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Dangerous Delusions

Drone Trust the Government

by SHELDON RICHMAN
“Covert” drone warfare requires a level of confidence in politicians that they will never deserve.
In the Kentucky Resolutions, the 1798 protest against the Alien and Sedition Acts, Thomas Jefferson wrote,
It would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in [politicians] to silence our fears for the safety of our rights: that confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism — free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence; it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power.
If Jefferson had this reaction to restrictions on criticism of the government, we can surmise that he would have been appalled by a government whose chief executive has the unchecked unilateral power to kill people — including American citizens — away from the traditional battlefield and without due process, on the basis of suspicions and allegations that they are “involved in planning terrorist attacks against the United States.” (The quote is from the Department of Justice White Paper on drone warfare [PDF].)
Jefferson and others of his generation understood that government was simply not something to be trusted. Rather, it was a permanent object of suspicion, because it was uniquely positioned to steal our freedoms. This of course is precisely the opposite of the attitude that government officials — Democrat and Republican — wish us Americans to hold.
Under the drone program, the president and high-ranking senior officials select individuals in foreign countries not at war with the United States for targeting on the basis of claims that they are involved in the operations of “al-Qa’ida or an associated force.” No judicial finding is required before an individual — again, including American citizens — can be killed. As columnist Glenn Greenwald notes, “Without any due process, transparency or oversight, there is no way to know who is a ‘senior al-Qaida leader’ and who is posing an ‘imminent threat’ to Americans. All that can be known is who Obama, in total secrecy, accuses of this.”
But we aren’t supposed to be bothered by this policy, because we are expected to have confidence in “our leaders,” at least as long as they are members of the right political party. Surely they would not abuse this terrifying power. At this point, any self-respecting American should be quoting Jefferson: “That confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism.” It is intolerable that the president can autocratically send unpiloted aircraft into foreign countries to kill people. And it is appalling that the administration feels it owes the people no detailed explanation of where this authority comes from. (A Justice Department white paper ostensibly describing a secret legal memo was obtained by NBC News.)
What has America become?
Drones raise a related concern. The technology is attractive to the ruling elite because using it is less expensive than traditional forms of war. That is, it lowers the cost of foreign intervention. “Boots on the ground” are expensive both in the risk to troops and money. Conventional airstrikes are similarly expensive. By comparison, drone warfare is cheap. American personnel are not at risk, because drones can be operated safely thousands of miles from the victims’ location.
This, however, is not the blessing some take it to be. Lowering the cost of foreign intervention and war is a false economy, because it allows government more easily to embroil the country in hostilities. Unintended consequences are inevitable. Thus we shouldn’t want to remove obstacles to a belligerent foreign policy. On the contrary, we should want to make it prohibitively expensive for politicians to enter overseas conflicts, because they have neither the information nor the incentives to perform good deeds in this regard.
But, some will ask, how can Americans be kept safe from terrorism? Let’s recall that the terrorism directed at Americans since the 1990s has been entirely the direct result of U.S.-government-inflicted or -sponsored violence, primarily in the Middle East. Captured terrorists say this, and there is no reason to doubt them. It’s not about “our freedom.” Jihadists don’t attack Switzerland. If people with a disposition for violence plot against American troops abroad, bring the troops home. If people in countries brutalized by American policy plot against us, stop the brutality and embrace nonintervention — a policy requiring no trust in “our leaders.”
Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) in Fairfax, Va.