our flying death-robot policy and why liberals support it

It’s a little surprising that someone as sophisticated as Salon‘s Joan Walsh just discovered that Democrats got smeared for being insufficiently anti-Communist during the Cold War. But, now discovered, that fact forms the basis for her theory about why ostensibly anti-war liberals are so silent, or even keen, on Obama’s recent wars of choice:

[G]iven the last 60 years, you can see why it’s a relief to be able to answer the Joe McCarthys and the Karl Roves and the Dick Cheneys of the right with dead enemies, even if some people have qualms about the way they were killed. Obama has provided an unexpected defense against those right wing bullies, a political gift liberals are reluctant to criticize….

[During the 2008 election, Obama] was against the Iraq war, but he wasn’t a peacenik — I’m against stupid wars, he said. He promised to double down in Afghanistan and even go into Pakistan without permission to get Osama bin Laden. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and John McCain criticized and even mocked him on that last point, he sounded even mas macho than Bush, with all of his unilateral war-mongering. I’m not sure what peace-minded progressive Democrats who worshiped Obama thought at the time. No doubt some hoped he was just saying what he needed to get elected, but he didn’t mean it.

He meant it.

Speaking as one of the peace-minded progressives, I suppose we took him at his word that he was against stupid wars. I.e., wars that, whatever immediate gains they offered, promised to create national security headaches and reduce both our standing and our safety in the future.

On exactly this point, there was a recent shoot-out between Glenn Greenwald and Conor Friedersdorf on one side and Andrew Sullivan and George Packer on the other. I come down with Greenwald and Friedersdorf:

Today’s defense of President Obama from Andrew Sullivan is devoted to refuting Conor Friedersdorf’s criticism of Obama’s drone program. Says Sullivan:

What frustrates me about Conor’s position – and Greenwald’s as well – is that it kind of assumes 9/11 didn’t happen or couldn’t happen again, and dismisses far too glibly the president’s actual responsibility as commander-in-chief to counter these acts of mass terror.

This is exactly backward. I absolutely believe that another 9/11 is possible. And the reason I believe it’s so possible is that people like Andrew Sullivan — and George Packer — have spent the last decade publicly cheering for American violence brought to the Muslim world, and they continue to do so (now more than ever under Obama). Far from believing that another 9/11 can’t happen, I’m amazed that it hasn’t already, and am quite confident that at some point it will.

Joan Walsh contends that American liberals are sensitive about speaking out on national security because they’ve got institutional memory going back to the 1940’s telling them not to. But… I don’t know. It looks unlikely, given that almost nobody seems to be able to remember as far back as 1953.

(Or its bookend year, 1979.)

UPDATE: I just want to add — there’s something particularly problematic about drones as a mode of supposedly fighting terrorism. Remember “we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here“? Whatever shred of truth that idea may hold has to be predicated on the notion that we are actually fighting — i.e., putting troops on the ground — “over there.” Otherwise, how can “they” conceive of doing anything in retaliation other than attacking us “over here”?

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2 Responses to our flying death-robot policy and why liberals support it

  1. Eric says:

    Greenwald’s an ass. He doesn’t understand causality one whit; I’m sure he will be uncomfortably happy if another 9/11 happens, because it will vindicate him and offer him an opportunity to congratulate himself some more. Unfortunately, the deeper problem is that there will always be a reason for 9/11s–if it isn’t drone attacks; it’s the presence of American airbases in the Middle East; or it’s support of Israel; or it’s the predominance of our global influence; or it’s our ugly history of supporting, empowering and installing totalitarians and fascists as anti-Soviet proxies and/or to benefit Western oil companies; or it’ll be something else.

    I am not saying that terrorists don’t have reasons, or that they don’t need reasons, or that there reasons might not be legitimate (note, however, that some of their reasons are illegitimate); but I don’t think there will ever be any shortage of legitimate reasons for what they would do (and we have to stipulate that illegitimate reasons can be pulled from the infinite void of crazy reasons to do something).

    If there’s any hope of deferring another 9/11 (preventing may be too much to expect), it isn’t by denying a casus belli to those for whom it is ultimately sufficient that we exist and the former caliphates are therefore eclipsed. The hope is that the organizational structure can be fractured to the point that operational abilities are limited, local, relatively impotent. A law-enforcement approach to that is probably preferable but impractical; murdering the leaders is ugly and possibly Sisyphean in its futility, but perhaps more concrete and efficient.

    (Let’s also point out that 9/11, in this context, is a shorthand for “whatever crazy thing somebody thinks of doing that will cost lots of lives and damage lots of property”. Because, actually, we can specifically say that al Qaeda shot their wad on the whole “get lost of people to hijack lots of planes and crash them into things” plan; assuming they have any operational capability left (and who knows at this point?), that one won’t work again for a long list of reasons. But that’s a tangent.)

    Let me offer two reasons for liberal silence on the drones.

    First, frankly, fatigue. Right or wrong, I think a lot of us are too sick and dispirited to even hold our heads up.

    Secondly, that if we assume, arguendo, that the drone wars are necessary, if ugly, then Packer et al. are absolutely right that leveraging our technological advantages to avoid human losses on our side is probably the best way to fight this. There’s no conceivable advantage in putting boots on the ground. Now, it’s very possible–no, probable–we shouldn’t be fighting this war–or whatever the hell it is–in the first place. (One suspects that if Glenn Greenwald has any legitimate agenda left–anything beyond trolling the land of his part-time residency, this is probably his preferred outcome; and I can’t really disagree with that, I guess.) The reality check there is that aside from the fact that doing nothing doesn’t seem like a particularly viable strategy for various reasons, it’s certainly not a viable domestic, political strategy, least of all for a Democrat (perhaps Mitt Romney can go to Yemen much as Nixon went to China, though that hardly seems likely to happen).

    One point off of this would be that there is at least an argument for disrupting terrorist hierarchies by force, or trying to; a second point would be that one might have to resign oneself to the reality that Democrats will always, post-1949 (and I agree with you it’s surprising Joan Walsh only just now notices the date), be forced to do stupid military things to establish their bona fides. So you only get a Great Society for the price of Vietnam, basically. And the gun pointed to your head the whole time is that with the Republicans, you’re going to get the cuts in social programs and they might invade Granada (or Iraq) while they’re at it, so you don’t really get anything at all for the trade. If it’s cynical to say that killing Third-World foreigners with robots is what you have to do to at least get a shot at modernizing American healthcare to meet 21st Century standards… well, welcome to my personal Hell. (Bathroom’s over there, ring the bell for Satan’s desk clerk if you need fresh towels.)

    No, I’m not happy that we’re in constant war-or-whatever. But I don’t see an alternative to it–or, to be more accurate, the alternatives I see are generally worse in assorted awful ways. And if we’re stuck with that–and I think we are, at least for the foreseeable future–I think Obama’s approach (personal responsibility for targets, saving American soldiers, discriminate bombing with relatively limited collateral damage as opposed to indiscriminate bombing) is the least of possible evils. So, no, I’m not going to criticize it. God help me if I have to defend it, but I might.

  2. Pingback: flying death robots and the goblet of fire, part deux | The Handsome Camel

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