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Two Very Interesting Responses to a Flip Comment

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Thursday, July 7, 2011 at 8:11 AM

A few days ago, I posted this little comment concerning Eugene Robinson’s column on drones. The response to it has, I confess, surprised me, particularly as it has focused largely on an off-hand remark I made in the post. As the response has included some very rich and thoughtful commentary, I thought I would spin out the reaction and link to the key responses. As I am still pondering the issues some of my interlocutors raise, I will not for now add my own thoughts, save my thanks to Spencer Ackerman and Marcy Wheeler for making me think much harder about what I thought was a pretty obvious point.

Robinson’s column complained that: “There has been virtually no public debate about the expanding use of unmanned drone aircraft as killing machines — not domestically, at least.” Having spent countless hours debating the subject of drones publicly–on this blog, in academic settings, on the radio, etc.–this sentence struck me as faintly silly, and I thus wrote the following dismissive pair of sentences in a post that largely focused on other aspects of Robinson’s column: “Robinson’s complaint about debate is false, at least in my view. There has been a significant public debate on the subject.”

The response was quick. Wheeler posted:

While I often disagree with Benjamin Wittes, I rarely think the stuff he writes is sheer nonsense.

This post, which attempts to rebut Eugene Robinson’s column on Assassination by Robot, is an exception.

I disagree, respectfully, with most of his post. But this bit I find just mindboggling.

She then quoted my comment on debate. Wheeler’s point, as the post went on to describe, was that

In half the countries in which we are known to be using drones–Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia–these drone strikes are still highly, highly classified. (The acknowledged countries are Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.)

When Anwar al-Awlaki’s family sued for due process, the government invoked state secrets, even as Crazy Pete Hoekstra and a stream of anonymous sources have leaked details of the drone targeting of him for over a year. One of the things Robert Gates specifically invoked state secrets over is whether or not we’re engaged in military operations in Yemen.

. . .

If the government says we can’t know about the drone strikes–if the government says we can’t even know that many of the drone strikes are going on–then what kind of “public debate” are we having? For the drone strikes that are a state secret, Congress can’t even engage in a “public debate.”

Yeah, I understand that a very limited set of elites argue about drones anyway. But it takes a really twisted understanding of democracy and public debate to claim that drone strikes the government won’t even acknowledge are the subject of a real debate.

I responded on Twitter with a series of short comments (which I’m merging here for readability purposes):

I’m bewildered by the suggestion that the government’s secrecy about drones means there has not been a debate.

The subject has been all over every major media outlet in the country for two years now.

The debate has, to be sure, been encumbered by the degree of classification associated with the program.

And it’s fair to complain that the government has not engaged the debate. But there has been quite a rich debate.

There is a rich public debate on the subject–though the government is not fully participating. Not so unusual.

These tweets, in turn, provoked two remarkable posts–both of which I commend to readers in their entirety.
The first was from Ackerman, who wrote in relevant part:

Semantics can obscure the issue here. But I’d submit that there’s a difference between media coverage of the drone war, accompanied by the occassional thoughtful essay or think-tank panel, and a “significant debate.” I spend probably about as much time covering the drone war as anyone in the press, and I’d submit Danger Room is the best news outlet for exploring the implications of the rise of flying robot assassins. And I would consider none of that a proxy for the country deciding that they ought to be the centerpiece of counterterrorism, hovering in places from Pakistan to the Sahel.

That is what we talk about when we talk about drones. We’re not talking about the sensor packages on the Reaper, or how many more missiles it carries than does its older brother the Predator. The debate is about expanding a war on al-Qaeda to the far-flung corners of the globe in a sustained, stealthy manner, targeting individuals and networks defined, without rigor or available evidence, as “affiliated” with al-Qaeda.

Ben is correct to note that such a strategy is “technology neutral.” But that observation overlooks the fact that that in this case, the technology drives the strategy. The vast improvement in drone-derived intelligence (with some human intelligence, doubtfully doubtlessly [oops]) and weapons capability enabled a huge expansion in the ability to wage war while negating or reducing the constraining public costs to it, like troop deployments, financial drain, or conspicuous logistics trails. (You should see the command boxes that Army enlisted men and contractors sit in to operate these things from Bagram — the essence of modularity.) With that comes a lack of public accounting about the efficacy of the program and the criteria for targeting someone with a drone — and no objections from pesky congressmen.

That’s what I would argue needs to change. There’s an elite debate in your papers and think tanks about what smart people can glean about the drone war. It suffers from a dearth of information — not about how someone is targeted, which is properly classified, but who can be targeted; the specific authority for targeting; and the normative question of where the drone war ought to be waged. That, as Marcy points out, is a deliberate government choice. Factor out any ethical concerns: we can’t even say with confidence that the drone war is succeeding, in any rigorous strategic sense of the term, just that it’s killing a lot of people and unleashing a lot of missiles. July 4 seems as apt a day as any to point out that the public, through its elected representatives, is supposed to determine America’s wars.

Ackerman then went on to break dramatically with the conventional wisdom of the Left and endorse the House GOP’s proposal for a reaffirmation of the AUMF, writing:
I come down on the side of Buck McKeon and Mac Thornberry, two Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, who argue that there needs to be a new Authorization to Use Military Force, since Congress hasn’t voted on the boundaries of the war against al-Qaida in ten years, when it was a very different enterprise. They’re shoehorning in (to my mind) objectionable provisions about detentions, and undermining their case by slipping AUMF 2.0 into the defense authorization bill, rather than having it out separately on the House floor. But their fundamental point stands, and the Obama administration’s dismissal of it is risable. That kind of debate would represent the country reconsidering the degree to which it believes it ought to be at war with al-Shebaab, the Haqqani Network, the Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e-Toiba or the al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen or Iraq or the Sahel.
The second post was from Wheeler, who returned to my substantive points about Robinson’s column and went off on an extended meditation on drones and sovereignty:

I believe that drones are a tool that presents a heightened threat to the concept of sovereignty, for better or worse. . . . If you think about it, the system of sovereignty established by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 has been under increasing threat since World War II, a moment that brought many repressed peoples of the world closer to exercising their own sovereignty. . . . Its embrace of drones, I believe, is an important part of that process.

. . .

One thing I think is stunning about our drone war is the degree to which it impacts issues of sovereignty almost everywhere we use it. The one exception is the latest member of our target club, Somalia, given that it is already a failed state (not that that justifies drones strikes.) Consider:

Afghanistan: Of all of our drone wars, Afghanistan is the only one that started with traditional legitimacy (and like Somalia, its state was weak to begin with). Yet we’re at the stage now where drones are a key weapon to defend Hamid Karzai–the “Mayor of Kabul”–in the absence of having a fully functional national army. Increasingly, though, we remain in Afghanistan to protect it as a launching pad for attacks on Pakistan, where the bulk of our real enemies are.

Iraq: While plenty of America’s wars have been dubiously legitimate, Iraq certainly is at the top of that list. We trumped up a case against a sovereign nation-state (one with manufactured legitimacy internally, but no less than many of our allies in the region). In what may be the last traditional nation-state war we fight, we managed to (at least thus far and only barely) avoid breaking the country up into three or more parts and establish another leader with questionable legitimacy. In most of that, drones weren’t key. But I’m betting that they will be going forward as a threat to Nuri al-Maliki that if he doesn’t invite our troops to stay longer, we will feel free to use drones in his country. That’s just a guess, mind you, but the evolution of our drone power (and the influence Iran has in Iraq) surely has a bearing on whether and how Iraq fully reasserts is sovereignty by kicking our troops out.

Pakistan and Yemen: Here’s where the secrecy I discussed yesterday becomes so key. In both Pakistan and Yemen, we are using drones as a way to cooperate with a country’s leadership to make war on–rather than employ police powers on–that country’s own people. Obviously, police power was both untenable in those countries (because there isn’t any in the areas of concern) and strategically unworkable (because both these countries have an ambivalent relationship with the terrorists in their own countries). But the key to this process is secrecy: the utterly laughable fiction that drones were dropping down on these countries but no one had to explain the cooperation behind it. Now, in Pakistan, the example of the Osama bin Laden raid proves this doesn’t have to do exclusively with drone technology. But up until the moment when you launch a raid on a figure like OBL, the drones serve as the most visible–and therefore dangerous, from a legitimacy standpoint–reminder of the lie of the country’s sovereignty. To some degree the drone strikes are just a change in degree from the kind of secret big-footing the US and other neocolonial powers have used for decades, but they are more visible, and they allow the US to exercise a much greater degree of autonomy with regards to the partners in question. And for that reason, I believe, they will take fragile states and exacerbate the legitimacy concerns, making them much more likely to turn into even more dangerous (nuclear-armed, in Pakistan’s case) failed states.

Libya: Libya is the most interesting of all these examples. That’s true, first of all, because it demonstrates Spencer’s point: that the US will use these weapons in defiance of any public costs to doing so (both literally–we’re dumping billions into this campaign at the exact same time we’re cutting trillions in domestic spending, but also figuratively, with Obama’s defiance of the WPR). But one particular potential use of drones (or multinational air strikes, as we tried in our first attempt to decapitate Qaddafi) is to assassinate the leader we still recognize as the legitimate leader of Libya. Now I know we’ve assassinated the legally legitimate leaders of countries in the past. But doing so with such audacity, with so little plausible deniability, seems to mark a new step in our approach to rule of law. And if Qaddafi, in response, sets off a series of terrorist attacks in Europe and the US, we’ll have a lot harder time appealing to the principles of sovereignty we did when al Qaeda attacked us, because we broke those laws first.

In all of these cases, it seems, we risk trading a failed state in pursuit of what the Executive Branch, often in secret, defines as our national interest. It not only risks exacerbating the risk failed states represent around the world–and the further proliferation of terrorism–but as Spencer lays out, the fact that the Executive can do so without balancing the political cost of doing so changes our relationship with our government. (It is no accident, I think, that these changes in strategy are occurring at precisely the same moment both parties are cooperating to dismantle the social safety network.)

Guys, I’m verklempt! I should shoot from the hip more often.
In all seriousness, I will respond to each of these posts separately, after giving them the thought they deserve.