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Drones are still hovering over the capital – figuratively, for the time being. The images generated by Eric Holder’s disquieting testimony and Rand Paul’s filibuster are lingering. They have not ignited an uproar of protest against targeted assassinations, signature strikes or even the liquidating of American citizens when the White House judges it necessary for the sake of national security. There is, though, a measure of concerned discussion for the first time. Admittedly, that debate is being distorted by the kinds of specious arguments that are a feature of the fearful atmospherics produced by the “war on terror.”
There are a lot of red herrings being trailed around Washington to distract from the dangerous path we are going down. They are being swallowed whole by the media as per usual. One is to raise the prospect of having to deal with another high-jacked plane headed to a populous target a la 9/11 -as brought up by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin during the filibuster. That vivid and scary picture obscures the cardinal feature of the situation: the target in that instance is the terrorist hijacker and the weapon in his possession – the plane which happens to contain civilians including Americans. This is not at all the same as identifying an individual American in advance and making that person the target for arbitrary assassination. The decision whether to shoot down the plane is certainly harrowing. It raises a different order of ethical and legal issues, however, than does the Obama administration’s premeditated kill list.
The most extreme situation is the one that has captured the frightened imagination via endless TV thrillers: the diabolical terrorist, perhaps an American citizen, hovering over a nuclear bomb that he is about to detonate. The stakes may be dire but the situational logic is pretty mundane. You don’t need extraordinary presidential authority that infringes on constitutional protections to deal with this situation. It is the same in kind as the apprehension of a criminal with a gun or any other weapon who raises it to shoot a hostage or police officer. The authoritative right to kill him is inherent in the police function – happens every week.
There are very sound reasons why certain prohibitions are written into law/ constitution/moral codes as absolute. Provision for exceptions are simply too laden with risk. There is nothing in the post-9/11 reality that obliges us to call that prudential wisdom into question. More than a decade after the horror of the Twin Towers we remain in the emotional thrall of that event. Our deliberate thinking is easily compromised the moment its appalling imagery is reawakened by those who are selling a particular policy or program that otherwise cannot stand the test of reasoned analysis. This has been manifest over the past few weeks by the Obama administration’s evasiveness in refusing to come clean on the drone program or to offer an honest defense of it – in all its aspects. Instead of clarity and candor, we have gotten semantics.
Rand Paul was able to squeeze out of Holder the following declaration: “Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?’ The answer to that question is no.” Unequivocal? Not quite. Who defines what “combat” is? On numerous occasions, successive administrations have expanded on its meaning to cover anyone aiding and abetting those who may be planning terrorist acts. That inclusive conception covers thousands of persons. Let us recall that of all those who have been detained at Guantanamo, only a small minority were either engaged in combat or ready for combat as conventionally understood. A clarification is imperative. Another possible caveat re. Holder’s statement. He mentions only drones and no other means of assassination. Is this intentional? A verbal device for leaving the administration more wiggle room? Seems improbable on the surface – but the record leaves little ground for trusting our leaders who have taken up unprecedented powers to do things that defy constitution, law and common understanding.
Afghanistan and Pakistan, of course, have the theater of combat where drones have been deployed and used most extensively. Despite the Obama administration’s assiduous attempts to mask these activities in a veil of secrecy, they have revealed much in their campaign to publicize supposed successes. Others have added to the record by revealing the large number of civilian casualties, target errors and the adverse effect on our standing among the Afghans. Yet we have no idea at this point what the point of our costly engagement there is. This has become a mindless war in the literal sense. Today, no one in Washington can explain our purpose in Afghanistan.
There was a logic behind the decision in 2002 to stay on after we unseated the Taliban and decimated al-Qaida; namely, to eliminate the Taliban as a political contender so that never in the future would they be in a position to host a terrorist group on any part of Afghan soil. When that objective became unrealizable, we reverted to another, weaker logic: we aimed to coerce/persuade the Taliban to disarm and join the political process as structured by the existing constitution. Now that, too, has gone up is smoke. Remember the 50 metrics that Obama promised us in December 2009 – the metrics that would be scrupulously monitored to gauge progress of the Afghan surge? The quicksilver from that set of barometers has long since scattered with no one paying the slightest attention.
So what’s left?
Hopes are pinned on the Afghan National Army acquiring the ability to suppress the insurgency while some as yet unidentified post-Karzai figure builds a political foundation in Kabul. Good luck. The ANA has been a work in progress for more than a decade. It has only one unit assessed as fully operational; it harbors ethnic tensions among Pashtons, Tajiks and Hazaras; much of it is corrupt. As for the conjectured rise of a charismatic national leader, that is a pipe dream. Whether Washington manages to persuade Karzai et. Al. to accept a residual American force of 10 – 15,000 thousand or not, whether we hang around for 5 years or 10, the result will be little affected. The inevitable outcome is a prominent place for the Taliban in Afghan politics, civil strife of some unknowable scope and intensity, a weak central government, and progressively declining American influence (as in Iraq). All of this was foreseeable. That means little if any benefit to the national interest – but quite a bit still at stake in terms of national pride and individuals’ career/political interests. That is the definition of mindless.
It is becoming clear that the White House’s reference date for getting the Afghan monkey off Uncle Sam’s back is not December 31, 2014 – despite solemn avowals. It is January 21, 2017 when Obama leaves office and retires to write his memoirs. Between now and then there will be more reviews, more task forces, more meetings spent haggling over tactical options. Our leaders, following precedent, will be like blind men who spend endless hours rigorously cleansing, fitting and inserting their contact lenses. “With faith everything is possible” – so we are encouraged to believe. Achieving a coherent approach to Afghanistan will provide the sternest of tests for that optimistic proposition.
So, it was discouraging to see Chuck Hagel immediately show up in Afghanistan to associate himself visually and politically with the continuing mindlessness of the Afghan. True, he had to make the visit as a gesture of solidarity with all the troops there. But perhaps it could have been put off a few weeks so as to send the message that our future is not hostage to that failure’s playing itself out. He risks becoming party to the silent compact among two administrations, two parties, the entire (almost) foreign policy community, and the media to concoct and live by a fictional account of Afghanistan – a chapter in the larger fiction of the “war on terror.”
There is some small hope that we can escape from its suffocating weight insofar as targeted killings of Americans is concerned. Liberation from the tentacles of the 9/11 decade on other matters is even less probable.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.