Tom Junod has a long article about what he calls “the Lethal Presidency.” The premise is this: Barack Obama is a good man, and he is doing a righteous thing by killing all these enemies of America using special forces, the CIA, and drones.
Now, I have plenty to quibble with in the above already, but by the end of this very long article, Junod comes upon a very provocative idea.
Of course, the danger of the Lethal Presidency is that the precedent you establish is hardly ever the precedent you think you are establishing, and whenever you seem to be describing a program that is limited and temporary, you are really describing a program that is expansive and permanent. You are a very controlled man, and as Lethal President, it’s natural for you to think that you can control the Lethal Presidency. It’s even natural for you to think that you can control the Lethal Presidencies of other countries, simply by the power of your example. But the Lethal Presidency incorporates not just drone technology but a way of thinking about drone technology, and this way of thinking will be your ultimate export. You have anticipated the problem of proliferation. But an arms race involving drones would be very different from an arms race involving nuclear arms, because the message that spread with nuclear arms was that these weapons must never be used. The message that you are spreading with drones is that they must be — that using them amounts to nothing less than our moral duty. [Emphasis mine]
Unfortunately, that is about where Junod cares to stop. But it is a very good start.
The logic of the Global War on Terror has been that we are at war with anyone we deem a threat. This has led to invading a few countries (Afghanistan and Iraq), and conducting more limited wars with sub-state groups (in Yemen and Pakistan).
In the first cases there have been some loose political restraints on the war, namely the combination of cost in lives and treasure and public opinion. In the second there are some restraints in the theatre of war; we don’t want to cause so much trouble that the governments of Pakistan and Yemen fall into even more hostile hands. But that is very little in the way of restraint, no?
So, how does the Global War On Terror end? Originally, even though the very concept of this war seemed dangerously open-ended, it was possible to believe that public opinion would turn toward peace and a return of our armed forces from combat. Failing that, we would simply tire of the cost of the war and invent a pretext for peace after that.
But the ideology of the GWOT and the technology (and relatively low cost) of drones and special force operations seem to make endless war a live possibility. There is no one “on the other side” that can surrender, or sign a cease-fire. Our enemies are anyone who would like to see the top dog beaten up a little, or who objects to us.
Our drones now carry out “signature strikes“, which are basically like a very lethal form of stop and frisk. If you look like a bunch of bad guys out in some desert or mountain, you might just be a little training camp or anti-American conspiracy, and well, there is probably no downside to expelling you from this life. No intelligence needed.
So, how does it end? What political upside is there in ending it for an American politician? We’ve had a decade or longer to make even more enemies in the Middle East, groups of people from Pakistan or Iraq who have a brother or cousin that was killed at a checkpoint, or in a bombing somewhere, or by a third party that was unleashed when we came crashing through. That seems like plenty of people who might one day gather together and plot against us–futile or not. To our intelligence agencies, to the American public, these will be just the candidates for early dismissal from existence, via the safe, cheap drone.
UPDATE: Having reread Tom Junod’s piece again, I think I massively misread his feelings about Obama’s moral uprightness. Apologies.