I REALLY do not want to write about drones. The Administration wants to change the subject, and having scored all the political points they can, most opponents are ready to move on as well. The media needs some big new fight to increase ratings and sell more toilet paper. And the public prefers to hear more about Kay Middleton’s baby bump anyway. So, hey – it’s yesterday’s news.
Except this issue really matters to the future of America, and the frightful display of ignorance by talking heads on all sides of the argument was appalling. And so – sigh – here goes. With this subject, it is easy to get dragged off target. I will try to keep this short and focused on the use of drones to kill those waging war against the US from overseas. Associated subjects will be addressed in later blog entries.
1. America really is at war. By “war,” I mean the sustained use of force to impose one’s will on an external enemy. We have lots of opponents around the world, but only a handful are enemies willing to use force (and the death of Americans) to impose their will. They declared war on us, and they are committed to a long, deadly struggle. They continue to mount lethal operations on Americans whenever they can. If they could cause 10 million American deaths, there is no doubt they would do so. So we are at war, the stakes are high, and the outcome remains in doubt.
2. The ways our enemies are prosecuting their war and the means they are using (attacks on civilians, attacks on embassies, operations in civilian clothes, etc.) are illegal. We call this illegal war “terrorism.” The issue of definitions may seem a small point. It is not. Not only do cheaters have a huge advantage, but their successes make the rule-abiding side begin to doubt its own players, leaders and institutions. The type of illegal war that we call “terrorism” is not just a sneaky way to kill people. It is an attempt to destroy the opponent’s institutions and legitimacy. This is why terrorists must be treated as a security threat, and not a public safety threat (like bank robbers). Counterterrorism is by design of the terrorists more like war than law enforcement. Wanting it to be otherwise will not make it so.
3. With a handful of possible exceptions, the relatively small number of terrorists waging war against us worldwide share some important characteristics. Most claim to some extent a religious motivation. And they have none of the assets of a modern state. This means there is little reward we can offer them for cooperating. And there is little we can hold at risk for either deterrence or retaliation.
4. So we face a dangerous enemy actively trying to kill citizens and harm the nation, who cannot be deterred or bought off. This severely restricts our options.
a. We can seek international cooperation in using intelligence and law enforcement to capture and jail these enemies when possible. Think of our successes in restricting money laundering by Al Qaeda.
b. We and our allies can apply large scale forces to fix and destroy large groups when they emerge. Think Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali
c. We can target and kill strategic, operational, and tactical leaders when we can find them and capture is impractical. That’s what the Targeted Killing/ drone program does.
d. We can do all three as the situation allows.
Well, surprise – this combination of approaches is exactly what we have been doing for twelve years, with significant success. (That’s if you measure success by lack of attacks on US soil. And I do.)
In our current post-Global-War-On-Terror, post-Iraq, post-Gitmo, post-Abugrab, and almost-post-Afghanistan situation, Targeted Killing (matched with much improved intelligence) is about the only tool available . . . and it has been working very well. Even opponents agree that the increase in strikes has produced increased effectiveness and decreased collateral damage at the same time.
So – our self-declared enemies are dying, the cost and military footprint are minimal, and our nation is safer. What’s not to like?
Opposition seems to be generated by six issues.
a) Killing works.
The right wants to point out hypocrisy when candidate Obama railed against Guantanamo and targeted killing by President Bush, only to find such operations useful once in office. Agree. Got it. Move on.
The left wishes for a different world where stern, blue helmeted Bobbies could remove the ne’er-do-wells for a speedy trial. Noted. Not going to happen. Would put the nation at risk. Sorry this success bothers you. Move on.
b) The killing is by “drone.”
This is where I see so much ignorant, annoying, nonsense talk. Look – I have no access to inside, classified information. I am just reading the paper like you. But I really don’t see what difference it makes whether a confirmed, dangerous, self-declared enemy who is trying to kill my children is in turn killed by a sniper, a tank, an artillery piece, a drone or an exploding apple. Is killing from an aircraft with a pilot inside somehow more moral than from a drone whose pilot is 10,000 miles away? This whole discussion is ridiculous.
Beyond that, after 30 years in the military I do have some feel for the realities of geography, physics and bureaucratic infighting. Drones are not magic. They don’t fly around at 50,000 feet over the entire continent of Africa until they sniff the DNA of a wanted person on the wind. What we call the “Drone Program” is most likely part of a large intelligence operation involving many sources and lethal means. I continue to be amazed that people who do not believe employment statistics from the Department of Labor believe stories about drone strikes from a Pakistani newspaper in the tribal territories. If a really bad person is killed by his cousin who took a bribe, and the paper reports it as a drone strike, do we really care about the difference? Drone-schmone . . . just get the job done.
c) The President is directly involved
Well I should hope so. The argument arises primarily from the left who fears it will sully the Transformational Figure who was going to bring peace to the world. And the right wants to drive home again the hypocrisy of a Noble Prizewinner ordering lethal attacks. Right you both are. So what? Using targeted killing is a strategic decision. This is one of the primary ways our President and his staff have decided to wage a low-profile war and keep our deadly enemies at bay. The program must be technically correct, and politically balanced. I’m glad the President sees it as his duty to be engaged. If anything, I would like to see more attacks ordered by the President, and not by some “knowledgeable senior official.” From where? The Department of Justice? The EPA? Certainly not by leaders in the intelligence community. Secret killing in a secret war overseen by the Intelligence Community without the President’s involvement? Been there, done that. No thanks.
d) There are no “checks and balances”
Now here is an area that does need work – but not for the reasons most critics claim. Critics on the left and right seem to want a judge or committee to review the President’s decisions to see if the target really needs killing (as we would say in Texas). As with any military decision, this call rightfully belongs with the President (or perhaps the Secretary of Defense, as part of the National Command Authority). I am quite sure that before a “package” arrives on the President’s desk a huge number of intelligence analysts, supervisors and committees have reviewed it in depth. The correct question for outside examination is not whether the intelligence is right, but whether the decision was made within a legal framework written into law by Congress and confirmed by a judge. This area does require Congressional and Judicial action. Clever reasoning by White House lawyers in a 16 page memo is not enough.
e) The Targeted Killing of a US citizen overseas needs special attention
True -- because of the implications from the extrajudicial killing of a citizen. But clearly, in some cases targeting an American who has joined the enemy in attacking us is warranted. If a citizen defected and piloted an aircraft or ship against the US military, we would not hesitate to shoot the aircraft down or sink the ship. The situation is a little different when that traitor is recruiting or training others to attack us – but not much. Yes we do need new laws from Congress, and expedited reviews from the Judiciary, not just an interpretation by White House lawyers. But within such new laws and reviews, the Targeted Killing/drone program could and should stay in business.
f) And finally, the whole drone program has implications for law enforcement within the US.
Yes, this is a huge issue. It must be faced head on. But it is only an issue because some in the current Administration insists on thinking of illegal acts of war as legal matters for law enforcement instead of military matters for DOD and the Intelligence Community. That thinking then spills over into homeland security. We should not apply military solutions to run-of-the-mill lawbreakers within the borders of the United States. If current prohibitions are not clear enough for all concerned, then Congress can create new laws and courts can review those standards.
So will the President ever stop creating and approving a Kill List? Yes – IF Congress so directs. After all, Congress created this system in the aftermath of 9/11 when they granted the President the legal authority to kill people determined to have played a role in that attack, or in ongoing Al Qaeda operations worldwide. They could rescind that authority – but they would have to explain their alternative vision for our security while dangerous people continue to wage war on us. I don’t think that is likely to happen any time soon.
Sorry this is so long. I told you the subject was complex. And the issue of drone use inside the US really does deserve separate analysis. But the bottom line concerning the Targeted Killing/drone program overseas is that it is working. If critics are concerned about implications for the future, then they need to spell out their reservations and solutions in laws to be passed by Congress and adjudicated by the courts.
But please, keep the focus on the matter of defending the nation, and don’t use this issue as a lever for your unrelated political arguments and concerns. That sort of droning on does not serve the security of the nation at all.