Barack Obama, the Drone President, is stuck with his troubling legacy
If you dislike Barack Obama, the most convenient stick with which to whack his foreign policy has always been his use of military drones to kill American enemies in chronically anarchic parts of the Mideast and Somalia. A president who came into office hoping to put a friendlier face on American empire has made significant use of a global assassination technology that seems disturbingly uncircumscribed, not only by domestic laws and democratic oversight, but even by cost or inconvenience.
Drones are to the 21st century what the atomic bomb was to the 20th and the crossbow was to the 12th: a new class of weapon that inspires an emotional nightmare of indiscriminate and rising bloodshed. It is an idea that seems to demand the creation of new taboos. It almost seems to place us in that Twilight Zone episode where Billy Mumy acquires the ability to “wish” people “into the cornfield”.
From the standpoint of innocent non-combatants who might be killed in a drone attack, the horror of the drone is just the same as the horror of ordinary bombing, whether perpetrated by ships or planes or wearers of suicide vests. It can really be of no comfort to the dead to know that their destruction was endorsed by an independent committee, or followed some sort of secret adversarial trial.
But since the legislative branch of the U.S. government has left the use of drones up to the president personally, and since the power to assassinate is hard to delegate even within the executive, drones have had a philosophical tendency to delineate the structure of American empire– to reveal the way in which death flows out into the world from the mind, some would say the whim, of one man. It is, in a sense, a public relations problem, one that Islamists have not been slow to exploit.
It was sheer chance that a constitutional lawyer was president when U.S. military drone technology reached an advanced state of perfectibility.– we have no way of knowing whether Obama’s choices about drones have improved the world or made it worse.
The dead can be enumerated, loosely, although the White House’s estimates of “civilian” deaths are an order of magnitude lower than those of non-government assessors. Critics rightly ask whether we can know who is definitely a “civilian.” They take Obama to task for the unintended deaths of rank-and-file combatants who were not personally any threat to the United States.
Politicians always think that history will be kind to them– that once all the records of their options and dilemmas are known, and their sincerity can be judged, they will be forgiven even their objective mistakes. They create diaries and assemble libraries knowing that they are pleading a case for themselves to be argued by others. Probably Obama is no different, privately.
The truth is that we haven’t even reached consensus on events like strategic aerial bombing in World War II or Hiroshima. If Barack Obama hopes to elude that hell, or hopes his grandchildren will see a day in which his name is uncontroversially revered, he should probably forget about it.
Weapons like drones, weapons that seem to possess a totally new qualitative character, create burdens that can not be shrugged off. The future of American drone war can be discerned, vaguely. Congress will eventually have to climb off its collective behind and reacquire the right to approve or disapprove of which theatres the president uses drones in.
By equally compelling traditions of U.S. foreign policy, the president will retain the ultimate right to decide what specific persons get wished into the cornfield. But with congressional involvement, the American head of state will look just a bit less like a flaming crimson baby-devouring skull.
As with American warfare generally, there will appear a loose ethical requirement that the president seek some semblance of international approval for drone activity. As with American warfare generally, this right of check-off will never be formalized or concentrated in one international institution.
And clearly there will be no absolute nuclear-type taboo against the use of drones. It is, rather, the existence of characteristically stateless parts of the world, ones that create the conditions for civilian massacres, genocide, and exported terrorism.
As Obama’s history already shows, the use of drones in such environments is virtually irresistible. It is inarguable, if the alternative is the demise of a religious minority or ethnic group; and it will win the argument, if the alternative consists of bombs going off in American shopping malls and football stadiums.