Friday, October 19, 2012

A Lethal President?

Same as it ever was.

It's not that I don't appreciate the concerns raised by those who question the targeting of a secret list of enemies of the state, whether by drone or by commando raid. Those concerns are for the most part well-founded, and the issues will only become more pressing.

Drone technology will continue to advance. It's easy to imagine a future in which drones the size of birds or insects can be used to strike somebody who has been declared an enemy of the United States, with minimal chance of damage to anything or anyone beyond the target. But such an advancement would not resolve the question of who should be placed on a "kill list" or why, what due process should be available to a targeted individual, or how accurately the government determines who should be on the list. Similarly, the U.S. military is likely to increasingly rely upon special forces, and small, targeted raids, rather than full-scale land invasions.

As these trends continue, some questions wil become more pressing. Will improved drone technologies inspire a rapid escalation of the use of drones and the circumstances under which they're deemed appropriate? As drones continue to take the place of boots on the ground, will the temptation be to rely upon drones to kill people who could or should have been taken prisoner? Will the margins blur in relation to who is an appropriate target - terrorists and their sympathizers vs. the political leaders of rogue or enemy states? And as drone use is legitimized and expanded, what happens when other nations inevitably gain similar technology and start applying it to contexts that they deem equivalent to ours?

History implicates all of those questions, and then some, in relation to pretty much any protracted conventional or asymmetrical conflict, anywhere in the world. When under threat, developed nations with well-educated populations tend to tolerate, accept, even applaud the use of tactics that they once deplored - and perhaps continue to deplore when exercised by other nations. Indefinite detention without trial? Torture? Dismissing the Geneva Conventions as outdated relics? The Bush Administration's decisions on those issues were in many ways regrettable, but the U.S. was far from the first nation to rationalize that actions we used to describe as crimes and human rights violations were necessary to achieve the greater good.

Cato Institute Policy Scholar Jason Kuznicki's reaction to "kill lists" and drone strikes is about as strident as you'll find. He points out that the President's "kill list" can include U.S. citizens, even minors, "including within the United States. Including children sleeping peacefully in their homes."
If Obama wanted to, he could put all of Mitt Romney’s delightful, gingham-clad grandkids on the kill list, then send commandos to kill them (or drones, it hardly matters). He wouldn’t need to show any cause, and no one could stop him or tell him otherwise.

Do not say that he wouldn’t. Of course he wouldn’t. The problem is that someone else might. And that’s enough.
Kuznicki declares,
Yet the very act of claiming the power also calls into question anyone’s good judgment. How exactly does someone conclude that he, personally, deserves the unchecked power of life and death? I couldn’t. I would be ashamed to show my face in front of you or to call you my equals. I might be a god or a beast, but not a man in a society.
I'm not going to argue that it's a job I would want. It isn't. But although the mechanism has changed, what Kuznicki is describing has been part of the President's job from day one. Every armed conflict, domestic or abroad, involved strategic decisions that may prioritize destroying a block of buildings or even a town or urban area in order to harm the enemy's ability to produce weapons, mobilize, feed its troops, or may even be justified by the belief that a "high-value" individual is in the targeted area. You want to talk about the deaths of children sleeping in their beds? There's a reason that allied commanders were concerned that fire bombing raids in Germany and Japan might be deemed war crimes.

We are presented with a modern myth of surgical warfare, collateral damage is minimized, civilians aren't harmed, our soldiers are less likely to be killed. There's a disturbing sequence in the movie, Waltz With Bashir, in which a series of efforts to target militants result in the deaths of civilians, presented in the manner of a comedy montage. The film also highlights how a thin veneer of rationalization can help somebody who might otherwise be wracked with guilt decide that his role in an atrocity was marginal or excusable. I'm not trying to argue that an individual citizen or soldier will change the course of history by speaking up, but it's much easier to disregard our role if we think of ourselves as noble heroes, at least trying to do good and minimize harm, offloading responsibility for collateral damage or atrocity onto local forces or our enemies.

Kuznicki knows our nation's history, so he knows we have a long history of legal presidents and generals, deciding from a distant war room what military measures to take, estimating losses to their forces, our forces and civilians, drawing up lists of individuals who should be captured or killed, dispatching special forces and snipers to capture or kill specific individuals. He knows that the Constitution was drafted with that lethality in mind - the Constitution's suspicion of standing armies, preservation and reliance upon state militias, placing a civilian President in charge of the military, and attempting to create a system of checks and balances to rein in excess. Yet Kuznicki writes of the President,
We know that no one gets to review his decision. Ever. The ones who might do it have all abdicated the responsibility.
Kuznicki, in essence, declares that he is never again going to vote for a candidate who has a realistic chance of winning the presidency because Congress and the courts aren't doing their jobs. Frankly, I would view skeptically even the most sincere promise of a third party candidate to change the practice if elected, not only because presidents tend to accept any expanded powers achieved by their predecessors, but also because he'll have to directly face and address the consequences of a policy change.

I don't want to overstate the role of the courts, as Congress hasn't provided either the courts or prospective litigants with much of a framework for these issues, but their overall history is to defer to the executive on issues of national security and to quietly regret any mistakes only in future decades. The branch of government that has been least willing to do its job in this context is Congress. You'll find Republicans like Darrell Issa angrily demagoguing about issues of embassy security, but when there's hard work to be done - when they are asked to take ownership of their own failings - you'll find excuses ("Our refusal to fund increased embassy security has nothing to do with the fact that it wasn't increased") or silence. You can get objections out of Republicans like Issa over drone and cruise missile strikes - if they produce favorable media coverage; "The President did that to distract you from domestic politics, wag the dog, wag the dog!" But that type of reaction is not a substantive objection - its a politically calculated claim that relates only to timing.
We don’t need an elected beast-god with a kill list. We need to end the system that proposes, every four years, to place one of our human equals into that role. A role any decent human would refuse. And this election just isn’t going to do it.
This election won't do it, the next one won't either, nor the next.... To prevent Presidents from having this power, we would need a constitutional amendment. And as long as Congress pretends that this is not an issue, and the general public reaction is to accept the notion of surgical strikes with no collateral damage (the key rationalization, if you're innocent you won't be near the target, right?), and the media at large treats the issue with a collective yawn, nothing will change.

In Esquire, addressing the fine line that can exist between targeted killings and murder, Tom Junod argues that, unlike his predecessors, President Obama "had to answer an additional question before you took the job. Other presidents had to decide whether they could preside over the slaughter of massed armies, and the piteous suffering of whole populations." But again, that's more a question of degree, and of technology, than it is of fact. Sure, Ronald Reagan had to launch a significant air raid on Libya to try to kill Gadhafi. George H.W. Bush had to indvade Panama to capture Manuel Noriega. Clinton, though, sent cruise missiles to try to kill Osama bin Laden.

One could argue based upon that history that the new way is better - that as technology has advanced, in many contexts we can avoid the type of massive collateral damage that results from a full-scale invasion, even if we won't have to subsequently occupy the nation whose leader we've toppled. It's possible to point to the history of "boots on the ground" in nations like Somalia, and argue that the President can get at least as much cooperation from local warlords by making them aware of the possibility of a targeted drone strike, without putting large numbers of soldiers into the nation at great expense and considerable risk to their lives.

One could reply that history doesn't yet demonstrate that those possibilities are now reality, but the come-back would presumably be that a failed intervention by drone will cost far less in terms of money and lives than the cost of a failed intervention by land. If the choice is to "try drones and special forces" or "do nothing", what does an advocate of "humanitarian intervention" do? If the choice is between attempting to achieve a surgical victory, even if the surgery will be a lot less precise than the government or media are likely to admit, and a massive on-the-ground assault, can we really presuppose that the latter will be less lethal to civilians, more precise, or more likely to bring about and sustain the outcome we want?

A rather compelling objection to targeted killings, particularly in the context of asymmetrical warfare or a distributed target organization, is that the strategy can degenerate into trying to fight a hydra - cut off one head and two grow back. There was a period under Bush during which it seemed like a month wouldn't go by without a successful strike taking out the #2 or #3 man in al Qaeda. Either the strikes were a lot less accurate than the Bush Administration let on (and in some cases we know that to be the case - with the targeted individual turning up alive at a different location) or the U.S. was encountering the same level of "success" as nations have traditionally achieved by capturing and killing "terrorist" leaders - they're pretty easily replaced, and sometimes "martyring" the leader helps with recruiting efforts. Also, while collateral damage may seem modest and acceptable to somebody sitting in the U.S., you can rest assured that the populations hit by those attacks don't share our detachment when it's their loved ones who are being killed.

If Kuznicki wants change, he has a decent platform from which to advance his opinions in the public sphere. Far better than most. But if he wants to influence a political actor, rather than refusing to vote for the President and implicitly urging others to follow, he should be attempting to turn up the heat on Congress.

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