The Fake Catch-22 of Drone-War Apologists

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


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.

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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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