Bill Curry, a former state comptroller, Democratic gubernatorial candidate and adviser to U.S. President Bill Clinton, wrote this commentary.
On Saturday Yale Law School hosted a forum entitled “Thinking About Drone Warfare.” It was a fine forum, well moderated by Yale law professor Oona Hathaway. The panelists were four very smart men who presented well and knew their topic cold. As you might expect, much of the talk was of legal issues arising under the Constitution, various acts of Congress and international law regarding warfare and human rights. There is a video and I assume audio record of the event. If you seek a better understanding of these issues, you should get hold of it.
The forum followed a week in which U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin held a committee hearing on the use of drones at which the Obama administration declined to appear. The issues that concerned Durbin’s committee and Saturday’s panel include any president’s legal right to deploy drones into countries with which we are not at war, to kill people with whom we may not be at war.
President Obama cites two sources of authority: first, the authorization for the use of military force against Al Qaeda and its “affiliates” passed by Congress shortly after 9/11; second, his innate power as president to protect the country against threat of imminent attack. Saturday’s panel debated whether or not a 12-year-old authorization of force needs revisiting, who or what exactly constitutes an Al Qaeda “affiliate,” and the need for stronger checks and balances, including greater Congressional oversight of the executive. As for the innate power claimed by President Obama, the panel took notice of the debate, ongoing since Bush invaded Iraq on the pretext of eliminating WMDs, over what constitutes an “imminent threat.”
The panel also discussed the technology of drones as it affects the calculation to deploy force, the global reputation of the deployer and the lives of those surveilled and attacked. Of many facts and figures cited, these stand out: President Obama has ordered ten times more drone strikes than President Bush did. The number of people killed is hard to certify but the death toll seems to be approaching 4,000, of whom about 20 percent are identified civilians or persons of unknown status. The rest are classified as “militants,” a word that would seem to include a great many who are not actual combatants. Only 2 percent of those killed by drones are people we deem “high value” terrorism targets.
The panel addressed the degree to which drone technology may make war more likely for having made it easier. The topic deserved further elaboration. For centuries the chief deterrents to war have included its cost and the possible reluctance of the general populace to lay down their lives for the cause. In American history, George W. Bush introduced the concept of war on a credit card and with drones, the prospect of war that is entirely mechanized. One worries naturally that the appeal of a war you don’t have to pay for or even fight may shift the balance of public opinion in those critical moments when no other check or balance can resist the propulsive urge to battle.
At the end of Saturday’s panel, Ralph Nader, who was in the audience, drew the most sustained applause of the afternoon when he challenged law schools, professors and students to do more to bring the serious constitutional issues raised to public awareness. It was a critical and well-made point.
To it I added three others.
First, it had seemed to me as the afternoon wore on that the assembled experts sought to make change just as Obama so often does, by lobbying elites. Such discussions, even when they are conducted in public, as this one was, might as well be private for all they do to reach a mass audience. Members of Congress don’t want to exercise their power to declare a war or even to oversee one. They shirk their responsibility even though the Constitution entrusts it to them, even though each of them has sworn a personal oath to discharge it.
Such is the current state of American politics. Quakers say speak truth to power, but power is more than a little hard of hearing. Congress won’t do its job until it hears the public speak in a very loud voice. The first discussion we must have is with the American people. We must persuade the public and then let the public handle Congress.
My second thought was that this would be hard to do. Most Americans disagree with most members of Saturday’s panel. In a 2012 Washington Post poll, 83 percent supported the president’s use of drones. I think the biggest reason for that that support is our deep and justifiable fear of terrorism. Before we can overturn any aspect of current antiterrorism strategy we must offer the American people a better one. If we aren’t ready to propose one, there’s little sense in even engaging in debate.
And what would that strategy include? My third thought on Saturday was that it’s time someone told our people as well as our elites that the model of unilateral military intervention needs not just to be tweaked but junked and that it’s time to build a new model of multilateral conflict resolution. We were once the world’s policeman. Perhaps we had to be. The world needs a policeman, and there was a time when we alone could afford to take on the assignment. No more. Now we must fight to establish the rule of law, for therein lies our only safety and our only peace. We already advocate the rule of law, but we must also model it and honor it, or else it won’t work.
Like all the laws discussed on Saturday, any new international law must be enforced. But how? There’s lots to do—participating in the world criminal court, adopting various treaties — but as a practical matter effective enforcement will require fixing, and then strengthening, the United Nations. We face a stark choice: continue to pay a terrible price in global resentment, lost wealth and lost lives or begin to build the global mechanisms the world so desperately needs.
Drones pose new problems. But from catapults to cruise missiles, to smart bombs and drones, technology has altered military equations without altering moral or political ones. To alter those equations that matter most, we need a new debate, one that begins in the knowledge that all the old models are past fixing.