War Without Soldiers

The Bumiller/Shanker piece on the US government’s increasing reliance on drones combined with the Obama administration’s recent interpretation of the War Powers Act both raise in my mind two points that I missed when I did my review essay on this topic.

Part of what the White House is saying about the War Powers issue seems to rely on the idea that it makes a big difference if you’re not dispatching actual human beings into an area of armed conflict. After all, everyone recognizes the difference between participating in a war and providing military equipment to someone. And a drone is just that, a piece of equipment rather than a soldier. By the same token, it’s noteworthy that a lot of drone operating seems to be done by the CIA rather than the uniformed military services. The CIA can’t raise an army — that’s the job of the Army — but it seems that perhaps it can build up an army of remotely operated pieces of military equipment.

This all strikes me as instances of the national security equivalent of what Hacker and Pierson call “policy drift” in their Winner-Take-All Politics. Remotely operated military machines weren’t invented for the purpose of shifting the balance of executive and congressional authority in warmaking, or for shifting the balance of national security power away from the military and toward the CIA. And in principle, there’s no reason existing statutes can’t be rewritten in order to clarify or rebalance things. But in practice the American political system makes it a huge uphill struggle to rewrite any statute. So unless congress is very strongly motivated to assert itself, which it’s not, you leave the field open to a pretty drastic shift in who’s in charge of bombing whom.