Benjamin Wittes faults Eugene Robinson for asserting there has been "virtually no public debate about the expanding use of unmanned drone aircraft as killing machines." Whereyabeen, Gene, Ben writes, there's a "significant public debate on the subject." Marcy Wheeler, aptly in my view, rejoinders that the government has taken notable steps to shut down that debate down by keeping as much about the drone war -- we'll define terms in a second -- classified. Because I couldn't help myself, I hastened to add that Obama administration officials can't even refer to the drone war publicly, using euphemisms like "a capability." Not so auspicious for a public debate.
Ben tweeted this morning that he was "bewildered" by these objections, as the drone war has been "all over every major media outlet in the country for two years now." It's fair to object that such a debate has been "encumbered by the degree of classification" in the drone war, and it's also "fair to complain that the government has not engaged the debate," but it's hapenning.
Semantics can obscure the issue here. But I'd submit that there's a difference between media coverage of the drone war, accompanied by the occassional thoughtful essay or think-tank panel, and a "significant debate." I spend probably about as much time covering the drone war as anyone in the press, and I'd submit Danger Room is the best news outlet for exploring the implications of the rise of flying robot assassins. And I would consider none of that a proxy for the country deciding that they ought to be the centerpiece of counterterrorism, hovering in places from Pakistan to the Sahel.
That is what we talk about when we talk about drones. We're not talking about the sensor packages on the Reaper, or how many more missiles it carries than does its older brother the Predator. The debate is about expanding a war on al-Qaeda to the far-flung corners of the globe in a sustained, stealthy manner, targeting individuals and networks defined, without rigor or available evidence, as "affiliated" with al-Qaeda.
Ben is correct to note that such a strategy is "technology neutral." But that observation overlooks the fact that that in this case, the technology drives the strategy. The vast improvement in drone-derived intelligence (with some human intelligence,
doubtfully doubtlessly [oops]) and weapons capability enabled a huge expansion in the ability to wage war while negating or reducing the constraining public costs to it, like troop deployments, financial drain, or conspicuous logistics trails. (You should see the command boxes that Army enlisted men and contractors sit in to operate these things from Bagram -- the essence of modularity.) With that comes a lack of public accounting about the efficacy of the program and the criteria for targeting someone with a drone -- and no objections from pesky congressmen.
That's what I would argue needs to change. There's an elite debate in your papers and think tanks about what smart people can glean about the drone war. It suffers from a dearth of information -- not about how someone is targeted, which is properly classified, but who can be targeted; the specific authority for targeting; and the normative question of where the drone war ought to be waged. That, as Marcy points out, is a deliberate government choice. Factor out any ethical concerns: we can't even say with confidence that the drone war is succeeding, in any rigorous strategic sense of the term, just that it's killing a lot of people and unleashing a lot of missiles. July 4 seems as apt a day as any to point out that the public, through its elected representatives, is supposed to determine America's wars.
I come down on the side of Buck McKeon and Mac Thornberry, two Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, who argue that there needs to be a new Authorization to Use Military Force, since Congress hasn't voted on the boundaries of the war against al-Qaida in ten years, when it was a very different enterprise. They're shoehorning in (to my mind) objectionable provisions about detentions, and undermining their case by slipping AUMF 2.0 into the defense authorization bill, rather than having it out separately on the House floor. But their fundamental point stands, and the Obama administration's dismissal of it is risable. That kind of debate would represent the country reconsidering the degree to which it believes it ought to be at war with al-Shebaab, the Haqqani Network, the Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e-Toiba or the al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen or Iraq or the Sahel.
Not being a Foreign Affairs subscriber, I haven't yet read Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann's essay on what they call the Phantom War and what Danger Room calls "Shadow Wars." But one of their recommendations is to transfer the program from the CIA to the Defense Department, so there can be a public accounting of its operations and effects. That would allow Congress and the public to reassert control over a war that now expands as far as a robot can take it.
Photo: U.S. Air Force