When Dick and Barack agree, watch out - Macleans.ca

When Dick and Barack agree, watch out

Paul Wells on the meaning of drones

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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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