrally states five things that cast America's drone war in a negative light:

  • "Much of what we know is pieces from conjecture, comments, anonymous sources, and a good deal of guessing thrown in."
  • "Though the legality is questionable, it isn't stopping the United States. What's more, there is no congressional oversight to the drone strikes." 
  • "Due to the extreme secretive nature of the drone strikes and the lack of public oversight," we have no idea how many innocent civilians are killed, "and just have to take the government at its word."
  • "The government counts all adult males killed in drone strikes as militants, regardless of evidence to the contrary." It's more accurate to say that they're regarded as militants if they are military-aged males even if there's no other evidence, but keep in mind what the author believes.
  • "There is massive backlash against the drone strikes .... innocent Pakistanis live in constant fear of the buzz of drones. The stories of innocent men, women, and children blown up by a drone strike while going about their daily lives are countless."

The author also says that drone strikes "work," by which he means that al-Qaeda fighters are regularly killed in them. And that those enemy deaths are accomplished without American casualties.

Perfectly reasonable statements.

Now I'll relate the conclusion that the author draws from the facts, and then explain why that conclusion makes me want to drop kick a humanely killed ostrich through a plate-glass window in frustration. 

Here it is (emphasis in the original):

War is hell, and war has no easy answers. I usually try to keep my breakdowns neutral, but allow me to break character and offer my own opinion. I won't tell you whether I believe the drone strikes are justifiable or not, because I don't know. I will say that I find the constant stream of infographics and blog posts demonizing President Obama for the drone strikes annoying and ultimately, useless. Not because they hold the opinion that the drone strikes are wrong -- that is your prerogative, and I haven't made up my mind on this question myself -- but because they are embarrassingly not thought out. If you are to criticize drone strikes, be prepared to accept the sacrifices of the alternative. Have you chosen the deaths of the American soldiers sent in to regions largely outside of government influence? Do you even know if such operations would be less detrimental on civilian lives than the drone strikes? Or do you not believe we should carry out any operation at all. If so, do not be so naive as to believe the drones are bombing nothing at all; it is known that Al Qaeda and equally nasty groups are operating in those areas. Will you be prepared to accept what may happen if they are allowed to grow unchecked? Answer me. Because until you put some substance behind your condemnation of the Obama administration, I really don't want to hear it.

For shame!

The "substance" behind the criticism is, among other things, the fact that the specific drone war Obama is running is utterly lacking in transparency; bereft of adequate Congressional oversight; deadly to an unknown number of people; indefensible in its broad definition of militants; making enemies of countless foreigners; and killing "countless" innocent men, women and children. 

How does one literally acknowledge all those facts and then call the case of drone critics "substanceless"? The scary thing is that I think I actually know the dubious answer.

The author's reasoning seems to go haywire when he proceeds as if the drone debate must end in either (a) continuing the drone war exactly as it is today; or (b) ending drone strikes forever no matter the cost. It isn't true. There are lots of other options. But you wouldn't know it from American public discourse. Andrew Sullivan is always talking about how drones are better than invasions and we can't just let al-Qaeda flourish. Michael Cohen does something similar during this Bloggingheads conversation. It's as if I were to tell them, "the State of California is locking up tons of innocent people for murder," and they were to reply, "Well that is terrible, but it isn't like we can just stop prosecuting murder as a crime in the State of California!" If their notion of my desired outcome were correct, they'd be exactly right to criticize it as substanceless.

But their notions are nonsense.

Credible arguments exist that we'd be better off without any drones at all, but let's set them aside. If you believe all the bad things about the drone war discussed above, and that it would be irresponsible to abandon drone strikes entirely, why, in the name of limbless Pakistani children, don't you withhold support of the present drone war even as you support a reformed effort?

Here are some demands that could be made by people who think that some drone war is necessary:

  • Run drone strikes out of the Department of Defense, not the CIA.
  • Establish robust Congressional oversight.
  • Be transparent about the rules of engagement.
  • Acknowledge innocents killed as an incentive to reduce the number, and compensate their families.

You get the idea. There's dozens of combinations of reforms that would improve significantly on the status quo. If you're the anonymous author of the blog post under discussion, or Andrew Sullivan, or Michael Cohen, what's the cost of opposing the present drone war, full stop, but supporting renewed efforts if certain reforms are made? If your coalition fails, the drone strikes keep happening as they do now. If your coalition succeeds, things improve by your lights. Obama isn't going to say, "Well, if I must stop automatically counting 16-year-old boys as militants, then no more drone strikes." He'll use drones under whatever constraints are successfully forced on him.

Yet this mindless paralysis persists, where people claim they're deeply uncomfortable with parts of the drone program, but then say that they support drone strikes anyway, because what would you do, just let al-Qaeda rebuild? As if the critic is the one who lacks moral seriousness for going so far as to oppose the specific drone program that the apologists agree is actually awful in numerous ways.

They've created for themselves a fake catch-22.

This is a point I've made before: "Say that frequent drone strikes were an imperative. That hypothetical hardly implies that the particular done campaign we are waging is prudent and lawful."

I am hardly alone.

In Dissent, Michael Walzer explains why he is fine with targeted killings in certain cases. "Individuals who plan, or organize, or recruit for, or participate in a terrorist attack are all of them legitimate targets," he writes. "It would be better to capture them and bring them to trial, but that is often not a reasonable option." He feels no contradiction in criticizing the particular drone war that America has been waging, and implicitly calling on Obama to reform it:

Drone warfare could take the form of targeted killing, and it could be justified under tough constraints. But the United States now seems to be using drones in a different way, as the instrument of a more general and less focused warfare. Drones make it possible to get at enemies who hide in countries whose governments are probably unwilling and possibly unable to repress or restrain them. This is a war without a front, where the use of ground troops, even commandos, is difficult, sometimes impossible--so drones have been called "the only game in town."

But we should think very carefully before relaxing the targeting rules and turning drones into a weapon like all the others. Their moral and political advantage is their precision, which depends on using them only against individuals whose critical importance we have established and about whom we have learned a great deal. Using them like an advanced form of artillery or like "smart" bombs isn't morally right or politically wise. This last point can be driven home very simply: imagine a world, which we will soon be living in, where everybody has drones.

The substantive arguments are out there.

And to address the author of The Political Breakdown directly, drone critics disagree among themselves about the particular circumstances in which the technology should be used, but nearly all of us are perfectly ready to accept "the sacrifices" of congressional oversight, transparent protocol, a narrower definition of "militant," and many other morally and prudentially necessary reforms, if only as an improvement. Meanwhile, you think the United States is killing "countless" innocents in an opaque, legally questionable operation ... and you're most outraged at its critics?

You're hardly alone, but that doesn't make it right.

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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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