President Obama’s use of drones to target alleged terrorists on a government “kill list” has attracted some new scrutiny after a major New York Times report, though politicians in both parties have spoken out more against the leaks in the article than the program itself. While some Democratic leaders and progressive groups have been fairly muted on the issue, one Washington group, Just Foreign Policy, has stepped into the vacuum to organize against the drone program.
Robert Naiman, the group’s policy director and president of the board of Truthout, says that Just Foreign Policy is the only organization that has mobilized its members on behalf of drone critics in Congress, including a recent letter from Congressmen Conyers and Kucinich questioning the program. In this new interview, he talks about the challenges of organizing around human rights in the Obama era, and the tangible actions that activists can take to build support within and beyond Congress.
First, what is wrong with the drone program?
People are being killed outside of any traditional battlefield with no oversight, no accountability, no official counting and little public debate or Congressional oversight. The targets include civilians and people who have no dispute with the United States.
Do you think that there is less outrage among Democrats and liberals about Obama’s expansive use of executive power than similar policies under Bush?
I think that this dynamic certainly exists and is obvious, but I also think it is often significantly overstated. It tends to compare an underestimation of what is happening now to an over-glamorization of what things were like during the Bush administration. There was not a constant sea of outrage over the depredations of the Bush administration—but rather spikes of outrage over things at particular times.
We could come up with a long list of Bush depredations that did not provoke a sea of outrage. Was there a sea of outrage over anything that happened in Afghanistan before January 20, 2009? Was there a sea of outrage over the Bush administration’s support for the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon? Lack of outrage over the depredations of US foreign policy is the norm, not the exception.
I would also like “sea of outrage” to be the norm. But it isn’t. There are a lot of people who care a lot about these issues, but we need more people to care more, and we also need constructive things for them to do. If the situation looks futile, people move on to other things; that’s happened under Obama, but it also happened under Bush.
Polls have suggested that the drone strikes are broadly popular, even among liberals. The Washington Post reported in February that “83 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s drone policy”—including “77 percent of liberal Democrats.”
MoveOn—to take an example from your article—doesn’t try to organize against things that are broadly popular, regardless of who is president. It’s just not what they do. They take actions that they think their members are going to respond to, and that’s not where their base is right now. It’s also true that MoveOn is not likely to enthusiastically seek out opportunities to go after a Democratic president, especially when the campaign is underway, but if your issue isn’t popular among liberals, that question is moot. If we want groups like MoveOn to take action on issues like this, someone else has to do the work of moving their base.
A first step towards that is establishing a toehold in the political system; that’s why we helped initiate the letter of the twenty-six members of Congress on the drone strike policy.
And why is there so much support for the drone program?
A key reason that the drone strikes are popular is that most Americans do not actually know what is going on. For most Americans, if you are killing a top Al Qaeda leader who is actively preparing to attack Americans, that is one thing. If you are killing civilians and people who have no dispute with the United States, that is something else. The press has trumpeted the killings of Al Qaeda leaders, but not the killings of civilians and people who have no dispute with the US—so of course most Americans have the sense that killing dangerous terrorist leaders is what is going on.
We need to work on the press. But one of the reasons the press isn’t reporting more is because the government is holding information so tightly, so that’s why we have to press for more information, and another reason the press isn’t reporting more is because they respond to signals from the political system about what issues are important, and that’s why it’s important to start somewhere in the political system to show some members of Congress care about this. The letter of the twenty-six was widely cited in the press, compared to a lot of other letters signed by twenty-six people.
If there’s nothing constructive to do, there’s going to be less activity. As far as I know, until now there hasn’t been any effort to get members of Congress to sign a paper saying they’re concerned about civilian casualties from the drone strikes. For me, this is the money quote from the letter:
“We are concerned that the use of such ‘signature’ strikes could raise the risk of killing innocent civilians or individuals who may have no relationship to attacks on the United States.”
As far as I know, no one ever asked a group of members of Congress to say that before, and they had not previously done so.
Yet even as human rights groups like CCR and the ACLU are engaged, the political liberal groups with large lists are on the sidelines, right?
I see it differently. The ACLU and CCR are engaged, but as I see it, they have a legal strategy—not a political strategy. They are going after the administration in court around disclosure and legal justification. I think that is worthy and important, obviously, especially if it leads to more disclosures that we can then organize around, but as I see it, they are not trying to move public opinion—or members of Congress—on the drone strike policy.
If you are trying to move public opinion and members of Congress, the “kill list” per se—killing “dangerous terrorist leaders”—is not where you focus. Instead you focus on the killing of people who are not on any “kill list,” and the blowback to the US that comes from killing civilians and people who have no dispute with the US in Pakistan and Yemen.
Who is going to do help us do this? I think the place to look for the next step is the groups that signed the letter in support of the Kucinich-Conyers letter. If these groups did a joint alert, it would reach a lot of people. What’s the next thing that they could do together, and who might join them? What’s the thing that we could get folks to do alerts on? As far as I know, Just Foreign Policy is the only group that did an alert on the Kucinich-Conyers letter.
Peace Action helped us get signers in Congress. But I think a lot of folks are ready to do more if we can figure out a constructive next step. It’s not going to be banning drone strikes—that’s pie in the sky. It’s going to be increased transparency, or compensating civilian victims, or some prohibition or restriction on “signature strikes,” or some increased oversight, or some other reformist move. Rand Paul has called for judicial review, like the FISA court. Some reformist move is going to be the next step, as far as Congress and politics are concerned.
So there’s a leadership vacuum on these issues?
I think a big part of the problem is that this just hasn’t been anybody’s responsibility, no one was in charge of trying to do something reformist on the political side. Glenn Greenwald does what he does, the ACLU does what they do; members of Congress, like Nadler, have pushed for release of the OLC memo. But no one has done a “let’s get the ball moving in Congress” thing on trying to challenge the drone strike policy politically, to my knowledge. That’s why we initiated the letter.
Nothing happens automatically. There’s a small number of people working on peace issues in Washington, and they’re working on a lot of different things. They’re trying to end the war in Afghanistan, they’re trying to prevent war with Iran and promote diplomacy, they’re trying to cut the military budget, particularly the nuclear weapons budget. And since you can’t do everything, if something looks totally futile, people will tend not to work on it, because there’s other stuff to work on that is not totally futile.
So, if you want people to work on something that looks futile, someone has to make a toehold that people can organize around. Initially there was little activity in Washington on the left around the Libya war, not necessarily because everyone was in love with it—but more because it wasn’t obvious if there was anything constructive to do. We worked with Conyers’s office to do an amendment prohibiting ground troops. That passed overwhelmingly.
And we worked on the Kucinich war powers resolution on Libya, which almost passed, and which showed that a lot of people were very angry about the administration’s defying the War Powers Resolution, including a lot of Democrats. If someone comes up with something constructive to do, people will rally around it. Otherwise, nothing happens.
I think the Afghanistan war is a better example to explore the issue about the Obama effect, since that is already broadly unpopular, especially among Democrats. And there has been a fair bit of activity, and MoveOn has helped some, though not as much as they could have, in my opinion. But almost the whole House Democratic Caucus came around to supporting the McGovern-Jones call for a timetable for withdrawal, and MoveOn helped us do that, so it’s not like they did nothing. Of course, it is true now that with the presidential campaign “underway,” the Obama dynamics are quite exacerbated at present.
But is that inevitable, from an organizing perspect? During Vietnam, the presidential race was a vehicle to challenge foreign policy within the party.
No, it is not inevitable. I think it is a great shame that no one of stature was willing to primary Obama from the left including on the war issue. I called for this publicly and worked privately to lobby people I thought might be willing to do it. But you can’t do it without a plausible candidate, and no plausible candidate stepped forward. There are a lot of obstacles to doing this, and one of them is finding a plausible candidate who is willing to do it, and if you can’t do that, it is a moot point.
The Ron Paul campaign was another opportunity to raise foreign policy issues, and some people tried to do that, and there was some buzz around that, and I supported that as best I could and would do so again. But I think the big picture in the long run is that the overwhelming majority of Americans who care about these issues and are willing to do something about them are liberal Democrats who support environmental protection and labor rights and abortion rights and gay rights and Social Security and Medicare, and the Democratic Party is where they live, and that’s not going to change as far as the eye can see; that is the terrain on which we have to operate.
Between now and November, if the candidates are Obama and Romney, there’s not going to be a lot of room in the presidential campaign to raise issues to Obama’s left on foreign policy.
Romney is even worse on most of these issues—on some of them, he is significantly worse. That doesn’t mean that left-liberal critics of US foreign policy have to be quiet; on the contrary, we should keep looking for and creating opportunities to push things our way. It just means that the presidential campaign is not going to be a major vehicle for us to push against administration policy from the left.
Of course, we should take advantage of any opening there is and always tell the truth; if Romney decides to criticize Obama for killing civilians in Yemen, I’ll sign it with both hands. But I’m not holding my breath.
This interview was conducted via e-mail and edited for clarity and length.
Photo of President Obama and former President George W. Bush taken in the White House on May 31, 2012, by Official White House Photographer Chuck Kennedy.