Last week I wrote about the entertaining series of stories in which reporters asked Senate Democrats why they didn’t stand with Rand Paul during his filibuster of John Brennan over civil liberties concerns. I noted that congressional Democrats judge foreign policy stands on partisanship alone, and the Democrats’ confused responses to reporters last week signaled they thought reporters were in on the joke.
But there are Democrats outside of government starting to pipe up on the issue of drones and secrecy, and it suggests Paul’s filibuster was even more successful from a publicity standpoint than it seemed at the time. This is because when it began, Paul’s concentration on the seemingly farfetched possibility that the government would drone critics like Jane Fonda as they sat in Starbucks left the initial impression that the filibuster was going to be a political theater of the absurd. But Paul proved many doubters wrong not only by attracting other politicians and rallying support on Twitter, but because the drone-Fonda case highlighted something that made people uneasy: if the federal government couldn’t or wouldn’t clearly deny its right to zap nonviolent people on American soil, was there anything the Obama administration would rule out?
As I wrote on Friday, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham didn’t do themselves any good this week when they angrily trashed Senator Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster about drone attacks on the Senate floor. Sounding like angry old men telling the kids to get off their lawn isn’t the best way to respond to an event that galvanized the country and inspired admiration from both the right and the left. But rather than turn down the heat, McCain doubled down on his critique when he subsequently referred to Paul, Senator Ted Cruz and fellow libertarian Rep. Justin Amash as “wacko birds” in an interview with the Huffington Post that was published subsequent to his Senate remarks.
It should be understood that the Arizonan firing from the hip in this manner is just McCain being McCain. He doesn’t pull his punches, and, as is well known among those who have worked with him in the Senate, his lack of tolerance for those politicians who don’t measure up to his standards or who just annoy him is legendary.
But at this point that remark will do McCain more harm than it will the targets of his wrath. It will be seen as yet another indication that McCain and others who agree with him just don’t understand why Paul’s filibuster struck a nerve with so many in his party’s grass roots and inspired the admiration of many on the other side of the aisle as well. The word “wacko” signifies a lack of seriousness and the idea that those who fit the description are out of the political mainstream. The problem is that McCain, Graham and others who oppose Paul’s foreign policy views don’t seem to grasp that what is happening now is not merely excrescence of a marginal movement but the beginning of a serious policy debate about what Republicans believe about foreign policy. And the sooner he, and others who don’t want the GOP to drift away from being the party that stands for a strong America on the international stage, stop dismissing their opponents and start engaging them on the issues the better off they and the country will be.
Last year, for the first time in decades, Republicans lost the advantage on foreign policy in a presidential campaign. Exit polls showed that voters trusted Barack Obama more than Mitt Romney to handle an international crisis (57 percent trusted Obama, 50 percent trusted Romney). And of the small number of voters who put foreign policy as their top issue, Obama won by a margin of 56 percent to 33 percent. Part of this, of course, is due to the incumbent’s advantage. But Republicans, following the setbacks in the Iraq War and Afghanistan, will have a tough job restoring their advantage on foreign policy and national security issues.
Their current actions aren’t helping. Senator Rand Paul has won accolades from many on the right for his “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” filibuster. But however impressive his stamina, we must not forget what he was protesting against–the use of drone strikes which, when directed overseas, are supported by 83 percent of Americans and when directed against American citizens overseas are supported by 65 percent.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has announced an inquiry into the use of drones in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and the Palestinian Territories, and whether drones violate international law. The inquiry comes at the request of Russia, China, and Pakistan, a triad of countries not known for their concern about human rights. That Syria is not also a co-sponsor is probably an oversight on the part of the UN.
Human rights lawyers are notoriously myopic, but this might take the prize. States have made drones a key tool in the fight against terror for one major reason: Drones can access areas inaccessible by ground troops and attack targets with precision. Absent the use of drones, the other option available to states challenged with terrorists operating from hostile or ungoverned territories is to mount an expedition. It is the difference between conducting surgery with a scalpel versus an axe.
Back in 2008, John Brennan was passed over for the CIA director role largely because of his record on enhanced interrogation. After his nomination to the post yesterday, the anti-war movement is trying to make it an issue again. The ACLU has released a statement calling on the Senate to delay his confirmation and investigate his involvement with the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation techniques:
President Obama this afternoon nominated his counterterrorism advisor John Brennan to become the next director of the CIA. Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, had the following concerns with the president’s choice to fill this critical national security post.
Despite media reports that Brennan continually raised civil liberties concerns within the White House, noted Murphy, the Senate should not move forward with his nomination until it assesses the legality of his actions in past leadership positions in the CIA during the early years of the George W. Bush administration and in his current role in the ongoing targeted killing program.
Is “America’s Drone War Out of Control”? That is the provocative headline—minus the question mark—of Gideon Rachman’s Financial Times column. He is not alone in attacking the policy of using drone strikes against terrorist targets abroad—a policy initiated by the Bush administration and greatly expanded under President Obama. Such strikes are coming in for increasing criticism for supposedly being just as lawless as “renditions,” detentions without trial, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” warrantless wiretapping and all the other features of the war on terrorism to which civil libertarians object. One suspects that the criticism, now a mild buzz, would reach a crescendo if a Republican were in the White House: Obama’s policies are harder to criticize for the left than those of a President McCain or Romney.
It is perhaps just as well to have a more open debate about what has so far been a relatively covert policy, which has extended from the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan to other lands, from Pakistan to Yemen, where U.S. ground troops are not committed. Critics of drone strikes do, in fairness, make some legitimate points about what criteria are used to designate targets and how, in the absence of judicial review, we can achieve accountability for mistakes. There is also legitimate fear that by creating collateral damage such strikes may create more enemies than they eliminate and, less persuasively, that such strikes could create a precedent for authoritarian regimes to follow suit. (Do countries like Russia and Iran really need American inspiration to target their perceived enemies abroad?)
President Obama begins his transition period to a second term by receiving some adorable but thoughtless advice from the New York Times editorial board: “Close Guantanamo Prison,” the editors declare. The advice is adorable because it seems frozen in time four years ago, when it was slightly conceivable that Obama would do anything other than concretize and expand executive power and privilege he railed against when it was in the hands of his predecessor. It is thoughtless because Obama doesn’t need Gitmo: rather than send prisoners to Gitmo, where they receive three squares a day (and reportedly get to keep pets), he is sending them to a Somali hell on earth, where skin disease runs rampant in the overcrowded, sun-scorched cells.
The editorial also suggests he veto the National Defense Authorization Act. Readers might recall that the NDAA, which Obama signed in late 2011, was the moment civil libertarians fully understood that Obama would, contrary to his campaign promises, spend his time in office accruing as much power as he could. The ACLU, with a heavy heart and the scales fallen from their eyes, released a statement: “President Obama’s action today is a blight on his legacy because he will forever be known as the president who signed indefinite detention without charge or trial into law,” pronounced ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. “The statute is particularly dangerous because it has no temporal or geographic limitations, and can be used by this and future presidents to militarily detain people captured far from any battlefield.”
But of course by that time, Obama had ordered military action against Libya without bothering to go to Congress about it and rested his national security strategy on its most secretive element: the drone war. The use of drones to target anyone the Obama administration decides poses a threat has been effective, though it comes at the cost of the deaths of civilians the administration considers collateral damage. And it is in this aspect of Obama’s national security policy that he appears to believe that what he is doing is problematic but doesn’t particularly care. The New York Times reports on a cartoonishly cynical approach to targeted assassination coming from the White House:
American counterterrorism strategy is too often geared to preventing the last terrorist attack. Terrorists and their sponsors are creative, however. They will not pursue a strategy against which they know the United States is well prepared to defend itself but will instead look to maintain surprise. Eleven years ago, it was using airplanes for suicide attacks. In intervening years, it has been using liquid to construct explosives in flight, or concealing bombs in underwear. Counterterror specialists already worry about the possibility that Al Qaeda doctors could surgically implant bombs in terrorists. Other specialists worry that ship-borne cargo could harbor nuclear or chemical weapons.
The United States is not preparing, however, for a new threat which is, literally, over-the-horizon. Drones have become the counterterror tool of choice for the Obama administration, with devastating effect. But the days when the United States monopolizes drones have already come to an end. China and Russia have built drones, and Pakistan is exploring the technology. Using technology provided by the Obama administration, Turkey is building its own drones and preparing to sell them without regard to U.S. national security interests. After all, Turkey’s prime minister even considers Hamas a viable partner. Iran already has constructed and put into operation a robust drone fleet, perhaps enhanced with technology derived from the U.S. drone lost over its territory. Iran is helping Venezuela build its own drones. While the nightmare scenario for the counterterror community is Iran or other states providing terror groups with unconventional weapons, the likelihood that they might provide drones is greater.
Congratulations are due to the CIA, which carried out the strike, and to President Obama, who ordered it (and approved the target personally, as the New York Times has revealed) for the elimination of a major enemy of the United States–Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s No. 2 commander. Like many of al-Qaeda’s operatives, Libi was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan. He was the effective, day-to-day field commander of al-Qaeda, and his death will no doubt cause serious disruption to whatever operations al-Qaeda Central is involved in. The importance of his elimination is somewhat decreased, however, by the fact that so many of the terrorist organization’s operations have migrated outside of Pakistan, to regional affiliates from Mali to Yemen; Libi’s death probably will not have much impact on their operations.
This highlights the declining utility of targeting al-Qaeda Central: the organization has already been severely hurt by the continuous elimination of its top cadres. Such operations must be maintained to keep the pressure on, but they can no longer be the exclusive focus of counter-terrorism operations. It is good to see the drone campaign being ramped up in Yemen, but there are limits to what strikes from the air can achieve. There is a desperate need to expand lawful authority in such ungoverned areas to keep groups such as al-Qaeda from regenerating themselves. If the U.S. government has a plan to accomplish that in Pakistan, Yemen or other countries, from Mali to Libya, I have not heard of it.
A friend on the Hill alerted me to this story which should raise red flags for any number of reasons:
The United Nations is weighing the possibility of using unmanned airplanes (drones) in intelligence operations and to searching for information… The issue was submitted to a committee of the UN General Assembly by the peacekeeping operations department, according to the organization’s official joint spokesman, Eduardo del Buey. Del Buey said that the United Nations is analyzing the potential use of that technology, including the support that the organization needs from the member countries if its use were recommended. The unarmed drones would be used for surveillance operations and to gather information, said the spokesman, adding that no conclusions or recommendations have been made on the matter.