Union Jack: Drones finally face scrutiny

February 14, 2013

For the first time ever, the so-called “drone wars” of the Obama administration are under intense scrutiny. The use of Predator drones to target alleged alleged combatants in Afghanistan and Pakistan began in 2004 under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama ramped up and extended their use to include targets in Somalia and Yemen. Now, after years of deafening silence, the mainstream press and federal lawmakers are finally and rightfully taking notice. The confirmation hearings for the president’s nominee to lead the CIA, John Brennan, one of the architects of drone policy, have served as the impetus. Whatever cynical motives Republicans may have in holding up John Brennan’s confirmation—and they are likely very cynical—it is a welcome development that his legacy is being examined.

Drone strikes, which target alleged Al-Qaeda suspects, have been responsible for thousands of deaths in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, a substantial portion of which includes innocent civilians. Most egregiously from a legal perspective, the White House operates its own “kill list” in order to carry out the policy, and has previously targeted and killed American citizens.

At the same time, the parameters of the current debate are disappointingly limited. On the one hand, drone proponents are raising the typical arguments: drone strikes minimize civilian casualties and serve as a smart alternative to what would otherwise be costlier ground operations or more imprecise unmanned weapons like cruise missiles. Meanwhile, some liberal backers favor the policy out of sheer faith in the President’s decision-making. On the other hand, opponents cite the obvious constitutional concerns: there is no congressional oversight on the use of drones, and the targeting of American civilians—without any due process—is an offensive and unconstitutional practice. On both sides of this debate, the premises on which the “drone wars” are built remain largely unquestioned.

Consider the remarks of Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), which seem to reflect many liberals’ mild unease with the outstanding policy: “We are in a different kind of war. We’re not sending troops. We’re not sending manned bombers. We’re dealing with the enemy where we find them to keep America safe. We have to strike a new constitutional balance with the challenges we face today.”

The gist of Durbin’s view is shared by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and long-time darling of the defense industry. In comments that seem like they were culled from the pages of The Onion, she told reporters that she was in favor of “legislation to ensure that drone strikes are carried out in a manner consistent with our values.”

Embedded in these calls for more oversight and accountability is a de facto acknowledgement that drones are only part of the much broader War on Terror, even if Obama wisely abandoned that particular phrase after taking office. The continuity between Obama and Bush’s defense policies extends well beyond their shared sympathy for flying death robots: both administrations have perpetuated the notion that the United States is permanently at war with Islamist militants who are out to attack Americans—and that the pursuit of those suspects should remain a fundamental national priority. Whether or not it’s harder for subsequent administrations to use drones as part of that effort doesn’t alter that deeper vision of permanent war.

The leaking of the Justice Department’s legal justification for targeted killings of American citizens and the confirmation hearings for Brennan should be an opportunity for vigorous criticism of the foundational assumptions of the War on Terror, and its enormous human costs. The U.S. is still at war in Afghanistan, an occupation that costs over $1 billion a week and has caused tens of thousands of civilian casualties. U.S. defense spending still remains roughly equal to the rest of the world’s defense spending combined. With more regressive budget cuts on the horizon and substantial cuts to Social Security appearing like a real possibility, it seems more appropriate than ever to actually question the core priorities of the War on Terror and its massive costs—whether or not drones have more congressional oversight.

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