It seems like an easy thing to remember, but then, so does don’t kill people. In America, the two party system dominates. And on nearly every issue, the number two is a bit generous. Usually, one party pushes hard for an excess of privilege, and other side (and its supporters) either yields, or fights against it tepidly, only to justify it the next time they are in power.
Drone warfare is a perfect example of this. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (the term the industry preferred, in vain, over the more sinister-sounding "drones") were not invented during the Obama presidency. George W. Bush used drones a handful of times, mostly in Pakistan. However, their use as a common tool of war was pioneered under President Barack Obama. Or, as Jonathan Chait noted in a recent interview with Obama "When you hear critics on the left express what they don’t like about your presidency, the word drone might come up more than anything."
The piece is a fascinating look into the mind of the most powerful man in the world. And the man knows how to make himself sound good – sound thoughtful, self-reflective, and aware. He tells Chait. "I don’t ever want to get to the point where we’re that comfortable with killing. It’s not why I wanted to be president, to kill people."
You did, though.
Obama also talks a great deal about his frustration with the Republican opposition on various issues. He is certainly not wrong about the partisanship in their squabbles, or even their utter hypocrisy about statecraft and foreign policy in particular. And yet, if morality is in any way consistent, who cares? Their badness doesn’t erase what Obama has done.
President Obama is one of the most perfect examples of the liberal who believes
that solemnity and a furrowed, concerned brow makes up for a loss of life. If
he just shows he cares – maybe even really does in some way – then nothing the
US does counts as mass murder, theft, invasion, and terrorizing. He even professes
to be pleased when "the left" scolds him and "pushes" him
on drones and such.
It’s hard to know what it’s like to be president. But it shouldn’t be so difficult to realize what is downplayed and ignored both by Obama, his supporters, and anyone who puts partisan victories over morality and justice. Firstly, that dead is dead. Everyone who has died via drone, and everyone who has lost family suffered just as much an American would (to, uh, say nothing of the American citizens killed by drone). Everyone who has feared to congregate for a wedding or a funeral because a drone might be silently passing overhead is just as psychologically tortured as an American would be. No matter how much Obama tells himself that he minimized casualties – even while the White House’s number of civilians killed is not to be trusted – he still made choices that killed people.
More frustrating than the status quo acceptance of president as killer might
be Obama’s concern over the fact that subsequent leaders will be using drones
to kill. He worries that killing via drone is so "antiseptic" that
people will forget what it is. He claims to have taken steps to codify rules
on drone use, and to increase transparency. Any steps he takes to tie the hand
of the man or woman who takes the presidential baton next is a good thing. But
if you have followed Obama on drone policy for his whole tenure, it’s difficult
not to think, well, that’s rich of him to be wringing his hands now.
The drone program didn’t even officially exist for years. Nobody would officially admit that they were used to kill Americans until 2013, Whether the killing of 16-year-old American Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was actually a mistake, or just spun as one in retrospect remains a permanent unknown. The policy guideline for drones – also released in 2013 – remains nonsensical and untrustworthy.
The standard for categorizing civilian deaths is dubious, and remains dubious. Males of the correct age are assumed to be non-civilian unless something magically proves their innocence after death. And the number of intended deaths compared to the "others" is not a great ratio. Obama and his flunkies swear that they were exceedingly careful about this sort of thing, but that’s simply not true. Not if thousands of casualties is careful. Not if second strikes on rescuers, or strikes on weddings is careful. Not if, as reported by The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill, 90 percent of those killed during a few months in Afghanistan were not who was being aimed for. Not if that is a common success ratio.
Fundamentally, the Obama administration’s drone death count (to say nothing
of the CIA’s ever-mysterious activities in this and all arenas) cannot be trusted.
And without years of pressure from media and organizations, would we even know
that this program existed? Obama, as usual, wants credit for being potentially
less bad than other president would have been, and future ones may well be.
But he doesn’t get it when life and death is in the balance.
There’s a very good chance we’re about to get a worse president than Obama. For all of his spying, his war on whistleblowers, and his terrifying drone precedent set, the next leader is very likely to be more hawkish, and more authoritarian. Probably any US leader was going to use drones, just like terrorists and strongmen are going to be using them in the years to come. This is what humans do when tools for mass killing become more and more accessible.
Grading on a mighty curve, we may miss Obama come January 2017. But we shouldn’t forgive him for what he’s done.
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.