Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Droning On And On

So the Internets are abuzz with the sound of drones.

Here's my take in toto, since I've been clogging up comment threads trying to make my case.

Despite what the Jehovah's Witnesses say, we live in pretty peaceful times.  Wars and rumors of war are pretty scarce.  State on state violence is declining.  Wars are rarer than at almost any time in human history.  The idea of a "great power" war seems pretty absurd at the moment.

But non-state vs state violence has increased to fill the gap.  Terrorists and criminal enterprises exist and exploit areas where state control is weak.  Max Weber defined the state as an entity with a monopoly of violence over a given area.  This reflects the roots of the state's historical development in violent conflict.  Now, states are learning to live together without war, but those areas where grievances or lack of opportunity run high and state control is low have seen the proliferation of terrorism and crime.

I realize that there is a liberal argument that we have created Al Qaeda and the Sinaloa cartel though imperialism and misguided drug laws.  I am not insensitive to those arguments.  They have some merit.

But everybody injures everybody else in some way.  You really become aware of that as a parent when you realize that even your innocuous actions can create problems.  America is the current center of gravity in the world.  What we do has an impact.  That's undeniable.

But to go from there to the justification for bombing a railway station or chopping off heads and leaving their bodies in the Mexican desert as a warning is a jump I'm not prepared to make.

People are violent, and the evidence that violence can be traced to environmental factors like environmental lead is compelling to me.

And if people are violent - to the point of a 9/11 or mass drug killings - then whatever our actions were seem to pale by comparison.  Yes, we prop up the House of Saud and Mubarak.  But is that worth blowing up a London tube station?  Or maybe the aggrieved should change their own countries?  At what point does legitimate political grievance transform into sociopathy?

Whatever, the point is we have enemies.  And those enemies are increasingly non-state actors, or -as much as I hate to use a Friedman-ism - Super Empowered Individuals.

How do you fight a far flung terror network?

The Bush way was to engage in state-on state violence, toppling the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, and then using US troops as a magnet to attract jihadis.  Then kill them.  I don't think this was a very effective, humane or cost-efficient way to run a war against a non-state actor.

Drones also inflict violence, but not on a societal scale the way OIF did.  It's ironic we're having this debate on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war, because there are three options as I see it: 1) more Iraqs 2) more drones 3) retreat behind a screen of Homeland Security and play defense.

If - realistically - those are our three options, then #2 wins for me.

Now, counter-terrorism is different from anti-terrorism.  Yes, we need to keep killing and disrupting terrorist networks (counter-terrorism).  But we also need to bring security and stability (and thus opportunity and hope for the future) to places like Egypt.  Mubarak created stability, but the population was not secure from the power of the state, and there was no opportunity.  If we can help bring the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa into the 20th century (forget the 21st for a moment) we can bring more peace and have fewer drones.

Also, there has to be a better process for deciding who we strike with drones.  Especially American citizens.  The framework of the process has to be transparent, though not the actual case-by-case procedure.  I don't give two shits that Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a drone, anymore that I care when a murderer gets gunned down in a shoot out with police.  But I want to know that - unlike in a shoot out - the cool, rational and thought-out decision to use a drone was made without the same sort of "group think" that led us to believe that Iraq had WMD.  There has to be an adversarial process to determine when a drone is used to strike a target in a sovereign state, especially when that target is an American citizen.

Drones are a tool - a new tool.  But the real issue is that we have not rewritten the old rules about state vs state conflict to accommodate the world of non-state actors.  We still don't know what to do about the guys in Gitmo.  They aren't Prisoners of War, because there was no war because there was no state.  Similarly, how do you attack an enemy that is hiding in the lawless part of a country that is ostensibly an ally of yours?  Spec ops?  Drones?  What happens to the sovereignty of Yemen or Pakistan in that instance?

So, thanks, Rand Paul for showing why a talking filibuster is a good thing.

But the really hard work needs to be done to redefine the rules of warfare in the 21st century.

And I don't see anyone stepping up to do that.

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