Skip to content

Presidential Politics, International Affairs and (a bit on) Pakistani Sovereignty

Friday, March 15, 2013 at 6:48 PM

In my prior post I focused on how Congress can serve as a mechanism of political accountability for targeted killings.  In this post I want to focus on presidential and international politics as potential accountability mechanisms.


If congressional oversight does not work, what about the executive branch’s response to political pressure?  For politics to work requires us to assume that the people care enough about targeted killings to hold the president accountable.  However, that is a big assumption.  When asked what issues matter to them, American voters consistently rank domestic issues higher than foreign policy issues and have done so since the Cold War, and when they are asked specifically about targeted killings, they seem to overwhelmingly support the practice.

Despite this lack of interest, some evidence exists to suggest that presidents do care about how their activities may be viewed by the public. As Baker has noted, during the bombing campaign in Kosovo, the possibility of civilian casualties from any given airstrike was seen as both a legal and political constraint. Due to this fact, some individual target decisions were deemed to have strategic policy implications that only the president could resolve (and we see similar presidential approvals for certain strikes in current operations).  Moreover, even in the absence of effective judicial constraints, and even without evidence of public concern over matters of foreign policy, the president is still constrained by politics and public opinion. As Posner and Vermeule state, the president needs “both popularity, in order to obtain political support for his policies, and credibility, in order to persuade others that his factual and causal assertions are true and his intentions are benevolent.”

As was described in prior posts, the President is oftentimes directly involved in targeting decisions.  This is due in part to globalized communications and also because as precision has increased, so too has the expectation (unrealistic as it is) that civilian casualties will be low or nonexistent. Given these expectations, presidents have oftentimes felt compelled to involve themselves to a greater degree in targeting decisions. This involvement brings with it enhanced political accountability. It allows for greater public awareness of kinetic operations and creates direct responsibility for results tied to the commander in chief’s immediate involvement in the decision-making process. Successes and failures are imputed (or at least can be imputed) directly to the president.

Presidential decision-making brings to light public recognition that the military and intelligence community are implementing rather than making policy. Moreover, when the president chooses to nominate people to assist him in making targeted killing decisions, the nomination process provides a mechanism of political accountability over the executive branch. This was aptly demonstrated by President Obama’s nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA. Given Brennan’s outsized role as an adviser to the president in the supervision of targeted killings, his nomination provided an opportunity to hold the president politically accountable by allowing senators to openly question him about the targeted killing process, and by allowing interest groups and other commentators to suggest questions that should be asked of him.  Of course, secrecy can stifle some aspects of political accountability, but secrecy also has costs.  Presidents require public support for their actions, and if the public does not trust him, that lack of trust may undermine other items on the administration’s agenda.


Other political constraints from outside the U.S. may also impose costs on the conduct of targeted killings and those costs may serve as a form of accountability.  For example, in current operations, targeted killings that affect foreign governments (as in domestic public opinion in Pakistan) or alliances (as in the case of UK support to targeting) all have associated with them higher political costs.  Other international political constraints can impose accountability on the targeting process. For example, if Pakistan wanted to credibly protest the U.S. conduct of targeted killings, they could do so through formal mechanisms such as complaining at the UN General Assembly, petitioning the UN Security Council to have the matter of strikes in their country added to the Security Council’s agenda, or they could lodge a formal complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee. (UPDATE: In Emmerson’s letter he notes that the Pakistani government says they have at least made “public statements” regarding their lack of consent and their calls for “an immediate end to the use of drones by any other State on the territory of Pakistan.”).  Pakistan could also expel U.S. personnel from their country, reject U.S. foreign aid, cut off diplomatic relations, and even threaten to shoot down U.S. aircraft.  Despite apoplectic headlines, ledes and press releases, the fact that Pakistan has not pursued these means of international political accountability says a lot about the credibility of the sovereignty complaint.

Another international political mechanism can be seen in the form of overflight rights.  As Zenko notes, sovereign states can constrain U.S. intelligence and military activities; “[t]hough not sexy and little reported, deploying CIA drones or special operations forces requires constant behind-the-scenes diplomacy: with very rare exceptions—like the Bin Laden raid—the U.S. military follows the rules of the world’s other 194 sovereign, independent states.” Other international political checks can be seen in the conduct of military operations. For example, during the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. lawfully targeted Iraqi troops as they fled on what became known as the “highway of death.” The images of destruction broadcast on the news caused a rift in the coalition. Rather than lose coalition partners, the U.S. chose to stop engaging fleeing Iraqi troops, even though those troops were lawful targets. The U.S. government has similarly noted the importance of international public opinion, even highlighting its importance in its own military manuals. For example, the Army’s Civilian Casualty Mitigation manual states civilian casualties may “lead to ill will among the host-nation population and political pressure that can limit freedom of action of military forces. If Army units fail to protect civilians, for whatever reason, the legitimacy of U.S. operations is likely to be questioned by the host nation and other partners.”(See more here).

Critics of targeted killings tend to favor judicial mechanisms of accountability, believing that such externally imposed measures are the only effective mechanism of control over executive action.  However, judicial accountability is not the only mechanism of control over targeted killings — political accountability can, under the right circumstances, serve as an effective mechanism of control.  In the paper I also discuss bureaucratic and professional accountability, two of the less visible mechanisms of control in the targeted killing process.  My next post will discuss reform recommendations that can enhance accountability for targeted killings.

(As in previous posts, I have omitted most internal references, they can be found in the paper which is now available for download)

This post is Part 5 of a 7 Part series based on the article Kill-Lists and Accountability