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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A new study of Drone warfare has sparked criticism of Obama as “cynical” and “immoral.” But the criticisms lack any context. They don’t say a single word about the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs of Staff, counterinsurgency strategy or the military establishment.

A report two weeks ago on the effect of the Drone strikes in Pakistan has stimulated a range of quite fierce criticisms of Obama – criticisms that have appeared in publications other than the traditionally anti-war and anti-militarist progressive press.
An article in the New Republic summarized the study’s conclusions:

A new study released this week by researchers at Stanford and NYU has found that American drone strikes in Pakistan are killing far more civilians than advertised, taking out few high value targets, and have become the primary recruiting tool for the terrorist groups the policy is aimed at combating. The report, “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan,” is based on “more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting” conducted over nine months.

The article minces no words in criticizing Obama:

Indeed, Obama has shrewdly–some might say cynically–positioned himself to the right on foreign policy, thereby insulating himself from the “weak on defense” canard that has plagued his party going back to the days of George McGovern. He doubled down on Afghanistan, at the expense of more than a thousand dead American soldiers and marines, at a point when it was obvious the war was unwinnable on the timetable he set. He ignored the hectoring over damaged relations with Pakistan that would result from the bin Laden raid, betting that success would ensure his re-election. And his use of drone strikes makes George W. Bush look like a cautious man

This conclusion, however, is a model of restraint compared to a commentary by Conner Friedersdorf in the Atlantic:

Obama terrorizes innocent Pakistanis on an almost daily basis. The drone war he is waging in North Waziristan isn’t “precise” or “surgical” as he would have Americans believe. It kills hundreds of innocents, including children. And for thousands of more innocents who live in the targeted communities, the drone war makes their lives into a nightmare worthy of dystopian novels. People are always afraid. Women cower in their homes. Children are kept out of school. The stress they endure gives them psychiatric disorders. Men are driven crazy by an inability to sleep as drones buzz overhead 24 hours a day, a deadly strike possible at any moment.
At worst, this policy creates more terrorists than it kills; at best, America is ruining the lives of thousands of innocent people and killing hundreds of innocents for a small increase in safety from terrorists. It is a cowardly, immoral, and illegal policy, deliberately cloaked in opportunistic secrecy.

Writing in The American Prospect, Jamelle Bouie rejects Friedersdorf’s angry call for progressives to refuse to vote for Obama because of his policies but is pretty harsh himself on Obama failings:

Obama campaigned as someone who push back against the civil liberties abuses of the Bush era. As president, he has doubled-down on them. The drone war in Pakistan, expanded by the Obama administration, has claimed hundreds of innocent lives, and is conducted under a veil of secrecy. The “militants” targeted by the United States are often just military-aged men who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Obama’s kill list-his program of extrajudicial killings, directed at American citizens suspected of terrorism–is an affront to the values of the Constitution, and a huge blemish on his record.

It is easy to understand and in varying degrees to sympathize with many of the criticisms and the moral outrage expressed in these articles. From within the particular framework of facts and assumptions that they use, the moral conclusions follow logically.
But when one steps back for a moment and examines the arguments in these articles from a broader perspective, it quickly becomes clear that they leave out a great deal. In fact, in all three, the discussion ultimately seems be about some quite unfamiliar, alternative America.
Consider the fact that in all three of these articles – articles that are entirely concerned with military strategy and policy:

• The Pentagon is not mentioned once.
• The Joint Chiefs of Staff are not mentioned once.
• The Joint Special Operations Command is not mentioned once.
• General Petraeus and counterinsurgency doctrine are not mentioned once.
• The military and national security decision-making hierarchy in the Obama White House and the decision-making process they employ are not mentioned once.

In short, in these commentaries the discussion of Obama’s moral choices regarding the use of drones is conducted as if Obama lives in some alternative universe where the president sits behind his desk in the oval office, listens to briefings from his honest, loyal, hand-picked advisors and then issues inescapable and irrevocable orders and commands. In this alternative universe Obama has an absolutely unrestricted, indeed Olympian degree of power. He can therefore be validly held directly morally responsible for every single nuance of policy that emanates from his administration.
For anyone who has observed the evolution of military strategy and policy since the late 1990’s and the tremendous conflicts between the military establishment and the Obama presidency since his election, this image is – to be frank — so utterly detached from reality and indeed patently absurd that it essentially invalidates any conclusions that might be deduced on its basis. Whatever possible moral or political culpability Obama might hypothetically have for actions he might hypothetically take in some simple alternative universe, they are simply not relevant to the real choices he has faced and now faces in the real world of his administration.
To take a more realistic perspective it is necessary to look at the broader military and strategic context out of which the use of drone strikes emerged:

• The U.S. military was not at all enthusiastic about the idea of invading Iraq a second time when the Neo-conservatives first proposed it in the mid-1990’s. The generals were only convinced to go along because of the hysteria following 9/11 and the promise that the invasion of Iraq would follow the “Powell Doctrine” – (1) use overwhelming force (2) define specific and concrete objectives and (3) have a clear exit strategy. The Neo-Conservatives promised the generals that U.S. soldiers would be “welcomed as liberators” and that Iraq could be quickly transformed into a firm and stable US ally and a reliable base for massive US air and ground forces – a Middle Eastern version of the permanent US bases established in Germany and South Korea.
• As it became increasingly clear that US troops were becoming bogged down in a prolonged and nasty guerilla war, the new US military strategy put forth was a revival of the Vietnam-era doctrine of “counter-insurgency.” Implicit in this approach was a commitment to a very long term approach – one that would involve the garrisoning of 150,000-250,000 U.S. troops in Iraq for at least 7-12 years (and conceivably far longer) and the investment of gargantuan sums of money in the country as the gradual process of “nation building” was conducted under the U.S. troops’ watchful eyes. This strategy was formalized and codified in the military manual FM-23-4 prepared under the supervision of General David Petraeus.
• By the time of the 2008 election campaign, although there was substantial and growing public impatience and resistance to supporting an endless war in Iraq, counter-insurgency strategy itself seemed to be on a roll. “The surge” in Iraq was said to be achieving spectacular success and advocates assured everyone that it could be easily applied in Afghanistan as well (wise critics like Juan Cole warned that the success of the surge was only temporary and in any case could not be successfully exported to Afghanistan, but he and similar critics were ignored).
• As a result, when candidate Obama met with General Petraeus in Afghanistan in July of 2008, it was widely recognized that if Petraeus chose to signal his rejection of Obama through the time-honored techniques of “leaks” and “off the record” interviews, he could easily sabotage Obama’s hopes for election. Petraeus was at the absolute height of his rock-star popularity at the time and would have quickly rallied the entire U.S. military establishment behind him had he signaled a wish to derail the Obama campaign. Had he chosen to oppose Obama, the danger of the new president “stabbing the troops in the back” could easily have become a central issue in the 2008 election — to McCain’s obvious advantage. It is not known exactly what Obama said to Petraeus in their meeting, but it is obvious that it had to be sufficient to prevent Petraeus from deciding to firmly oppose him.
• From the moment Obama entered the White House, the advocates of counterinsurgency strategy began to try to box Obama into an open-ended commitment to the strategy in Afghanistan. The April 2009 “commander’s assessment” by General McChrystal contained several statements that were quickly seized upon by counterinsurgency advocates as representing an iron-clad commitment by Obama to this course of action.
• During the summer and fall of 2009 Obama therefore had to conduct a bitterly fought internal battle to force the military to define specific objectives for the “surge” of troops in Afghanistan upon which they were insisting and to commit themselves to a clear exit strategy rather than just an open ended “until victory is achieved” commitment that would last for years or possibly decades. In the end, the military only acquiesced to the three-year timetable Obama insisted upon because they believed they would be able to get it extended later on.

It is only in this larger context that the increased use of unmanned drone strikes under Obama can be understood. During the debates over the future course in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the drone strikes were offered as the “smart” alternative way to fight terrorist groups – a method that would not only save the lives of US troops and avoid widening the ground war into Pakistan but also ultimately produce fewer civilian casualties than the brutal door-to-door platoon and squad level “clear and hold” ground operations required by the counterinsurgency approach.
Many of the same strategists who warned about the illusory nature of the victory in Iraq also gave prescient warnings about the limitations and negative consequences of a drone-based strategy. But for two reasons these warnings were quickly dismissed by the military:
First, even after the “surge” of additional troops for Afghanistan that the military essentially made a “non-negotiable demand” in their negotiations with the administration, it was becoming increasingly clear that the counter-insurgency strategy was failing. By the beginning of 2012 widespread doubt had emerged within the military itself that sending further additional reinforcements could really reverse the deteriorating situation or win the support of the American people. As a result, the use of drones and special operations became the primary and indeed only successful strategy the military had available for deterring future terrorist attacks and dismantling terrorist organizations.
Second, the military command structure that had emerged to manage the new strategy – The Joint Special Operations Command – had mushroomed from a small force of 1,800 in the early 2000’s to over 25,000 and had expanded to include the top elite units like the Navy Seals and the latest new technology. As the premier anti-terrorist force within the military, it has become increasingly powerful and influential within the military as a whole.
At the moment there are no inside accounts of the current debates within the administration as detailed as Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars” which covers the period between 2008 and 2010 and until such accounts become available we will not know the details of the real debates and choices being weighted within the administration. But the following is already known:

• Obama and his advisors are clearly aware of the downside of the drone strikes – without question in far more detail than the authors of the Stanford/NYU study.
• Since the very beginning of the Obama presidency, there have been intense and bitter fights going on between Obama and the military establishment regarding the proper use and limitations that should be placed on drone warfare. Excerpts from the book “Kill or Capture – the War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency,” published in the June 12 issue of Newsweek, provides some sense of the specific terms of this ongoing debate.
• The President actually has only a limited ability to control the operational activities of the Joint Special Operations Command. Any major curtailment that Obama wished to impose on its mission, scope or tactics would have to be very strongly supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to actually be enforced and even then would still encounter tremendous resistance. JSOC is now a powerful independent actor in military affairs. Much like the CIA in the cold war years, it has become significantly independent of effective executive branch control.

This is the real world situation in which Obama must make his moral choices. Unless one is willing to seriously argue that, as a matter of basic principle, Obama should be willing to accept an open and deeply destructive split with the top leadership of the U.S. military that would almost certainly create a national crisis, he cannot simply ban the use of drones but must, as he is doing, negotiate with the military the terms under which drones are employed.
Viewed from this realistic perspective, some observers may still choose to judge the particular decisions Obama has made to be every bit as “cynical”, “cowardly” and “immoral” as his critics in the articles above suggest. This is a debatable but defensable view.
But one approach to this debate that is not only logically flawed but ultimately morally unconvincing is the approach that the three articles above employ. They depict Obama as living in a universe in which none of the realities and constraints of the real world exist and then evaluate and morally judge Obama’s actions as if he actually lived and worked in that alternative reality.
But Obama is not making his decisions in an idealized world where the high school civics textbook cliches about “the final authority of the president as commander in chief” accurately describe his real degree of authority and control. As a result, criticisms that do not even for a single moment take note of the real world constraints that Obama actually faces simply cannot not have any real persuasive power or genuine moral force.

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