In truth, liberalism has nothing interesting to say about the drone program (1)


Says commenter b-psycho, concluding an exchange under Elias Isquith’s “Barack Obama, Drone Commander” post:

No one wants to set the precedent that abuse of power will be punished, because it’d bite them. I’d say though that if that fact brings anything into question, it’s the overall human worth of allowing such power to continue.

I’ll append the full discussion below, for the sake of context and the sempiternal archives, but, in brief, b-psycho was following up on his stated wish to see “Obama and Bush in court wearing matching handcuffs and jumpsuits.”

The problem that the “overall human worth” question gets to is that government on any level, not just the modern state, always implies investment of the power of life and death in authority, in Hobbes’ Leviathan. The “overall human worth” that b-psycho is questioning is in this sense overall human worth itself: If having Leviathans able to kill is wrong, then there is no political right, because concretely humanity as we know it is constituted by the wrong so understood.

Anarchism-pacifism – if it does not automatically, directly or indirectly, convert into its opposite – would be the negation of the political, and left-liberalism today tends to operate as the attempted politicization by a necessarily self-mystified anarchist-pacifist sensibility of its own anti-political essence. If there are adjustments or alterations to “the Barack Obama, Drone Commander” policy that deserve to be considered, they all will either fail the test of ideal anarcho-pacifist liberalism, or be revealed as not really alternative policies, but as alternatives to policy at all. In other words, basing opposition on an underlying disbelief in investing executive authority with the power of life and death becomes a political theater of the absurd, since there can be no engagement in politics that does not assent to the fundamental requirements of politics.

b-psycho, to his credit, is at least willing to confront the underlying issue. Many progressives, liberals, libertarians, and further-leftists react as though voting for Obama in 2008 meant imagining “something different,” and as if discovering only via the New York Times this week that it necessarily meant the “different killer,” not a different universe. They seem to think their criticism undermines or ought to undermine Obama or their fantasy-Obamism, but it rarely, or never, acknowledges the extent to which the drone policy in all of its horror is itself a reaction to and indirect consequence of previous rounds of entirely well-intentioned criticism of the same type, and represents a further, as ever two-sided, penetration of legalism and humanitarianism into the conduct of war, not some “unprecedented” departure from legality and humanity. In this sense the drone program is not a contradiction of progressivism: It is progressivism itself, in action.

If you want to know why the progressive intellectuals wailing and gnashing in twitterland end up talking mostly to each other, it’s that the world that they do not take seriously generally returns the favor.


44 CK MacLeod May 29, 2012 at 8:04 pm

I have no idea what any of the critics, including present company, imagine as an alternative. Might help me take the discussion more seriously.


45 b-psycho May 29, 2012 at 8:22 pm

Major driver of anti-American sentiment in that part of the world is U.S. foreign policy in general, particularly “collateral damage” (aka civilian deaths) due to such. Drone strikes are increasingly being revealed as not the super-accurate, only in extreme situations, We-Are-Killing-The-Bad-Guys things they were initially portrayed as, but rather like using a sledgehammer to kill an ant. This naturally angers the locals, some of whom conclude “maybe the death-to-America guys have a point…”.

Result: major tactic in “war on terror” creates the next terrorists.

Alternative: Bin Laden is dead, al-qaeda is dispersed, so stop. Just…stop. Try leaving people alone. We don’t understand these areas, and our meddling has just made things worse for both them and us. The alternative is…stop. Overwhelming hegemony is not worth the costs, stop it there, and over the long run dismantle the entire thing.


46 Nob Akimoto May 29, 2012 at 10:12 pm

I noted this in a post earlier this year, but essentially that seems to be the direction the Administration is going. They blew up Al Qaeda and are drawing down everywhere.


47 b-psycho May 29, 2012 at 10:31 pm

Where? This ain’t my idea of a drawdown.


48 Tom Van Dyke May 29, 2012 at 10:57 pm

Mr. MacLeod’s objection sustained. Valid retort from Mr. Psycho. Cheers 2 both.


49 CK MacLeod May 30, 2012 at 12:38 am

b-psycho, maybe my initial comment was too brief to be clear, but the last part of your comment is not an alternative on the level of executive decision-making in war, it’s an alternative on the level of a theoretically more desirable foreign policy and grand strategy apparently involving withdrawal eventually from all alliances and security commitments. It seems to be tied to a further quiet assumption that the process would all go perfectly smoothly until whenever the blessed long term finally arrived. (If things don’t go perfectly smoothly, if, instead, as seems possible, a withdrawal from our security commitments actually heightens certain risks, then we’re very likely back to the same problems of war-making in a democratic republic.)

For now, we have Acts of Congress empowering and requiring the President to protect the homeland from AQ and associates, with extensive personnel and tools funded, organized, and designated for such purposes. If we imagine that the threat of significant terrorist attacks is still real, then we have to include consideration of the real consequences of a successful attack. The specific political consequences might in numerous ways turn out to be far more significant than whatever immediate death and destruction, as is in fact typically the intention of terrorists. The President might even be excused if he took into account the personal and political consequences for himself and his allies, and for everything he and they stand for, including whatever long-term designs, if it was determined that he had simply declined to fulfill his responsibilities, and had neglected to employ the tools and the discretion – the power – lawfully granted him.

Now, you, apparently, don’t believe that the threat is real, though I’m not sure what level of certainty you apply to that judgment or to your other judgment that the policy has produced greater, not lesser dangers. The two positions seem to be in some contradiction: Either the policy has produced greater dangers, in which case the threat is real, or the policy has not produced greater dangers, in which case it’s been working at least that well, so far.

In any event, you don’t seem to believe there is a reasonable justification for the drone policy, so I suppose that means you believe that the President & Co. have some other reasons for doing what they’re doing, or are evil, or are just incompetent. Yet, if the President and his advisers are some combination of nefarious, evil, and incompetent, we still do not know what alternative we have, or want to have, to a system and a specific arrangement that grants significant power and discretion to the executive in military/security policy, in the final analysis, in cases of evil, nefariousness, and incompetence, subject only to a broad and blunt ex post facto political check. If it means that from time to time a murderous incompetent plays with drone-deliverable munitions, maybe on balance that’s far better than the worst we might have feared, and maybe there’s not much to do about it until he’s left office, for whatever reasons.

Are there better alternatives to the drone policy for achieving its intended, lawfully established purposes? I’m not sure that there are. If civilian casualties are the problem, are we to make it a general policy that the possibility or even certainty of civilian casualties will absolutely constrain our operations? There are many reasons why we and other military powers won’t, for instance because it is thought to encourage terrorists to use civilians as human shields.

More generally, are there alternatives to letting the executive maintain levels of operational security, secrecy, while identifying and neutralizing possible threats, in pursuing a war policy? Do we have any choice other than to trust the executive to some extent, at least for a time? Maybe that’s dangerous to democracy. Is there an alternative that isn’t?


50 b-psycho May 30, 2012 at 2:09 am

If the standard you go by for actually ending the war & ceasing the type of interference that brings it to our doorstep in the first place is “perfectly smoothly”, then of course it’s not going to match up. My standard is “are we pissing off fewer already desperate people, or more?”. The problem is actually that we make war in an absolutely ridiculous proportion, owing to a national combination of naivete about how our actions are interpreted by others and outright paranoia about how large the threats that do exist are. The response to 9/11, if ran by competent, sober minded people, would’ve ended at least by the time arguments for invading Iraq were being floated, resulting instead in Bin Laden’s shark food appointment taking place several years ago & the U.S. doing away with the whole world’s policeman idea once and for all afterwards.

It isn’t that I deny there is a threat, I just disagree with the stated reason for it. For the most part, it’s not that they hate us for our freedoms (though if that were the case we’ve made a lot of headway in rectifying that, eh?), or that they’re simply irrational, it’s instead blowback from several years of shoving our noses and guns where they did not belong. The civilian fallout from the current drone strike policy is just a shifting of the same problem.

As for your attempt to interpret why I think the strikes continue despite my view that they’re counterproductive: it’s a combination of incompetence and desire to appear to be Doing Something regardless of the logic behind it & whether it accomplishes the intended goal. It’s a frequent problem with politics — loudly looking like you’re addressing something is more valuable than quietly actually doing so. I’m under no illusions though that these acts will be addressed the way they IMO should be: as war crimes, to be prosecuted. Much as I’d like to see both Obama and Bush in court wearing matching handcuffs and jumpsuits, it ain’t gonna happen.

That said, unlike some on the anti-war/anti-state Left, I saw no problem with the Bin Laden hit, seeing it as the exceptional carefully targeted action that proves the rule that “our” military/security apparatus will insist on Hulk Smash 99% of the time — and even then the restraint had more to do with him being near the Pakistani equivalent of West Point than anything else.


51 CK MacLeod May 30, 2012 at 12:18 pm

“Perfectly smoothly” isn’t a “standard,” or it’s only the standard if you’re going to propose a grand strategic solution to the problem of this specific exceptional situation relating to presidential power. Lack of perfect smoothness means that along the way to the world of universal peace and prosperity with no one angry with us, exceptional situations will continue to arise and have to be dealt with.

As for the origins of the threat, in many ways I agree with you but it’s a complex discussion, as is proportionality in relation to spectacular terrorism. Under the standards of our constitutional order, we made a “call,” because we wrongly or rightly, in the smoke and rubble and fear, decided to, which comes down to war powers invested in the executive as very broadly stated in the original Authorization for Use of Military Force against Terrorists, a classic pseudo-legalization of extra-legal powers that could have been boiled down to “Go do what you think best,” which every declaration of state of emergency, state of war, state of exception etc. sooner or later also boils down.

We haven’t yet revised it. If Nob Akimoto is right, the Admin has in view a process toward such revision, but it’s easier said then done, because it is a political problem of the highest order.

I’m not sure you can have the Bin Laden hit without the AUMF, and without the 10 years of subsequent understandings and undertakings, that also make the drone policy possible. To get Bin Laden you had to have presidential/executive discretion and secrecy; trained, experienced, equipped operatives; the ability to mount a lethal operation based on a behavioral “signature” rather than positive ID, extending to potentially threatening individuals in the immediate vicinity of the target; a willingness to mightily piss off people. There were even drones involved, though apparently not the armed variety.

Your fantasy regarding Bush and Obama is actually kind of telling: Who would ever be in position to arrest, indict, and imprison them except another “Bush” or “Obama” always urgently concerned with what the “Bush” or “Obama” after him would make of his actions? Maybe a collective “Bush” or “Obama,” a Committee of Protection of the Constitution perhaps, naturally with constitutionally justified extra-constitutional powers…

52 b-psycho May 30, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Your fantasy regarding Bush and Obama is actually kind of telling: Who would ever be in position to arrest, indict, and imprison them except another “Bush” or “Obama” always urgently concerned with what the “Bush” or “Obama” after him would make of his actions?

Obviously. No one wants to set the precedent that abuse of power will be punished, because it’d bite them. I’d say though that if that fact brings anything into question, it’s the overall human worth of allowing such power to continue.

8 comments on “In truth, liberalism has nothing interesting to say about the drone program (1)

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  1. In case anyone gets the sense otherwise from your remarks: I did not vote for Obama, and will not vote for him or anybody else in 2012. I haven’t voted for anyone for president since Harry Browne in 2000.

    Anyway, you have a point with regard to liberal critics that nonetheless still accept the power structure that such decisions come from. The contradiction of recognizing a 3rd party claim to power over life & death while saying “…but not like THAT!”, as if you still have ability to override them without denying the original power, or at least writing in a Void If Crossed policy & being willing to enforce it, is clear. Also, on war specifically…well, it’s war, once the guns come out the talks have failed, applying legalism & humanitarianism to war is like putting bacon on a veggie”burger”.

    That said…

    The “overall human worth” that b-psycho is questioning is in this sense overall human worth itself: If having Leviathans able to kill is wrong, then there is no political right, because concretely humanity as we know it is constituted by the wrong so understood.

    Are you defining humanity itself by the state, or did I read that wrong?

    • Using “state” loosely, as a synonym for social organization at whatever level of development, I think you read me right.

      I’m following here the Hobbian view in part – which, as you are likely aware, begins with a two-part myth of the origins of society, absolutely autonomous individuals ceding their autonomy, especially on the level of violence, to authority for the sake of self-preservation and the development of mutual interests. So, in some ideal sense under that view the human being is alone, but every human being is always already born into a social context defined by that primordial concession, meaning that real existing humanity is never actually encountered wholly apart from the “state.”

      I’m aware of alternatives, but they are even more statist in the sense that they pre-suppose collective interests that may arise more “naturally” or “organically” – not through “fear” but through neurophysiology, for instance – and for the same reason are even more irresistibly able to call on individuals for sacrifice of life, own or other’s.

  2. What would your solution to the direct action part of Salafism, be, All this examination, of our response, leaves out how they operate, Palestine I suppose was a minor aspect in the formation of the jihadist mindset, but the Balkans and the Caucasus
    were certainly more significant, the first was carried out by the Orthodox axis supported by Russia, the second was carried out by Russia, particularly their zachistas, ‘search and destroy operations’ Bin Laden was not nearly as important a figure
    as KsM, the organizer, planner, after 2003, they lost that capacity,Aulaqi sort of ended up doing double duty, propaganda
    and operations,

  3. No, the notion was to turn over the interrogators, and those who authorized them, to the likes Judge Garzon, who started out going after the Anit ETA GAL, and followed through with the Pinochet indictment, thank goodness that stupidity went away,
    meanwhile there was never a real reckoning of the Soviet Regime, worth a darn, and with East Germany, Erich Honecker was allowed to defect to Chile, along with the Cuban regime’s counterpart to Vyshinsky and Ayatollah Khalkali, the one dubbed
    ‘Blood Bath’ Ibarra.

  4. I scarcely head about the hanging judge, Fernando Flores Ibarra, until recently, but he was in the same category as Lazar Kaganovich, a Stalinist mainstay who died quietly in his bed, around 1991,

  5. Bin Laden is but a symptom of the jihadist network, that is in large part based in Pakistan, but financed out of Saudi Arabia, with regards to Afghanistan, they spent 1.5 billion, in projects solely in Afghanistan, so we waste our time going after a Ibrahim Asiri, here, a Saekr Al Taifi here, they are craftmen, not coordinators.

3 Pings/Trackbacks for "In truth, liberalism has nothing interesting to say about the drone program (1)"
  1. […] When I used a stray tweet last Friday to illustrate a point about liberalism’s difficulties in relation to any discussion of drone warfare, its having nothing of interest to say, I did not anticipate anything quite like the blogging performance that the tweeter, Adam Kotsko, would put in over the next couple of days. […]

  2. […] we can expand our general observation on liberalism – including the liberalism that advertises its libertarian purism or its republican virtues […]

  3. […] Macleod, and whichever anti-war (yet not anti-state) liberal chooses to step in at the moment. The roots of this were a post CK made back in May about comments I made over on League of Ordinary Gentlemen […]

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