VIEWPOINT: Why This Election Is About More Than Drones

The United States government is killing people. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are all being pounded by missiles launched from US drones, and though the missiles are ostensibly targeted against terrorists, it seems possible that hundreds of civilians have been killed in the crossfire. Neither party’s nominee will debate this issue. That’s a terrible shame — the drone campaign is a morally fraught policy that merits a full-throated public debate. The innocents killed by the strikes demand it.

In that sense, then, Conor Friedersdorf’s massively viral essay focusing on the drone war and other don’t-call-it War on Terror policies is a welcome spotlight on some critically ignored issues. It’s unfortunate, then, that the piece itself and the underlying thinking it represents are disappointing.

Conor believes the drone campaign is indefensible; it kills without appreciable benefit. Anyone who supports it must be deluded:

At worst, this policy creates more terrorists than it kills; at best, America is ruining the lives of thousands of innocent people and killing hundreds of innocents for a small increase in safety from terrorists. It is a cowardly, immoral, and illegal policy, deliberately cloaked in opportunistic secrecy. And Democrats who believe that it is the most moral of all responsible policy alternatives are as misinformed and blinded by partisanship as any conservative ideologue.

As a consequence, he argues, one cannot in good faith support Obama or Romney for President; the former escalated drone strikes and the other would continue them. Together with other civil liberty violations, drone strikes ought be electoral “dealbreakers,” particularly for progressives. You’ve seen similar arguments before, but Conor’s variant has struck a nerve, so it’s worth using it as a proxy for the broader debate.

As it happens, both sides of his syllogism are wrong. It’s not obvious that drone strikes are indefensible and, even if they are morally wrong, they shouldn’t determine your vote alone.

Let’s start with the first half: Conor’s strident judgment about the drone program is belied by a wealth of credible evidence. Al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan depends on physical space in order to conduct its activities; having a location where senior leaders can train and socialize new recruits is critical to developing operatives capable of doing significant damage to high-value and/or Western targets. Given the precarious political and nuclear situation in Pakistan, it seems that degrading al-Qaeda in the Af-Pak region should be a paramount goal of American counterterrorism policy.

Targeted killings appear to be severely hampering al-Qaeda in Pakistan. Pir Zubair Shah, reporting from Pakistan, believes the strikes have weakened al-Qaeda “to a significant extent” and that they are “the only politically viable option for U.S. counterterrorism goals.” Shah is backed up by two studies finding that targeted campaigns against terrorist and insurgent leaderships have been effective in the past. The reason is relatively simple — targeted killings terrorists kill key leaders and make others afraid to risk open organization. There’s some evidence we’re seeing this effect in Pakistan already; another study found that drone strikes are lowering the frequency and lethality of militant violence.

This evidence also complicates Conor’s contention that drones are an unjustifiable assault on Pakistani civilians. Local surveys suggests that militant attacks, not drones, are viewed as the principal threat by people in the affected areas. Moreover, there’s some reason to believe that many fewer civilians and a concomitantly higher percent of Taliban/al-Qaeda are killed by drone strikes than Conor believes. If drone strikes really are less dangerous than local militants, and the costs of said militant attacks are being blunted by drones, the humanitarian calculus isn’t as simple as “drones kill civilians, ergo they’re unjustifiable.”

Put this together and you have a reasonable argument for the drone campaign along these lines:

There are high-value al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. If left unchecked, these terrorists might kill a significant number of American citizens. Campaigns targeted at leaders of terrorist organizations have had success the past and, while there’s reason to believe the US is hitting more than just leaders, the consequent blowback isn’t helping al-Qaeda enough to make up the damage. Moreover, drones are decreasing the frequency of militant attacks that kill civilians, which balances against their occasionally overstated harm. There are serious concerns about transparency and targeting procedures, but overall the status quo is morally preferable to simply ending the drone strikes.

Do I believe this case? I’m totally unsure. I find myself equally persuaded by arguments mounted by people like Conor and Kevin Gosztola as by the above. There’s good reason to believe the historical data on targeted strikes is incomplete and muky; the case for strikes is also much weaker outside Af-Pak. Even there, strikes might not defeat al-Qaeda given blowback and Pakistani policy. The civilian casualty count could be much higher than usually reported. Conor et al. may very well be right; I’m genuinely unsure as to which side gets the better of the argument.

But that’s the point; the drone issue is hard to resolve on the merits. We’re dealing with a highly classified program operating in what are essentially war zones about which the relevant data is uniquely muddled. Has Conor spent time in Pakistan? Falsified competing local reports? Does he have reason to believe Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal would be safe from a reconstituted al-Qaeda after strikes ceased?

Someone can disagree with Conor on these questions without being a dupe. The drone campaign might well be morally wrong, but it isn’t obviously so. Reasonable people with shared values can disagree without, as Conor says, being “misinformed and blinded by partisanship.” Drones are the topic of a particularly difficult debate; disagreement isn’t irrational or blasphemous.

This brings me to my second point: given the opacity of the drone debate, there’s no reason it should outweigh other, clearer issues that might incline one towards an Obama vote. Consider the following :

— Lack of health care kills up to 45,000 Americans per year. Romney wants to repeal the most significant effort to limit these preventable deaths in American history and doesn’t appear have a real policy alternative, let alone a legislatively viable one.

— Climate change could take 100 million lives around the globe; Romney belongs to a party that denies the reality of climate change and mocks the issue himself while Obama has taken modest but important steps toward addressing it.

These are just two examples of Obama-Romney differences separated from drones by a world of evidentiary difference. The overwhelming consensuses among climate scientists and health experts are that warming and lack of insurance are real problems with very high costs in human lives — thousands, potentially millions of lives are at risk, many more than are taken by drones. Unlike the murky issues surrounding the drone war, these facts are well-established by relevant reporting and research. Conor has said he’d be willing to vote for Obama if half the world were at stake; just where does he draw the line?

There’s a caveat here — Conor may not think Obamacare will effectively expand access to health insurance or that regulating CO2 is a cost-effective response to climate change. And fair enough; he’s a libertarian. But Conor’s piece was addressed to people on the left; his goal was to explain, on their terms, why Obama’s drone and civil liberties record should be a dealbreaker. Such people tend to believe — rightly, I might add — that the evidence clearly shows that Obama has made significant (albeit incomplete and reversible) progress on health and climate relative to the status quo or Romney.

Conor says this audience should ignore the hundreds of thousands of lives that they’re convinced would be imperiled by a Romney victory and stay at home because of a debatably justifiable program with a much lower cost in lives. In essence, an issue that’s difficult on the merits for progressives should outweigh all of their other core priorities!

In a later piece, Conor clarified that the point of his original polemic was to “spur readers to confront the problematic policies and attitudes that have taken hold here since the September 11 terrorist attacks.” That’s commendable; as I’ve said, we need be having a conversation that takes Conor’s concerns about drones much more seriously. Inasmuch as that’s what he’s done, I applaud him and the piece. But you can’t fully separate goal from content here, and the substance of Conor’s actual argument blinds his readers to the substantive debate surrounding the drone program and whitewashes the real cost in lives attendant in adopting his priorities. Politics by its nature demands terrible tradeoffs; Conor’s Kantian voting scheme makes the issues he cares about seem simple and the issues he doesn’t disappear. This isn’t about “lesser evils;” it’s about accomplishing the greatest amount of good we can, starting with minimizing the amount of unnecessary death in the world. The fact that we can’t save every life doesn’t mean we shouldn’t save some.