When Dick and Barack agree, watch out

Paul Wells on the meaning of drones

When Dick and Barack agree, watch out

Chris Kaufman/AP

Dick Cheney was on CBS the other day, explaining U.S. President Barack Obama’s failings yet again. “I think the president came to power with a world view that’s fundamentally different,” the former vice-president said. “[There was] the sense that he wanted to reduce U.S. influence in the world, he wanted to take us down a peg.”

There’s no point debating this. Millions of Americans do consider the Obama presidency an assault against the United States. They voted for Mitt Romney last November and it didn’t do them much good. As for those who like Obama, they’d have choice things to say about what Cheney did to U.S. influence. “I think the worst thing that we could do right now,” Obama aide Stephanie Cutter said, “is take Dick Cheney’s advice on foreign policy.”

So the most interesting part of Cheney’s interview was the part where he agreed with Obama. He was asked about remote-controlled drones as a device for killing suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens. “I think it’s a good program,” Cheney said. “I don’t disagree with the basic policy that the Obama administration is pursuing.”

Did he have a problem with the drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen in Yemen? No. “He was clearly a part of al-Qaeda.” Shouldn’t there be some kind of independent oversight to make sure these killings adhere to some kind of rule of law? Pshaw. “When we hire the President of the United States, he gets to live in a big house, makes all that money,” Cheney said. “He’s getting paid to make difficult, difficult decisions.”

Thanks, Dick. Nothing could make Obama’s admirers more nervous than the notion that Dick Cheney thinks one of his policies is swell.

But at least Cheney’s comments come in the context of a belated debate in the U.S. about the legality and ethics of using remote-controlled flying-weapon platforms to kill America’s enemies and perceived enemies. The Obama administration has sharply increased its use of armed drones. It had avoided serious questions about their use for a long time. Finally, the Senate confirmation hearings for John Brennan, Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, have given the debate a healthier profile.

Brennan helped design the drone program. When White House spokesman Jay Carney said last week the strikes are “legal, they are ethical and they are wise,” he was repeating a talking point Brennan has used for a year. And just as the Brennan hearings began, a Justice Department white paper on drone use was leaked to NBC News, giving the clearest expression yet of the Obama administration’s legal thinking on the issue.

Actually, it’s not that clear. The expression, I mean, but also the thinking. The paper says any U.S. citizen is a target if he is “a senior operational leader” at al-Qaeda or, for that matter, any “affiliated group,” and if he poses an “imminent threat of violent attack.” This is a festival of holes to drive trucks through. What makes a leader senior, or operational? What affiliation to al-Qaeda is sufficient to justify lethally condemning membership in the affiliated group? What’s an imminent threat? Apparently, it’s just about any threat: as Amy Davidson has pointed out in The New Yorker, the white paper argues that terrorists are “continually planning attacks,” “continually plotting,” and “the U.S. government may not be aware of all al-Qaeda plots as they are developing and thus cannot be confident that none is about to occur.”

So Barack Obama, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is operating on advice that says he can send a robot to kill any American citizen who seems to be useful to any organization that seems to be working with al-Qaeda as it seems to do the sort of work it usually does. And Cheney says Obama’s residency in “a big house” is a sufficient check on that power. All of this, incidentally, concerns only U.S. citizens. The rules for killing foreign nationals are more relaxed.

The hell of it is, I’m having a hard time imagining a U.S. president who would have resisted the pressure that led Obama to depend far more heavily on drones as a weapon in the endless low-level war against terrorists. Drones are an excellent refinement in the ancient game of making sure more of your side dies than mine. They’re a marked departure from the 20th-century game of delivering destruction on a wide scale: whereas a bomber-wing, nuclear-submarine or aircraft-carrier battle group costs billions, puts hundreds of your own at risk and could wipe out a country, a drone costs a pittance and, even on a bad day, kills only a handful. It feels more refined.

Which is why the debate about drones in Washington is interesting but, in the end, not very significant. Soon drones will be in the hands of countries, and then of affiliated groups that manage to care a lot less about due process than does the U.S. Justice Department. It’ll be easy to seed the skies over U.S. army bases, and then U.S. cities—and then ours— with tiny, leisurely killing toys. Defence and security agencies have worried for decades about weapons of mass destruction, and they can’t stop doing that just yet. But weapons of pinpoint destruction are the likelier threat.

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When Dick and Barack agree, watch out

  1. “It feels more refined”.

    I find this small sentence to be the best, the most telling of the lot. It isn’t just about this being a labour saving…oops, life saving device for an Empire. [particularly at a time of financial constraint. Hell, even the pentagon has to make do with trillions stead of gazillions these days] It’s also a sop to conscience, a nice bit of moral sophistry, a smug indulgence in super power conceit [Oddly enough more so for a liberal like BO than a conservative like W.] and a rebel yell for technology…yay! technological innovation. Eventually it’ll even reduce killing people to a convenient nexus of bean counting meets new technology meets moral expediency. Collateral damage reduced to an inconvenient and embarrassing remainder at the end of someone’s equation somewhere. The Important thing is some bad guys are dead and we don’t need boots on the ground, planes on the news, or permission even from God it seems to do this.
    To be sure there is a mad logic to all of this, but the framing of it i find nauseatingly banal.
    The madness of the logic basically posits that they will run out of terrorist [or get bored or something] before the US runs out of drones or goes broke. Sure, its likely a good number of these guys deserve no better fate. But somehow i don’t think this is causing the number of volunteers to evaporate. Too late now, but the west should have found a way to make this an exercise in running down some scummy criminals, and bringing them to an honest accounting, due process and all. No one is looking at that opportunity cost in lives and treasure in what passes for the moral counsels of the mighty i’ll wager. If they do it’s likely deemed irrelevant or passe now.

    So, it looks like Obama’s kept some of the same law weasels that framed the torture issue for Dick and W on speed dial. I guess if you can waterboard the English language enough you can even make torture, or the ultimate executive sanction sound like a good thing?A good kind of influence.

    I can’t help hearing echoes of Nixon throughout these sort of debates.What is he supposed to have said?…if the president says it legal, then it is legal.[something like that] I wonder how different history might have been if they had jailed Nixon merely for uttering those words? Seems like one way or another US presidents have been above the law ever since.

  2. How Orwellian.

    It makes me think that one day in the far future, two friends will be walking down the street talking when one of them (who looks “suspiciously” like some other “undesireable” person) suddenly disappears in a puff of smoke.

    Meanwhile, after a moment of stun, eyebrows raised, his friend shoves his hands in his pockets and walks away at a brisk pace, afraid to look up from the ground.

  3. Course we don’t want to touch on probably what will amount to the greatest folly in the current US approach – the precedent it sets to see the number 1 moralizer and leader of the nominally law abiding free world, bending its own laws and moral legitimacy into a pretzel. The US may not be the first state to go down expediency avenue…Israel, Russia and China, just about everyone else to some degree or other, have all taken turns doing wheelies on it… but it is surely the most important. But maybe no one cares after the George, Dick and Tony B show?
    There used to be an old fashioned unwritten moral code that states didn’t go after each other heads of state, for a very good reason – bad precedent – good leaders are hard to come by and elections are both annoying and expensive.
    So down the road, when this is all over [assuming no none thinks it worthwhile reining in the power of the worlds most powerful politician] just who is the US going to lecture without a smirk on its face; and who is going to take a blind bit of notice?

  4. Well nobody expected that Obama would turn the US into a peace-loving nation overnight….so some of the old way goes on.

    But more people are now starting to ask what would happen if China or Russia or Iran or somesuch sent drones into the US to kill people.

    • China or Russia won’t attack the states. It’s too early for that. They haven’t completely removed themselves from all liability from holding US Dollars and treasuries yet.

      Now, once they’ve switched over to other currencies, specifically commodity-backed currencies, rather than fiat currencies, and updated their commodity holdings (not “commodity derivatives”, but actual physical commodities, with tangible, provable, real value, like gold, silver, copper, titanium, etc.) they will stand to lose far less economically from letting the greed of the US Government and Federal Reserve from finally taking it down.

      Of course, then there is the question of how the states gets broken up, which foreign creditor gets which parts, how many “new republics” or “unions” are formed from those few states (which were not already promised to foreign power) which still retain more than 50% domestic ownership and control…and that’s not even considering the potential effects on Canada, with the obvious loss of 60% of the economy in the form of the near total shut-down of exports.

      The Chinese have a saying: “May you live in interesting times.” It is actually a curse.

      The next few years are going to be quite interesting. For everyone. Everywhere.

      • They won’t be attacking the US at any time.

        You’re having a Cold War hangover.

  5. I have had occasion to wonder if the US continues to target so-called ‘American-born’ terrorists anywhere in the world, when might we here in Canada find that they are doing so in our country. After all, borders obviously mean nothing to the US as they continue to send drones into countries that they are not at war with – why should Canada be any different?

  6. The concern about reciprocal pinpoint destruction may be somewhat overdrawn. It will certainly exist. But drones must have bases and c controllers, and most of them can be spotted and attacked. State actors will generally not do this because of the fear of retaliation. Non-state actors are a greater concern, but even small drones must have operators. Detection will never be 100%, but non-state actors must have state sponsors – which can be coerced.

    As for Obama’s Nobel, that was bestowed in hope of righteousness, not in its recognition.

  7. Drones are a phase, especially the reliance on them. It is a way to project power without risk, but to be effective requires very very good intelligence, which is risky. Without the intelligence, you are blind and open to attack. While Obama was taking out folks in Pakistan, the enemy moved and took out one of their consulates in Libya.

    To win a war, you need to take over and hold territory until you can control it. Even with an insurgency war. Nasty, bloody, risky and costly. Drones are an attempt to do it on the cheap and ultimately won’t work. Some smart people in a city far away can think they know what is happening but as with any centralized control, only know what they are told and will likely fail.

  8. Obama doesn’t seem to understand the dominoes effect. But people is under his spell.

    • Well I’m sorry if the man committed to World Peace isn’t good enough for you BUT he is for the rest of us.. It happened that the rest is 70% of America. Election was ‘open event’ overlooked by many organization to make sure it is the people s wish that counts and President Obama was the outcome. If time show that we made mistake, Hell so be it,

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