Drone War Discussion Absent from Campaign

My latest for The New Republic, "America's Scandalous Drone War Goes Unmentioned in the Campaign," is out.

My latest for The New Republic, “America’s Scandalous Drone War Goes Unmentioned in the Campaign,” is out.

The headline over-dramatizes my argument somewhat but, like Afghanistan, we have an issue where national security professionals are very leery of a policy yet it’s virtually absent from the presidential debate.  Some excerpts:

[O]ver the last eight years, drone strikes have “killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.” Meanwhile, only 2 percent of those killed were “high-level” targets. This means that the strikes have killed three times as many children as terrorist leaders.

[…]

[T]he vast majority of those killed are mere “foot soldiers” or simply those who might be “militants” of some stripe. Indeed, that’s been an explicit policy choice by President Obama, under whose tenure the pace of attacks have dramatically escalated. The Bush administration carried out between 45 and 52 attacks, all aimed at major terrorist leaders. In less than half the time, his successor has carried out nearly 300, lowering the targeting threshold to include so-called “signature” strikes against “groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t known.”

[…]

Despite the increasing intensity with which this issue is being debated in foreign policy wonk circles, the discussion has been all but absent in the ongoing presidential campaign. Terrorism is not among the twenty-six “issues” discussed on Mitt Romney’s website and the treatment of “Afghanistan & Pakistan” doesn’t mention the drone policy. To the extent that the issue is getting any traction on the domestic political front, it’s coming from the likes of Glenn Greenwald and others on the president’s left. One suspects that’s just fine with Obama, whose ability to tout the fact that “we got bin Laden” has put him in the unique position among Democrats of having the edge on national security issues.

Indeed, Obama has shrewdly—some might say cynically—positioned himself to the right on foreign policy, thereby insulating himself from the “weak on defense” canard that has plagued his party going back to the days of George McGovern. He doubled down on Afghanistan, at the expense of more than a thousand dead American soldiers and marines, at a point when it was obvious the war was unwinnable on the timetable he set. He ignored the hectoring over damaged relations with Pakistan that would result from the bin Laden raid, betting that success would ensure his re-election. And his use of drone strikes makes George W. Bush look like a cautious man.

Much more at the link.

 

 

 

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, National Security, Published Elsewhere, Terrorism, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DC Loser says:

    Let’s see how we feel when someday this method of killing will be used on our soldiers and civilians.

  2. Rob in CT says:

    Of course it’s absent. One guy is in favor, and the other guy is also in favor. Both parties want the drone war.

    And, while I applaud bringing the issue up, ok then let’s talk about the alternatives. What political constituency is there, really, for ceasing the War on Terror (because if you cease the drone war, and don’t replace it with other methods like using manned planes to drop the bombs, you’re basically ending the “war” part of the “war on terror”)?

    I mean, hey, you’ve got me, sure. I’ve always believed that terrorism is mostly a police/intelligence matter that only in very specific cases should require the use of our military. But that view is a small minority view.

    Indeed, Obama has shrewdly—some might say cynically—positioned himself to the right on foreign policy, thereby insulating himself from the “weak on defense” canard that has plagued his party going back to the days of George McGovern

    Yes.

    And his use of drone strikes makes George W. Bush look like a cautious man.

    No. Where is your sense of scale? Iraq, the Sequel, involve many many many more civilian casualties. Or do you simply mean that the relatively low # of drone strikes under Bush was ramped up under Obama?

  3. Rob in CT says:

    To be clear: I oppose this sort of thing right here:

    lowering the targeting threshold to include so-called “signature” strikes against “groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t known.”

    This is reckless, immoral and likely to be counter-productive in the long run. I would like this to end.

    Poll data suggests the drone war is quite popular. And I do strongly suspect that is partly due to the fact that it has been under-discussed, and also because when it’s discussed people (government officials, journalists) use the typical Orwellian language to describe it. Sure, ok. We can imagine that if people started calling it what it really is, support would drop. How much we don’t know and further, we don’t know what that means unless we’re also discussing alternatives. Perhaps people would be less comfortable with the drone program, but still want to keep it going because they see it as the less-evil option?

  4. Ben says:

    As Rob said, it hasn’t come up in the campaign because what in the world is Romney going to say about it? Romney’s stance so far seems to be that he wants us to be MORE belligerent, and that Obama is a sissy when it comes to foreign policy. So the only criticism he could make without pissing off his base is that Obama should be ordering more drone strikes, or putting soldiers on the ground instead.

  5. Just Me says:

    Of course it’s absent. One guy is in favor, and the other guy is also in favor. Both parties want the drone war.

    What I find odd is that there is an absence of an anti war movement or at least media coverage of the anti war movement. I am pretty sure if McCain were in office right now (or if it was 8 years ago and Bush/Kerry) that the media would be giving all sorts of coverage of the drone war. Much like the media is ignoring the economy right now but would beat any GOP president over the head with it.

    Oh, and I am not particularly a fan of the drone war-not really a fan of bombing as the only war tactic, but do think where candidates are mostly in agreement it becomes an issue where the candidates are going to attack each other, but the media is supposedly non partisan and you would think the media would at least be covering it in relation to how many people are being killed and whether it is worth doing.

    But once again the media mostly gives Obama a free pass, and I am still curious what happened to the anti war movement.

  6. anjin-san says:

    betting that success would ensure his re-election

    I guess there is zero chance that he was just taking out the single greatest enemy our country has had in this century, and/or getting some justice for the thousands of Americans slaughtered on 9.11 – something the previous president seemed to have forgotten about.

  7. Rob in CT says:

    @Just Me:

    Two things, I think.

    Mainly, I think it’s fatigue. You protest a stupid war. It goes ahead anyway. It’s a disaster. Yet people still think you’re a dirty hippy who doesn’t understand anything. Then a new President is elected, promising to avoid stupid wars. Well, that’s something, even though anyone who was paying attention would have noted candidate Obama promising to double-down on Afghanistan. Still, the less hawkish guy won. Yay. But not really. Sure, there have been no more Iraq-level debacles. This is good. It was also probably inevitable because surely our military couldn’t have sustained *another* significant war. So, if you’re the “anti-war left” what do you do? What hope have you? Why would you even bother protesting anymore?

    I think that’s a significant part of it. As for the media, I think it’s: a) we haven’t invaded anywhere new (Libya, I know, but it was almost entirely if not entirely aerial); b) pretty low US casualties, as compared to when the Iraq anti-insurgency was really raging; and c) a belief that since Obama was the less hawkish candidate, surely this is the best we can expect (also known as giving him a pass). The general lack of chest-beating (exception: OBL) is likely helping as well.

    That’s my take. You can read horrid librul bias into if you like.

  8. Rob in CT says:

    Another thought, re: anti-war movement…

    The run-up to Iraq, the Sequel lasted a while. Some months, as I recall. You could see it coming a long ways away. This allowed time to organize protests and such.

    Libya happened pretty darned quickly. And our involvement didn’t last long.

    Iraq: winding down. Not much point protesting it.

    This leaves Afghanistan. That’s where O did get a pass from “the Left” or at least a chunk of the Left. It’s not a new war – Obama didn’t start it (though, if he was POTUS on 9/11, I’d guess he probably would have), so there is some slack cut there. He promised to double-down, and was elected. Someone who wanted the Afghan war to end (say, me) had to hope that he would reverse himself. Unlikely. I hoped, but without much hope. Protest? Who was gonna listen? Seriously. If he had reversed himself, the Right would’ve gone bonkers (well, er… more than they have) about what a weakling appeaser he was. This made the political calculus, however distasteful, understandable.

  9. Rob in CT says:

    You know, it just occurred to me that I could’ve summarized my last two posts with just this:

    “They know they lost the argument, and don’t have the heart to continue it.”

  10. Tsar Nicholas says:

    I’m not entirely sure what there would be to say about it in connection with this campaign, other than by how much we should increase its usage and by how much we should increase its funding. It’s been amazingly successful. Hell, it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. The only arena in which a change is necessary is that Obama personally should not be sitting there with a target and kill list. The target and kill list should be the province of CIA/DOD/DHS. Unless we need to snuff out U.S. citizens, though, in which case the Prez should be giving the go ahead.

    In any event, the good news about the drone war is that the loopy media-academe cabal is of no real consequence when it comes to events in Realityville and no matter who wins in November the drone war will continue unabated and perhaps even will be expanded, as it should be.

  11. legion says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Of course it’s absent. One guy is in favor, and the other guy is also in favor. Both parties want the drone war.

    Bingo. Drones aren’t being argued about for the same reason no POTUS will ever prosecute a previous POTUS for even the most egregious violations (extraordinary rendition, anyone). That reason is simple and pragmatic – any President who took such a public stand against something done by a previous President would then have no standing to use that exact same tool or power himself. And that’s really all this is about: preserving and expanding the power of the office.

  12. anjin-san says:

    Let’s see how we feel when someday this method of killing will be used on our soldiers and civilians.

    I am not sure how you would prevent that. The use of GPS was revolutionary during Gulf 1. Now our adversaries use it against us. This progression predates the bronze age.

  13. michael reynolds says:

    He ignored the hectoring over damaged relations with Pakistan that would result from the bin Laden raid, betting that success would ensure his re-election.

    This is a fact-free assertion in the form of a political cheap shot that lowers the tone and credibility of the whole piece.

    In fact what happened was that Mr. Obama promised to carry out a more vigorous drone war – over the objections of the ever-apoplectic Mr. McCain — and promised to get Osama Bin Laden. Mr. Obama carried out his campaign pledges. He did exactly what he told voters he would do. Unlike the previous president.

    Of course it goes without saying that had AQ managed to stage another attack on US soil that Republicans – far from rallying around – would have instantly leapt to capitalize by ratcheting up their racist caricature of Obama as somehow not American. Then we’d be hearing the Republican chin-strokers – the “good” Republicans – attacking Mr. Obama for having failed to attack AQ with sufficient vigor, while the less restrained elements of their party cried “treason.”

    It is difficult to carry out foreign policy in a situation where one political party would gladly amplify the effects of any terrorist attack so long as it harmed Mr. Obama. But that’s not why Mr. Obama killed OBL and goes on killing AQ. He’s doing it because he said he would, and we voted for him on that basis, and it remains the right thing to do.

    The loss of innocent life is terrible. But numerical comparisons between the number of “high level AQ” and “children,” is asinine. This drone war is not just about body count, it’s about disruption of an enemy’s capacity to plan and carry out attacks. Right now any AQ operative in Pakistan (or Yemen, and probably other places as well,) has a very hard time planning get-togethers, or even phone chats, because there’s a Predator up in the sky.

    End the drone war and you immediately empower AQ to ramp up planning for actions which may be against the US. Republicans surely know this. And of course they know it would be politically damaging to the president.

  14. steve says:

    James- Did you read Foust’s critique of the report? I think we need a new overall strategy for that part of the world. Drones have been effective at killing lots of Taliban and some AQ. A great tactic if you want to kill specific peoples. However, we are not getting anywhere AFAICT. We really cant just keep doing this for 30 years. (Commenters above are correct that if stops the drone attacks he will be portrayed as weak on defense.)

    Steve

  15. john personna says:

    And his use of drone strikes makes George W. Bush look like a cautious man.

    To an empiricist that would not be until the drone strikes kill more than the 60,000 plus civilians killed in the Iraq war. “Shock and Awe” was not a surgical affair.

    That said though, sure I am with you on reducing or perhaps eliminating the drone war. It’s tragic that it doesn’t have a party constituency. Who would be the most organized resistance? Occupy?

  16. James Joyner says:

    @steve: I did, albeit after filing. I agree with Foust on some methodological issues but mostly drew from the parts of the report that he agrees were solid. Foust’s basic question is: If not drones, then what? And my basic answer is: Nothing. I’m not persuaded that we gain anything by remaining in AfPak and think we may be undermining our security more than we’re helping.

    @michael reynolds: I’m making a narrow political case there, in response to a question from the editor to draw out the conclusion. I don’t contend that the bin Laden raid–which I supported–was motivated solely by domestic politics. I do believe that explains why Obama was more forward leaning than, say, Biden on the matter.

    In the grand scheme of things, I agree that the number of dead innocents is phenomenally low. Certainly, it is in contrast with previous wars and older methods. My argument, though, is that we’re enraging the local populace and generating future enemies often in exchange for very little. Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan was largely a non-factor by 2006 or so, with the more dangerous elements now in Yemen and elsewhere. I just don’t think we’re gaining much by the escalating drone war.

  17. bookdragon01 says:

    @steve: Foust’s critique makes sense and should be part of the discussion.

    Another observation is that it’s not just ‘appearing weak on defense’. Allowing AQ to regroup in FATA would be weak. Right now, I don’t see much alternative to drones that wouldn’t be worse. In many cases, much, much worse.

  18. bookdragon01 says:

    @Rob in CT: Quite possibly the number of strikes was ramped up under Obama because the technology has improved and developed from ‘new’ to ‘standard’ weapon during the past 4-5 years. Not exactly unusual in the history of weapons tech.

  19. nightrider says:

    @michael reynolds: I think the question does have to be asked whether we are making more terrorists than we are killing. Or whether the notion of trying to kill all the terrorists is like going outside in swamp in the summer just with your bare hands and trying to swat all the mosquitoes, getting bitten all the while. Rare strikes against high-level targets may be one thing, but surely there must be a line to draw and it is a fair question whether it has been drawn correctly.

  20. michael reynolds says:

    I just want to throw out a suggestion to my fellow Democrats not to be tempted back down the road to the McGovern era. I left the Democrats when it became clear they were trending pacifist. Just as WW2 did not justify every subsequent war, so Vietnam did not justify pacifism, and Iraq likewise does not justify isolationism.

    I believe we have to remain rational but strong. We have to learn from our mistakes and find a middle path between pacifism and neo-con warmongering.

    I think its important to be very clear and very honest about what happens when we go to war. There will be orphans and windows — ours and theirs. There will be innocents killed. There will be men and women mutilated, physically and psychologically, their lives reduced to utter misery. There wil be dead children. Knowing all that there will still be times when we have to fight. Even the good wars are horrible. WW2 was a horrible war – ask the survivors of Dresden or Tokyo or Hiroshima. Ask any of the soldiers on any side, fighting for any cause. But it was still necessary.

    I believe Afghanistan was necessary. The question in my mind is whether an occupation was necessary. I’m quite clear in my mind that an incompetent, distracted occupation was a terrible idea. But I believe it was necessary to overthrow the Taliban, and I think it’s necessary to continue to pursue Al Qaeda wherever they hide.

    I am not impressed by the “making enemies” concern. A look at history shows a whole lot of people from the Romans to the Mongols who made people hate them. They also made people fear them, and they were not brought down by the grudges of their victims. I believe it remains necessary for the US to be feared. Wherever possible we should obviously resort to the carrot. We should always try to avoid war. But we are nowhere near being able to relinquish the stick.

    The job of any president is to defend the Constitution, and to protect the interests of the United States and its citizens. In a perfect world we’d value all life equally, but that’s not the world as it is, so we value our lives more highly. That’s a fairly vile notion, but it’s a necessary one until we achieve worldwide democracy and peace.

  21. john personna says:

    @michael reynolds:

    To be brutally honest about it, Michael, when you are the biggest, best, most expensive military power in the world, all you need to do is the occasional demonstration. Think for a moment about Gulf War I, and the message it sent. Days before we went in Iraq had a million man army and was respected as a major military force. A week later, it just wasn’t true anymore. George H.W. Bush, former head of the CIA, then took they lay of the land and said “lesson taught.” He left Saddam and went home.

    A military with that power does not need to worry about who is hiding under the bed in a mud hut in Yemen.

    The bad wars we’ve had recently we bad because we did not play to our strengths. We didn’t use our high tech power to crush state actors and go home. We got stuck in Whack-A-Mole.

  22. anjin-san says:

    A military with that power does not need to worry about who is hiding under the bed in a mud hut in Yemen.

    It does if it would prefer not having to deploy that power, an act that is very expensive and which can have unfortunate unforeseen consequences.

  23. john personna says:

    @anjin-san:

    It does if it would prefer not having to deploy that power, an act that is very expensive and which can have unfortunate unforeseen consequences.

    Seriously? When does “mud hut guy” require full deployment?

    You are going to have to build a long chain of events, most of them long-shots.

  24. anjin-san says:

    Seriously? When does “mud hut guy” require full deployment?

    Osama Bin Laden was just some dude in a cave at one point. How much did the 9.11 attacks cost us domestically? How much has our military action in Afghanistan cost?

    You have a much better chance of beating cancer if you catch it early. And yes, most of them are long shots. Except when they are not.

  25. anjin-san says:

    all you need to do is the occasional demonstration. Think for a moment about Gulf War I

    Let’s think about it. Did not stop the massacre of the Kurds. Did not prevent the rise of Al-Qaeda (in fact it fueled it – unintended consequence) did not stop 9.11, did not prevent the rise of the Taliban. And so on.

  26. john personna says:

    @anjin-san:

    I have two answers to that. First, preemptive murder. Why not just have cops shoot gang members? Bomb barrios? That’s basically what Israelis do, and US liberals dislike it. What’s the rule, ok at greater distance?

    Second, what is the bar for some guy in Yemen, do we need an actual plan to attack the US? Or just a rumor that he pals around with terrorists?

  27. john personna says:

    @anjin-san:

    So you are a full World Police supporter and want us in Somalia?

  28. Poll data suggests the drone war is quite popular.

    Because most Americans are amoral and could care less how many innocents die as long as it’s not them.

  29. anjin-san says:

    So you are a full World Police supporter and want us in Somalia?

    Did I say that? No I did not. Why don’t you leave the nonsense to Jenos and Jan?

  30. anjin-san says:

    @ john personna

    You are the guy who was touting Gulf 1. Was the wholly unnecessary slaughter on the “highway of death” something you approve of? You might want to take your own moral inventory before you start preaching.

  31. Carson says:

    I am wondering why the US has not used drones in Syria.

  32. michael reynolds says:

    @john personna:

    As Anjin points out it’s not enough to be bigger and stronger and put on the occasional display.

    This is a reality throughout human history. Absolutely everyone knew the Romans were bigger and badder for the better part of a millenium. Did it stop attacks on Romans by Persians, Greeks, Celts, Franks and a dozen different subspecies of German? Everyone knew we were the rising power in 1941, did it stop the Japanese? People will still give it a try, just as the drunk in a bar will sooner or later decide to take a swing at a guy twice his size. People are idiots. The only example of deterrence working really well has been nuclear deterrence. Only the credible threat of utter annihilation has worked — and that only for 40 years.

  33. michael reynolds says:

    @Carson:

    Who would we hit in Syria?

  34. Just Me says:

    Did not stop the massacre of the Kurds

    The massacre of the Kurds was before Gulf War I. US friendship didn’t stop the killing either.

    I am also pretty sure the US would be hated with or without the drone war, war in Iraq, or what our friendship level with Israel is.

  35. john personna says:

    @anjin-san:

    You put “killing the Kurds” up as something we should have stopped. Either that was a cherry-picking or you are serious about stopping massacres. Which is it?

    @anjin-san:

    I’m the dove here, arguing for less killing, not more. Therefore it is a logical fail to fault me for a subset of your own position. Fewer wars are not more wars.

    @michael reynolds:

    I originally asked about a guy under the bed in a mud hut in Yemen. I predicted a long chain of events, most of them long-shots, to make him a national security threat. You didn’t even do that. What you said was, “since great nations face threats, mud hut guy must be one.”

    As an aside, Will Wilkinson does a good analysis of the drone war, libertarians, and the election:

    Express yourself