Tag: drones

Drones Risk Putting US on ‘Slippery Slope’ to Perpetual War

As the New York Times reports, the Stimson Center today released a report warning that “the Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings using armed drones risks putting the United States on a ‘slippery slope’ into perpetual war.” The Washington Post, the Guardian and Vox all lead their articles on the report with that warning.

The slippery slope point probably isn’t new to most readers. But it’s worth focusing on here, both because the argument is often misstated or misunderstood, and because, in this case, I helped make it. The report’s task force, co-chaired by retired General John Abizaid, former head of U.S. Central Command and Rosa Brooks of Georgetown Law, included working groups. I was on one that considered, among other things, what danger drones create for U.S. foreign policy. The report largely reflects those we identified: the erosion of sovereignty, blowback from those in targeted countries, drone strikes’ tendency to undermine democratic oversight, and the slippery slope problem.

The report puts those concerns in context. It points out that: drones can serve wise or dumb policies; that most drones are for surveillance or other non-strike uses; and that it is drone strikes that occur off declared battlefields that have generated the most controversy. The report notes that past military innovations, like cruise missiles, raised similar concerns by making waging war easier.

The report rejects several common complaints about drones. It denies that they create a reckless, “playstation mentality” among pilots. It explains that drones are not more prone than other weapons cause civilian casualties.

Having delimited the circumstances where drones raise concerns, the report goes into considerable causal detail, at least compared to most reports of this kind, about what the trouble is. The blowback, oversight, and sovereignty problems are relatively easy to understand, in theory. The tricky part is measuring the harm.

The Pentagon as a Jobs Program, Part 3

A couple of months ago, I cited the example of upgraded Abrams tanks being shoved down the Pentagon’s throat by certain members of Congress because tank production = jobs back in the district. I followed that up with some historical background on congressional Pentagon pork-barreling that is discussed in former Reagan budget director David Stockman’s new book. Yesterday, a Wall Street Journal article on congressional resistance to reprioritizing military spending provided a new example:  

The battle over the Global Hawk is emblematic of the difficulty the Pentagon faces in trying to reduce its inventory while shifting its focus from the ground war in Afghanistan to emerging threats elsewhere.  

The Defense Department has sought to ground the fleet of 18 Global Hawk Block 30 drones, which has been used to conduct surveillance from Afghanistan to Libya. The Air Force says its piloted U-2 planes have better surveillance equipment for the job—and that ending the Global Hawk program can save $2.5 billion over the next four years.  

Lawmakers have not only rejected the Pentagon plans, but set aside $443 million to compel the Air Force to buy three more Global Hawks. On Tuesday, the Air Force said it is moving ahead with buying the drones even though it doesn’t want them. 

Northrop can rely on bipartisan support. The planes are built in the district represented by Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R., Calif.), who heads the Armed Services Committee, which will consider a plan to keep Global Hawk running through 2016.  

McKeon – who has issues with numbers when it comes to military spending – recently made news when it was discovered by Politico that a lobbying firm run by his brother and nephews is taking on military-related companies as clients. In a statement to Politico, McKeon said that “We are knowledgeable about the [ethics] rules involved and will be devout in our adherence to both the letter and the spirit of those rules.” Well, that’s good to hear. It’s worth noting, however, that when it comes to congressional ethics rules, the fox is guarding the henhouse

 

Obama on Perpetual War: Less “Hope,” More Handwringing

There was something almost otherworldly about President Obama’s big national security speech last Tuesday at the National Defense University in DC. At times, Obama seemed to position himself as the loyal opposition to his own administration—or just one of many concerned citizens who worry that perpetual war “will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.” A few examples from the speech:

Look at the current situation [at Gitmo], where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike…. Is this who we are?  Is that something our Founders foresaw?  Is that the America we want to leave our children? 

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I’m troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.

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Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight…. this war, like all wars, must end.

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The very precision of drone strikes and the necessary secrecy often involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites.  It can also lead a President and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.

A president”? Anyone in particular? Who’s been president all these years, anyway?

Rand Paul’s “Teachable Moment”

On the U.S. government’s targeted killing and drone-bombing program, in the past I have harped on the fact that despite the discrete and immediate effects of disrupting terrorist activity, no expert can conclusively answer whether such tactics materially reduce the threat of terrorism. But don’t just take my word for it:

  • General James E. Cartwright, the retired, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said about drones undermining America’s long-term battle against extremism, “We’re seeing that blowback…If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted.”
  • General Stanley McChrystal, the retired, former commander in Afghanistan, has said about drones and anti-American sentiment, “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level…”
  • And John Bellinger, a former State Department legal adviser in the George W. Bush administration, has said that one day, drone strikes might “become as internationally maligned as Guantanamo.” 

Today, in a piece for U.S. News and World Report, I write about yet another relevant factor in the drone debate beyond the scope of the aforementioned issues: the Congressional prerogative to limit executive war powers. It explains why Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) should keep fighting the good fight for more transparency over the program:

Today, our commander in chief, through a secretive decision-making process based on classified evidence, has declared the right to use lethal force against anybody, anytime, anywhere on earth. Although Paul’s effort to shine a harsh light on targeted killings has thus far been commendable, he has squandered many opportunities to explain how we get back to the constitution-based system he champions. In this respect, the liberty movement has been right to hold his feet to the fire. Thus, here comes the “teachable moment.”

Check it out

Rand Paul and Jim Webb on Congress’s Abdication of Foreign Policy Power

John Brennan’s confirmation as CIA director displayed Congress’s disinterest in checking the president’s runaway security powers. Two months ago, when I wrote an article with the unwieldy title, “Will Obama’s Brennan Pick Shed Some Much Needed Light on Drones?” I wouldn’t have guessed that the answer would be yes; it will bestir Congress to finally force the administration to say clearly that it does not reserve the right to kill Americans at home with drone strikes, insofar as they are not engaged in combat. That statement came only thanks to whomever leaked the Justice Department’s summary memo on the topic, Brennan and Attorney General Eric Holder’s impolitic reluctance to articulate limits on the president’s power to kill Americans by calling them terrorists, and, of course, Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) resulting filibuster. The Senate predictably left Brennan’s other sins against civil liberties mostly unexamined. 

Paul’s hard-won “toehold of constitutionality” isn’t much to cheer about, even if we add to the spoils the administration’s vague agreement to be more open about its legal rationale for placing people on kill lists. This minimal defense of civil liberties and congressional privilege is what got Republican senators like Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz, Jr. of Texas, who seem to support unfettered executive discretion to kill in the name of counterterrorism outside the United States, to support the filibuster. 

Even that was too much restraint for the neoconservative right. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) read on the Senate floor a Wall Street Journal editorial calling Paul’s effort a stunt meant to “fire up impressionable libertarian kids” and assuring us that those targeted by drones here or abroad will be “enemy combatants.” McCain and the Journal spectacularly miss Paul’s point: the issue is whether the president should make that designation, chucking due process rights, without being checked by another branch of government. 

As McCain amigo Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) noted, the Republican caucus’ flirtation with civil libertarianism seems a situational consequence of partisanship. The same goes for Democrats. Were it President McCain doing what Obama is, far more than two Democratic senators (Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Pat Leahy of Vermont) would have voted against Brennan. During his filibuster, Paul asked what happened to the Senator Obama of 2007, who opposed torture and war by executive fiat. Paul suggests that those views were products of Obama’s then circumstance: not being president. Even that may be too generous. As I wrote in a recent book review concerning Obama’s counterterrorism record, “even when he took office, there was ample evidence that his dovish positions would not outlast their political convenience.” 

We can hope, I suppose, that Paul’s stance will increase Congress’s willingness to assert its constitutional war powers. Although he did not, as far as I know, propose specific restrictions on the use of military force outside of the United States, Paul did complain that the 2001 Authorization of Military Force against the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks and those that harbored them has become a permanent warrant for almost limitless executive war powers, a kind of escape hatch from the Constitution opened by presidential utterance of the word “terrorist.”

Obama Right to Resist Arming Syrian Rebels

In a front-page story for the Wall Street Journal, Adam Entous reports that President Obama rejected a plan to arm Syrian rebels presented by officials at the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department. It seems that despite the advice of the most senior members of his national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and then-CIA director David Petraeus, the president decided against becoming more deeply embroiled in a brutal civil war. 

The president’s caution is welcome news for those of us who are skeptical of the United States’ ability to pick winners and losers in distant conflicts. I am also deeply sympathetic with the president’s dilemma, which is the theme of my book The Power Problem. “With great power comes great responsibility,” as the saying goes. But true responsibility means acting wisely, not simply acting. It takes enormous discipline and courage for a president to resist the incessant demands that he do something—anything—when horrible things occur. He should only act (1) in those rare cases when vital U.S. national security interests are at stake, and (2) when it is clear that the action being taken has a reasonable chance of delivering tangible results at a reasonable cost. 

Neither of those criteria is satisfied with respect to the Syrian conflict. 

Indeed, as the Journal story notes, the president appreciated that armed support for individuals and factions within the Syrian opposition was likely to have a number of unintended consequences. Specifically, the White House was dissatisfied with the answers to “lingering questions” including “which rebels could be trusted with the arms, whether the transfers would make a difference in the campaign to remove Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and whether the weapons would add to the suffering.” And the president apparently didn’t listen only to those making the case for expanded U.S. involvement; an anonymous U.S. official told the Journal that a team of CIA analysts cast doubt on the impact of arming the rebels in the conflict. 

Although the United States is providing non-lethal support to Syrian rebels, there are other good reasons to avoid doing more. One is the United States’ terrible track record in providing material, and lethal, support to opposition groups and figures. We have often mistaken power-hungry thugs, or simply manipulative charlatans, for committed democrats, and it is unreasonable to expect that our ability to separate the true patriots from the phonies has improved markedly since Iraq. 

Kill or Capture?

In the latest issue of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, I review Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman’s book Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency. Although some hawkish critics smear President Obama as weak, bumbling, and easily manipulated by America’s enemies, Klaidman reveals how our “covert commander in chief” has tightened his grip over the secretive program of targeted killings and their expanded use into Somalia and Yemen, beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. The president has meanwhile claimed the authority to hold terrorism suspects in prolonged detention indefinitely without trial. On this issue in particular, as I conclude in my review:

The reader is naturally drawn to realize the book’s underlying point: America’s lack of a long-term detention policy may be perversely incentivizing kills over captures.

 Check it out.