Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Lethal Presidency: Drone murder and Obama

Tom Junod has written a lengthy and thoughtful piece on president Obama and the use of drones in targeted killing for Esquire. He is not pleased with it. He makes several points--that the killing of an American without judicial process is a new act for a president. That ,targeted killing,' the term the administration uses, is not a new thing (it began under Bush) but has become the signature trademark of the Obama administration and the key element of America's war on terror. He points out that Al-Awaki ... and his son, also killed under a Yemini night sky--were human beings.

Awaki was certainly an enemy of the state--but he also walked--or tried to walk--the line between being a inspiration and an actual conspirator. He tried to stay, Junod seems to make the case, within the bounds of freedom of speech.

Finally, Junod says this:

Of course, the danger of the Lethal Presidency is that the precedent you establish is hardly ever the precedent you think you are establishing, and whenever you seem to be describing a program that is limited and temporary, you are really describing a program that is expansive and permanent. You are a very controlled man, and as Lethal President, it's natural for you to think that you can control the Lethal Presidency. It's even natural for you to think that you can control the Lethal Presidencies of other countries, simply by the power of your example. But the Lethal Presidency incorporates not just drone technology but a way of thinking about drone technology, and this way of thinking will be your ultimate export. You have anticipated the problem of proliferation. But an arms race involving drones would be very different from an arms race involving nuclear arms, because the message that spread with nuclear arms was that these weapons must never be used. The message that you are spreading with drones is that they must be — that using them amounts to nothing less than our moral duty.
This is powerful stuff--and to be sure, not thoughtless.

On the left, opponents of the targeted killing program: They call it drone murder.

What Do I Think?
Let's first take a look at "drone murder" itself. What is objectively scary about drones--as opposed to other forms of weapons is twofold:

  1. They can stay airborne for a long time. The still-in-development Solar Eagle can stay aloft for five years. Thus they can "loiter" for extended periods of time--far longer than, say, a military fly-over would last. Longer, by far, than, for example, a helicopter would stay aloft.
  2. Unlike (most) conventional aircraft (as opposed to very expensive spy planes) they carry amazingly sophisticated sensory gear. They can see things (and even see through walls in some cases) that an ordinary pilot could not. They share this information with intelligence analysts in real-time allowing for instant responses when something is seen.
Drones are "scary" for a few other reasons as well.
  1. Their operators are remote and they, themselves, are robots. No one cries when a drone is killed. The servicemen and women who fly them are safely at home--in the US. A sign at the gates of one facility reminds them to drive safely: going home is the most dangerous part of their day ... for them.
  2. They are armed. Drones typically carry Hellfire missiles, a  106lb rocket with a 20lb warhead.It has a causality radius of sixty feet. Under good conditions they are very accurate. This kind of weapon can obliterate armored vehicles (hit from above) and wipe out entire groups if they are not very dispersed  / dug in.
This makes drones precision low-risk (in terms of human capital) weapons that allow for an unprecedented level of decision-making (coupled with analysis) and response. This, however, does not necessarily equate to almost no collateral damage--that still happens--what it more likely means is that war-making personnel find drones far superior to anything else they could field in terms of giving them a combination of intel, strike capacity, and lack of concern for the unit. In short: in a lot of cases they are the "ultimate weapon."

The Future
The future of drone-war is going to be even more intense. Soldiers will launch personal units. Weapons will become more sophisticated, and sensory gear will expand greatly. If Israel, armed with modern American drones, makes war again the way it did against Hezbollah the outcome will likely be very, very different. Armed with unprecedented asymmetric battlefield information they would, likely, get a very different outcome. Drones are going to make war more appealing rather than less.

Drones will also eat into--or entirely take away--the edge that 4th generation warfare gave to the insurgencies in a battle. Irregular forces could force western armies to either inflict massive civilian casualties or else suffer a rolling series of defeats. Where an American trooper has to carry some 100lbs of gear an insurgent needs almost nothing: when he blends with the populace he is not "operating away from his base"--he goes home to dinner.

Drones are going to change that. Possibly dramatically (Fifth Generation Warfare: cyber-war may give back some advantage to lower-funded distributed forces--but in a very different way).

So What Do I Think?
Junod asks what he thinks is a telling question:
The former official in your administration — the one familiar with targeting — has suggested a question intended to encapsulate the danger represented by the expansive nature of the Lethal Presidency: "Ask the administration if the president himself is targetable."
I think herein lies the place where I fundamentally diverge from his point of view: the answer is clearly "yes." The Commander in Chief of any armed force with whom you are at war is de facto a legitimate target. It is the job of the army he commands to keep him alive. That isn't--or at least shouldn't be--a surprise. It shouldn't be new information--and that's where Junod, I think, falls down.

When there exists a real, extant state of war--which, against Al Queada there certainly does--and, for most people, a just war at that--then it is incumbent on any general to (a) defeat the enemy (usually by killing them) and (b) protect his populace and then his soldiers in that order. If the most efficient way of doing that is drones then it is not the actions of the Lethal President that legitimize that but rather the moral calculus of war itself (oh, they will to some--people who would've rejected Bush doing it--but not Obama--but those people are not thinking hard about this--they're just looking at the color of each man's jersey). 

Put it another way: if Obama eschewed drone warfare, what is he to tell the parents, spouses, and children of every soldier who comes home, unnecessarily, in a body bag?

However, that doesn't mean there aren't some ancillary good points:

Collateral Damage
One might ask what Obama is to tell the parents of children wrongly killed by drone strikes. The answer is that he, unfortunately, has the same thing to say that every general has always said: that it is unfortunate--that this happens in war--and that we must always--always--strive to do better. This is no comfort to them (of course) but it is no less true for it.

Special forces troops that can be deployed deep into countries we have tenuous relationships with, who always-get their man, and do not have tremendous political blow-back exist only in the movies. Instead, if the administration conducted a series of "Bin Laden Raids" we would have parades of special forces coffins. The training for that mission was something incredibly special and complex. It does not scale.

The other conventional alternative: piloted aircraft bombing is probably even worse. Most aircraft cannot operate at the altitudes (low) in the time frames (hours) that drones can. They are faster, higher, and use larger ordinance. There is no reason to think replacing drone attacks with conventional airstrikes would result in fewer causalities--rather the reverse.

The Optics
We are assured the optics of drone strikes "look bad." We are told that Americans are cowardly for attacking from over-seas. We are told that drones in the sky raise people against us. That collateral damage creates more terrorists than it kills--and so on. While I'm dubious about the numbers here (I think they do not exist save in various people's imaginations) I do know that America operating inside Muslim nations does upset a lot of people. I know that the injustice of the killings (perceived injustice) is a recruiting call.

That's all true.

But it would be true anyway, whatever we did. If America were to attack with nothing but human soldiers and our army was routed and massacred and defeated? That would be the most successful call to arms our enemies could imagine. If we were to pull out and cede the playing field to them? That too would be a Public Relations victory. Stopping the fight or fighting ineffectually would just encourage the global radical jihad: everyone loves a winner.

I also want to note than in a surprisingly un-Orwellian move the operational descriptor, "targeted killing" is not a euphemism. It's what it says on the tin: killing. Obama's decision not to shy away from that speaks volumes.

Basically? I think the optics here, however bad they are, are as good as they get if we wish to conduct effective operations against distributed enemy targets.

The Rule of Law
Junod points out that the administration pointed out that American citizens are promised due process under the Constitution and not judicial process. The killing committee (a real Death Panel) gives extra consideration to American citizens. I think this is more or less "in the right direction." I don't make a lot of distinction between Al-Awaki and anyone else doing service for Al Queada. 

Do I trust the government on this? I don't have to--Awaki made no secret of his plans and his position. He promoted the Fort Hood shootings and the Christmas Day (would-be) underwear bombing. Imagine a plane falling from the sky on Christmas morning: that's this guy. He was a human being--yes--but he was an enemy of the state and his persuasive charisma was as much an active ingredient as the explosive in the guy's pants.

So I think that given the options: either allow him to continue or do what is necessary to stop him? I think it's necessary to stop him.

We were told that the dominance of the American military would see an end when we ran into dispersed fighting forces. Indeed, we suffered some serious losses starting with Vietnam and continuing to Iraq where we defeated the conventional military easily and had to fight essentially hand-to-hand with the insurgents. Then technology caught up with them (or almost has). As our enemies are not evolving into less lethal, less hateful partisans (although they are getting globally less popular than they were in the early 2000's) I can't see this as anything but a good thing.

And I think it comes down to Junod's quoted question: is the president a target? Yes, he is--and moreover, whether or not I think so, we all know that he's going to be. You can answer that question yourself however you want: How Bin Laden answered it? He wanted Obama dead so he could exploit the weak and slow Joe Biden so it doesn't really matter if he had drones or not--he was coming for us with everything he had.

Using drones to kill his commanders off seems a rational, even measured response.

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