CSPAN II will air bookstore talk of mine on The Cause Sunday at 7, more here. That’s all for now. Here’s Reed.
Droning On, Drowning Out
by Reed Richardson
As it happens, three generations of Richardsons spent this past Memorial Day at the Intrepid Sea, Air, & Space Museum on Manhattan’s West Side. Mostly this was to please my father, a retired U.S. Army Colonel and Vietnam veteran, who has a thing for military history, but I can’t deny that my two toddler-age sons enjoyed the experience of being on a ship that was big enough to hold dozens of airplanes. Still, it ended up being a rather swelteringly hot day and after a few hours it became clear that both grandpa and grandsons were ready to head back to Jersey from whence we all came.
On the way out, though, we had to pass by several temporary displays—read recruiting tools—set up by marines in town for Fleet Week. Notable to me was that every one of these glitzy, high-tech displays focused on some new piece of unmanned materiel in the arsenal, from GUSS—essentially a robotic, off-road golf-cart (yes, you read that right)—to the Shrike VTOL—a poster-sized drone reconnaissance helicopter that a young enlisted marine was showing off to everyone with the beaming pride of a brand-new father. After a heavy dose of the very personal tales of the U.S.S. Intrepid’s pilots and crew as well as the kamikaze attacks they endured, the juxtaposition of these new, standoff tools of war struck me as a jarring contrast.
All this is to say that I already had drones on my mind when, mere hours later, two significant news stories about our nation’s top-secret drone-strike policy rolled out into public view. I say rolled out because it’s apparent that these lengthy pieces of reporting enjoyed both the blessing and cooperation of Obama administration. For example, this Newsweek article, by Daniel Klaidman, just so happens to be an excerpt from an upcoming inside-the-White-House book on this very topic that, coincidentally, comes out next week. And while the exhaustive New York Times account doesn’t seem to have grown out of such long-term insider access, one has to be pretty naïve to think that the two bylined reporters would have been able to interview three dozen of Obama’s current and former national security advisers without the White House’s help.
As such, it’s not surprising that, at times, both of these stories read more like campaign trail talking points—portraying a president carefully weighing decisions between life and death, national security and public safety. Even in those rare occasions when the reporters lift back the veil a tiny bit and make an oblique acknowledgement that the White House might have its own less than pure motivations for this getting this story out, there’s still a noticeable whiff of deference to authority. For instance, here Klaidman tries to push back against the political stagecraft but instead appears to fall for a different White House narrative hook, line, and Hellfire missile:
In this overheated election season, Obama’s campaign is painting a portrait of a steely commander who pursues the enemy without flinching. But the truth is more complex, and in many ways, more reassuring. The president is not a robotic killing machine. The choices he faces are brutally difficult, and he has struggled with them—sometimes turning them over in his mind again and again. The people around him have also battled and disagreed. They’ve invoked the safety of America on the one hand and the righteousness of what America stands for on the other.
This is, simply put, bullshit. This kind of gauzy profiling of any president—regardless of party—only serves to gloss over the very real, constitutional problems of undertaking such a violent, secretive policy and the very real, long-term geopolitical unrest it is undoubtedly sowing. Klaidman’s insider tick-tock of the president’s evolution on drone killings is informative, yes, but it lacks for any context. For example, you’ll only find one reference to the constitution in Klaidman’s excerpt (that’s to refer to Obama as a “constitutional lawyer”) and you’ll search in vain to find any voice that offers up a reasoned opposition to targeting foreign nationals and American citizens for airstrikes with no due process and often based on vague threat assessments.
The Times piece, on the other hand, takes a much more skeptical look at the president’s “kill list” and provides more startling revelations about the White House’s de facto take-no-prisoners counterterrorism policy and fudging of the numbers on the civilian death toll. Once again, though, the depth of the anecdotal reporting on the administration’s operational and political debates over how to deploy drones and against whom is not matched by a broader look at the policy itself. What passes for deeper critical context of this controversial position arrives in this rather vague paragraph.
Nothing else in Mr. Obama’s first term has baffled liberal supporters and confounded conservative critics alike as his aggressive counterterrorism record. His actions have often remained inscrutable, obscured by awkward secrecy rules, polarized political commentary and the president’s own deep reserve.
Good luck hearing from any of those baffled liberals or conservative critics in this purportedly objective piece of reporting, however. The former’s arguments don’t merit including because, well, no doubt they’re dirty f*king hippies like Medea Benjamin, whose shtick can be tiresome but at least she has the stones to confront the administration publicly when no one in the press seems interested in the task. Of course, examples of the conservative critics of the president’s drone strike policy don’t show up in the piece because, frankly, they don’t exist on this issue.
For example, Obama’s general election opponent, Mitt Romney, quietly ignored the Newsweek and Times stories and a search of his election website turns up not one sentence about his foreign policy views on drone strikes. His only recent public discussion of drone strikes appears to be this brief answer from a GOP primary debate six months ago. There, he essentially endorsed current Obama administration policy, saying he would “continue to do that” in Pakistan because the “right people” in that country are “comfortable” with our launching hundreds of Hellfire missiles within their borders and killing dozens–hundreds–who knows(?) how many innocent citizens in the process.
Indeed, you know the bipartisan fix is in when Georgia Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss, who has demonstrated his willingness to shamelessly demagogue on terrorism, becomes the Beltway’s go-to GOP guy for comment and he comes across sounding like some conciliatory centrist.
But [Chambliss] added that if it is true, as the Times reported on Tuesday, that Obama has ‘embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties,’ then the administration should have briefed the committee on the change in methodology.
Chambliss emphasized that both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have tried to limit civilian deaths.
Amongst the conservative punditocracy, the silent response to the “kill list” was similarly underwhelming. Rich Lowry, over at the National Review’s blog The Corner, finds the Times story “fascinating,” but basically uses long block quotes from it as proof of the president’s personal foibles and avoid giving any of his own insight into or analysis of the merits of the policy itself. Mocking Obama’s supposed presumptuousness, Lowry snarkily concludes, “A program to kill people without due process is just fine, so long as Barack Obama is making the decisions.” But how does Lowry feel about all this extra-judicial, secretly-justified bombing in our country’s name? Eh, he doesn’t bother to say.
Likewise, longtime Obama critic and supposed defender-of-the-constitution Charles Krauthammer took to a Fox News round table discussion to skewer Obama for hypocritically manipulating the press and for killing by proxy through “remote control.” (And in doing so, I must cynically point out that Obama keeps a 44-for-44 streak alive among U.S. Presidents.) And when it came time to judging a drone policy that allowed our commander-in-chief to bomb a U.S. citizen to death in a foreign country with no regard for due process, he pulled no punches. “He’s going around killing people where he’s judge, jury, and executioner,” exclaimed Krauthammer, before drolly conceding, “I’m not against it.”
Oof. When a Democratic president’s actions start making Krauthammer sound insightful and earning his support, it’s time to seriously consider invoking the Groucho Marx rule of not wanting to join any club that would have someone like that as a member.
Only lonely conservative Joe Scarborough seemed to have misgivings about the whole thing, although, again, these concerns were more procedural than philosophical.
I’m just concerned for some reason, it doesn’t seem right taking that into the Oval Office and having the president of the United States specifically responsible. He says he wants to do it for moral reasons, but specifically responsible for pointing to a picture, they say, of one 17-year-old girl saying, “yes, kill her and let’s kill him” and… It sort of made me flinch. It reminds me of LBJ picking up bombing targets during the Vietnam War.
The notion that what amounts to extra-judicial assassination strikes a world away should get even less executive oversight is almost pathological, but at least Scarborough has the common sense to recognize that, contrary to all the shock-and-awe spin, “drone strikes are not precise.” Of course, he also thinks that “beating down doors and shooting people in the head” is better, but a decade of war has also taught us time and again that such widespread tactics, while more precise, aren’t necessarily any more accurate.
Sadly, that this is the extent of GOP political rhetoric raised in objection to Obama’s drone-strike policy likely means that this newsworthy story will die in its infancy, before any real public debate begins in earnest. This is a tragedy, albeit one that is a perfectly logical outcome of a media environment that now requires partisan fuel to fan the flames of any story long enough for it to catch fire with the public. In a presidential election year, this myopia is only magnified, as the political press’s ability to be easily distracted by meaningless ephemera this week clearly demonstrates. Surely, in 10 years, the idiotic, birther rantings of a modern day P.T. Barnum will have long been forgotten, while the repercussions of nebulous “signature strikes” against foreign nationals and secretive kill orders on American citizens will continue to reverberate.
Certainly, the press’s reluctance to follow through on these stories can’t be for a lack of good angles. For example, I’d want to know if Obama summarily fired former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair after just one year on the job because of objection to drone-strike campaign, as opposed to the original storyline fed to the press. To its credit, the Times story does briefly bring in Blair as a voice of dissent—he calls the strike campaign “dangerously seductive”—but it never directly addresses the real reason for his very abrupt departure from the administration. (Blair’s name doesn’t even appear in the Newsweek piece.)
Similarly, an enterprising reporter might want to ask candidate Romney if he’s recently changed his viewpoint on drone strikes to mirror those of the co-chair of his own campaign’s Counterterrorism & Intelligence Working Group, Michael Hayden. Having briefly served as CIA Director under Obama (after three years with President Bush), Hayden appears in Klaidman’s opening vignette, introducing the details of the drone campaign to the brand-new president (and the strike going badly). But in the past few months, Hayden has had a change of heart, first telling the L.A. Times: “This program rests on the personal legitimacy of the president, and that's dangerous.” Then, in this week’s Times article, he’s quoted as saying: “I have lived the life of someone taking action on the basis of secret [Office of Legal Counsel] memos, and it ain’t a good life. Democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a D.O.J. safe.”
Except, tragically, right now ours is doing exactly that. And with no discernible effort among either party’s politicians to change that fact, closing the margin between what our democracy is doing and what it should be doing is left to the press. Sadly, we saw this week that even its best efforts are often not up to the task.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.