During the last decade, people have become more and more afraid of the dystopian possibilities of a country – or a world – full of drones. And though drones offer a smorgasbord of grim possibilities in terms of of surveillance, and warfare, the actual technology mostly remains a distraction. (Though one normalized in warfare by the Obama administration.)
An April 27 editorial in The New York Times contains a surprisingly solid critique of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, and what writer and assistant law professor Jennifer Daskal calls “forever war” (also a sci-fi novel worth reading). In a short span, Daskal hits many home truths about US foreign policy. She indeed notes “This war isn’t limited to drone strikes…” She’s also discussing the “unauthorized” (her word) conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. This includes the 250 new Special Forces that Obama has just sent into Syria, which still do not count as boots on the ground somehow.
Before drones were really used in combat, and before George W. engaged in some seriously retro 160,000 boots on the ground conflict, we had Bill Clinton-style warfare. Clinton never put all his cards on the table during his time as Commander in Chief. All of his wars were coy, and were limited enough that they felt like nothing at all to outsiders. Today nearly everyone agrees that the war on terror is easy to ignore (provided you’re not in it), but Clinton’s version was even more lackadaisical. He made sure Iraq stayed mad, and stayed wounded, by bombing it and keeping it under sanctions. He did not do as the Bushes did and actually send in troops.
Clinton dabbled in other conflicts, such as bombing what turned out to be a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory in 1998. And yes, Kosovo was his big blowout event in 1999. Yet, he didn’t walk away from office with the reputation as a warmonger. If anything, his stickiest critique was that he didn’t kill Osama Bin Laden when he had the chance. That comes from the right. Mostly on the left, Clinton is loved and missed – or at least a world in which a presidential sex scandal was the biggest news is missed.
Bush Jr. was loud, and obvious in his wars. The damage that his administration wrought in the Middle East will be felt for generations. And so, yes, Obama felt like a revelation simply because he wasn’t Bush. He even said a few things that were called “apologizing for America” by offended hawks. This usually meant that Obama was admitting America had not been perfect in its foreign policy choices in the past.
Even though ISIS is Obama’s problem until next January, and he claims the right to kill even American citizens, it is unlikely that Obama will leave office with a warmonger mantle. Now, George W. is happily painting in Texas, and hasn’t suffered anything except reputationally. But Obama probably won’t even have that problem. He should. Obama didn’t clear this road, but he walked down it, and he set precedents that we’re all going to regret.
Someday perhaps very soon we in the US are going to be very sorry that we normalized drone warfare. Not, again, because the tech is inherently wicked. Or that it should be restricted heavily (because then law enforcement and military will claim exceptions). No, it’s just that drones are brilliant tools for keeping a lazy, constant presence in other countries. And someday soon, they will be used in a terrorist attack.
Drones are perfect. They offer the ease of ignorable Clinton-style warmongering, with the permanence of Bush-style presence in other countries. And, as Daskal noted in her New York Times piece, Obama has an opportunity to tie the hands of the next leader – at least a bit. Why he would be interested in doing so is another question which she does not address. The executive branch has enormous war power, and when they ask Congress for imput, it is their privilege. Worse still, the legislative meekly acquiesces and never presses the president.
The Obama administration has stretched the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force to impossible lengths, using it to justify excursions into Syria and elsewhere that Daskal very nearly calls illegal (she goes with “expansive legal interpretation” instead). Perhaps hoping to use a carrot instead of a stick, Daskal suggests Obama knows better than this. Yet, there’s little evidence to suggest that he does. And she notes, Obama’s suggested a narrower AUMF to justify his current adventuring, but intended for it to be piled atop the old one, thereby adding, and not extracting war-making powers.
A careful, narrow AUMF would not make wars a good or moral idea. Conflict doesn’t suddenly because wise because Congress votes on it. Drone assassinations are not wrong because nobody asked the legislative if they approved. But all of these safeguards could be tools to make war harder to engage in, and to take longer to begin. These tools are atrophying because of a fat executive branch, and a trembling legislative, and the ease that flying robots bring to fighting wars.
Daskal’s piece is good, and she isn’t wrong about what Obama should do. However, it’s a baseless hope that Obama has any interest in changing the rules he has set up. The next president will be the same, and that’s the way it will be until we force the issue, and demand more than a president’s pleasure to justify dropping bombs, or sending a slow trickle of troops, and then denying that they qualify as boots on the ground.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.