Isn’t the problem the drones, and not the Americans?
February 6, 2013, 11:27 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

At risk of excommunication from my political tribe, I have to admit an inability to get worked up about the ‘Obama killing Americans with drones’ issue.

To be clear: this is not to say I don’t understand the questioning of the drone-warfare policy overall (UPDATE: Which began under Bush, I believe). Indeed, I think it merits serious discussion and raises very thorny and troubling issues. Others (e.g. PostLibertarian) have written more passionately and knowledgeably on the subject than I and I continue to try to read about it.

But here, once the principle seems to be granted in passing that it’s basically ok to engage in drone strikes against non-conventional-force targets inside countries with which we have no formal or informal state of war, then really, what the heck do I care if some of the targets have American citizenship?

As far as I can tell, according to the terms of most conventional debate, drone warfare is just another type of warfare now. At least, this is not being heavily questioned outside of left & right libertarian circles. Well then, drone warfare targets are therefore (by assumption) identified enemies. American citizens who get killed by a US drone strike unintentionally are therefore just collateral damage, like a reporter in a war zone; American citizens targeted intentionally by a drone strike are (by assumption) enemies in a legitimate war being conducted by legitimate means, like a WWI-era German-American who went home to go fight for the Kaiser.

In short, once the legitimacy of drone-warfare has been granted, and if it’s not questioned, I just feel robbed of any real intellectual or logical grounds on which to object to some of its targets having US citizenship. I can’t thread that needle. Sorry.

Again, though, drone warfare the way we’ve been conducting it – that itself is really, really questionable.

18 Comments so far
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The problem is that there is a world order where you have “non-state” actors acting within the borders of sovereign states who conduct warfare against state actors.

The answer to this is the classic one from international law. If operatives in Pakistan or Afghanistan are conducting war against your state the Pakistani or Afghan governments are responsible and need to be replaced by governments that effectively control their territory but that would be “colonialism” so the United States government doesn’t do it. Instead it half-asses a solution where it will conduct semi-war and semi-policing in lawless countries – all because the United States government is allergic to actual order.

Comment by Steve Johnson

[…] some may ask, why is this whole thing focused on the government’s right to target American citizens, as […]

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It usually takes a few forms:

An American citizen has certain rights, one of which is to not be executed without trial. A state of war would obviate the requirement, but we don’t actually have a legal state of war with anyone.

The process by which an American is deemed worthy of being drone-killed is somewhat opaque, doesn’t have nearly enough checks and balances in it, and is generally ripe for abuse.

The program of using drones on American citizens in foreign countries is an incremental step in making it possible to use drones on Americans in America.

Comment by Matt

Seeing some variations of the same points, so let me just respond this way:

Seems to me the premise of this drone warfare is that it is a valid tactic in waging war against certain sorts of foreign non-state actors (including, in the absence of a formal declaration of war or ‘legal state of war’ whatever that might mean). GIVEN that premise (which is, of course, questionable), I don’t see how that calculus is affected by whether (some of) those non-state actors are American. They’re (identified as) the enemy, this is war, drones are a valid tactic in that war, end of discussion.

Do such Americans have ‘rights’ in the sense that an American citzen at home does? Not (in my book) if they’re the enemy in warfare. (They may have (lesser) rights in a rules-of-warfare, Geneva-convention sort of way, but we’ve already decided that drone warfare doesn’t rub up against them.) Is this warfare? Apparently so.

It’s important (in my thinking, if not in others’) that the people we’re talking about aren’t in the U.S. Not that I’m suggesting that Americans ‘give up their rights when they leave the country’. But do you still ‘have rights’ when you knowingly and consciously enter a war zone? The response is going to be: but these places – Pakistan, Yemen, etc. – aren’t (Officially™) ‘war zones’. What my thinking *presupposes* is: maybe they are?

Now, ‘war zone’ or not, can the identification of such people as ‘the enemy’ be flawed? Of course! But that is no less true if the people in question are non-American. And we’ve (by assumption) already decided to live with the fact that when bombing places with robots from on high, our certainty that all affected are ‘the enemy’ is less than 100%. This concern is just not affected by their potential American-ness one way or the other.

It’s fair to say that The Rules And Procedures governing all this ought to be more transparent and spelled out for Americans. But in the meantime, regardless of the outcome of such a debate I’m still inclined to advise my fellow Americans to err on the side of caution, and just don’t go to these places. Is that bad advice? I think it’s freaking great advice and you will note that, at least to date, all those who have followed it have not been drone-bombed.

This leads to the slippery-slope argument that all this really is just a ‘prelude’ to using drone-bombs against domestic targets under the same (non-)procedures/rules. If/when I become convinced that’s a genuine danger then I may change my thinking.

Comment by The Crimson Reach

This is one case where I see no reason to give the government a pass on governing as though a state of affairs existed while not actually admitting that it exists. In my mind, declarations of war are there precisely to prevent states from carrying on with this sort of thing, and if we aren’t willing to declare war then we should not be bombing Pakistan to begin with. That’s the heart of the American distinction, that while we shouldn’t be bombing Pakistanis either, it has a new legal element when American citizens are the ones who are the targets. If the government wishes to declare war and then state openly that American citizens will be considered enemy combatants if they participate in the theater of operations, then that is one thing. But I’m not going to play their loosey-goosey “let’s do but say we didn’t” game.

I do think the focus on drones has muddied the issue somewhat…surely it would be the same if we had a conventional army running around Pakistan with snipers taking out al-Awlawlakikis et al.

Comment by Matt

I sympathize with the remarks, but my point is, the part where we’re giving government a pass is with them drone-bombing *anyone* (in a country against which we have no declaration of war…). And so that ship has sailed.

Comment by The Crimson Reach

Well that’s just it, the ship might be sailing back. People can agree with the abstract notion that we are in a state of war, but when the concrete implications start becoming clear they don’t like it anymore. And of course, the government doesn’t maintain that we are in a state of war with Yemen or Pakistan and would deny it if asked. People are picking up on the overreach and doublespeak here, and I think it’s to be encouraged.

Comment by Matt

Larry Auster has some good thoughts on this question, that basically mirror your own, here:

Comment by Fake Herzog

Yup, it was when I found myself agreeing with Auster that I decided to own up to my heresy and accept my excommunication :)

Comment by The Crimson Reach

You suggest that the Rules and Procedures governing the use of drones should be more transparent. Well, yeah. That, to me, is the whole ball ‘o wax. I don’t mind if they kill bad guys in Yemen or Waziristan with drones driven from Nevada, but:
Right now, according to the undated, unsigned memo released/leaked by we-don’t-know-whom, it seems to be a small group of [high ranking?] un-named persons, gathered in a room, reviewing a list of proposed targets drawn up by… whom, who are deciding who will die.
This (from the Auster link): “The individuals whom Obama claims the power to kill by drone are members of al Qaeda, people who are waging terrorist war against the United States.” begs the question, “Are they indeed, members of al Quaeda,” and/or “Are they indeed waging terrorist war against the United States”? What’s the support for that, who’s providing it, and how do we ensure that these actions are accountable to… someone, somewhere? Right now, there’s no accountability; that’s not how we’re used to doing things here (or at least, not how we delude ourselves that we’re used to doing things here.)
By the way, nice job on the grammar:
“…more passionately and knowledgeably on the subject than I …” Most people would have slipped “than me” in there… Incorrectly.

Comment by ColoComment

In warfare, the fact that ‘unnamed persons gathered in a room reviewing a list drawn up by whoever decide who will die’ is the *norm*, not the exception. (Isn’t it?)

Comment by The Crimson Reach

CR, I’m not remembering any history of warfare that I’ve read that describes that kind of expandable, secret, specific target list, the closest being the deck of cards thing issued during the Iraq action (but capture was preferred IIRC), and (maybe) something like Pres. Johnson picking and choosing bombing targets during Vietnam (but those targets were not individuals). (I’m in my dotage, so my recollection may be faulty (and probably is), so feel free to suggest better examples.)
Yamamoto was specifically targeted as a result of the broken Japanese codes & the specific knowledge of where he’d be & when, but that was during a more traditionally-fought war and as I see it, the equivalent of a rifleman shooting the opposition general who’s sitting on his horse on a hill watching the lower ranks battle below. Those types of selective war-killing have never been controversial, s’far as I know.
We now have historically unprecedented opportunity and means to invisibly, in a foreign sky, follow and target individuals for killing on foreign territory, based upon a determination by…someone…that that individual deserves to die. I agree with those who say that an American who supports our enemies, by planning, funding, or propagandizing has forfeited Constitutional rights that he’d otherwise enjoy. But, don’t you think that there should be some sort of “due process” for arriving at that final decision to kill him? At what level of activity does that individual cross the line from “citizen” to “traitor”? What factors are considered? What is the confidence level of those factors? The secrecy as to name, offense and selection process now being used brings to mind the phrase “Star Chamber.”
Finally, this is a great power, and great power should be tempered by visibility & accountability. No, I don’t think Obama is going to target Americans (Rove? guffaw) here at home – that would be too obvious and he’s not that stupid. But, remember Lord Acton.

Ace has an interesting piece over at the Breitbart conversation blog site:

Comment by ColoComment

General to subordinate: “Let’s take that hill over there.” What is he really saying? Let’s go kill the guys on that hill over there.

Here’s my only point about that: when such a decision is made – as must happen all the time in warfare – there’s no ‘vote’ about it. There’s no ‘due process’. There’s nothing ‘transparent’ or ‘visible’ about it. Right? A ‘secretive’ decision is made, by a small number of guys with authority, to go (try to) kill some people and then it is done.

And it could very well be that some of the guys on that hill have American citizenship.

Same thing here. Or if it’s not the same thing, I don’t understand why. If the offense is supposed to be that these kills are ‘specific’ whereas in traditional warfare they will be more territory-based and vague/diffuse/indiscriminate, I can’t say that bothers me an awful lot. I actually see it as *exactly* analogous to your example of ‘a rifleman shooting the opposition general’, and all else equal/absent other info I actually approve of it. (Are indiscriminate kills better than specific or at least more-targeted ones?)

You ask shouldn’t there be accountability and I say yes, but the time to exercise that accountability is *when approving warfare* itself. This goes back to my original point: it’s the *warfare* (not the American-ness of some of the enemy) that should affect the important, solemn decision. Once it has been granted that we *are* in a state of war (and effectively it has, in this conversation), what difference does it make whether some of the enemy have American citizenships?

Now we can certainly go back and have the argument about whether we should still consider ourselves in a state of war with the Islamists – but that’s an entirely different conversation. And not one, as far as I can tell, that is, or should be, affected by this particular ‘droning Americans’ concern either way.


Comment by The Crimson Reach

Thanks for your lengthy response. I appreciate the time you take because it encourages me to not be a lazy thinker. Which I tend to be. There being some psychological comfort in it.
Ok, I see what you’re saying & after chewing on it for a while I think I agree. About war & the waging thereof. But one comment on a David French post over at NRO caught my eye a bit ago, and I think reflects the core of my concern, which I discover is NOT drones or the killing by whatever manner of American-citizen terrorists or the blowing of Hellfire craters somewhere in Yemen. It’s this from one “123MarkW” (lifted verbatim, which I hope is ok under the Rules of Blogging (as the same may be or have been amended):

“I don’t have any problem with this position in general. I just want there to be enough oversight to ensure that the power isn’t turned against political enemies as well military enemies.”

Since men are not angels, I think my concern is whether they will (or can) resist the temptation to expand this awesome new power.

But I guess that’s a post for another time?

Comment by ColoComment

In a world where there is only one “legitmate” state actor, the US State Dept, as it expresses its will through the “International Community”, all so-called wars are really just police actions. “Borders” make no difference, and “citizenship” even less so, except insofar as such provincial notions might accidentally further the interests of the US State Dept.

Comment by Nick B Steves

Great thoughts as always, tCR/SC.

The thing that gets me about this whole issue is defining Anwar al-Awlaki as an “American”. The guy himself appeared to have zero ambiguity about which team he was actually playing for.

Wake me up if/when they drone strike an actual American.

Comment by Ian

[…] Although I’m more in agreement with this. […]

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