Sorry, Kids, I'm OK with Obama's Drones


The first thing I have to note is that I do not believe there is anything "emerging" about a president's power to kill someone in a way that is nearly arbitrary. As a consequence of his role as Commander in Chief, all presidents have had the ability to order someone killed. The only thing that's emerging, imho, is that we know about it. I am 100% certain that the cold war saw many murders, for example. In theory, I think that's a good thing.

I read some article about the structure of government. It talked about the reason we have a president at all. Basically, the founders realized that we need the specific, directed 'agency' of an individual to help move the country forward. Imagine a battlefield where the final decision has to be signed by three guys. One would expect that the time needed to bring everyone to agreement would be very dangerous to the troops. It seems clear that it would not work at all unless a single, undivided mind were able to digest the information and decide, for better or worse, on a course of action.

Imagine, then, a situation where we have changed the Commander in Chief so that he does not have the ability to make a unilateral decision to stop an attack. He has to get two other people to sign off on a drone strike– and then, one of them refuses to sign off. This kind of happened when Bill Clinton had Osama bin Laden in the crosshairs of a drone (or something) in the fall of 2000. Bill was weakened politically and had been savaged earlier for having bombed something so he didn't take him out. Oops.

Which is to say, he allowed himself to be conscripted into a political committee that prevented him from taking action. A year later, 3000 Americans dead and ten years later another 3500 soldiers and more than half a million Iraqis dead. Not a good bargain.

So, that makes two points: first, the president has always had this power and second, in some circumstances, it can be an unambiguously good thing. The difference between it being a good thing and a bad thing? The nature of the president.


It's my opinion that George Bush was stupid and mean. He invaded Iraq when anyone who wasn't completely taken over with emotion knew it was a completely stupid idea. Given this argument, I'm less condemning of those who supported him but still think they and he were fools. It was obvious on the face that he was acting in bad faith. I will never understand how anyone could fail to see it.

Obama, not so bad. I combine the reality that, he has the ability to order any soldier to, "Go shoot that person," and he has the responsibility to prevent America from coming to harm with my observation of his decency. I see nothing "on the face" of things that suggests that Obama is stupid, mean or unwise. I see the opposite.

In the grand discussion about this, people make the point to me that I might be right about Obama but, shouldn't the next Bush be constrained? Others have said that it might be legal and inevitable but isn't it immoral? To the first, I reply that I fear the bad president so, work hard to avoid that. Only vote for good people. To the second, I wonder what moral even means in this world.

I note as preface that, Obama and I were pretty much on the same page about the war on terror before he got elected. He was very skeptical about much of the hard-hearted international action, down on the war in Iraq, Guantanamo, indefinite detention, etc. Almost immediately, his viewpoints changed dramatically, He used to oppose warrantless wiretaps. Now he supports them. (Though Richard Clarke tells me that they are conducted very properly under Obama.) His foreign policy became very much like George Bush's. What happened to change his mind?

If you told me that George Bush had changed and was now intellectually curious, generous and thoughtful, I would not believe it. I am certain that it is almost impossible for a person to undergo such fundamental change. I believe that's the case in the other direction, too. Which is to say, I don't think that Obama went from being a brilliant person with a long career of working for the betterment of people and an inquiring, philosophical bent, to being a hard-hearted dick who thinks it's fun to order drones to blow people to bits.

I believe that the fundamental person doesn't change. What does? The stuff he knows.

It my guess that Barack got into office and got his ultra cool security clearance and then he got briefed. The evidence of his changed attitude suggests that he went, "Holy fuck! I would never have believed it."

For most of the post-911 era, I have said something to the effect that it must be a lot harder to put together a terror team than it seems. Otherwise, where are the acts of terror? It's not as if we don't have a huge country with lots of guns, fertilizer for big bombs, dynamite for smaller ones. It's not like we couldn't be thrown into an incredibly destructive spiral by four or five explosions in crowded malls. I thought that there must be something a lot harder about it than I could imagine.

I now guess that it's that the big problem it's getting past our warrantless wiretaps and whatever other machiaveliian crap the national security apparatus is doing to protect us. I now suspect that Barack Obama got a look at the number of plots, the number of near misses, the destructive potential of those intended attacks and said, I repeat, "Holy fuck!" I don't know of any other way to explain his change of heart on these matters.

Well, except one. My nephew suggests that Obama got into the government and they brainwashed and fooled him. Of course, that's possible but, I think, extremely unlikely. He is a brilliant guy and, except for this national security stuff, he hasn't shown much change in his values. If there were government organizations able to cause a president to fundamentally turn around on issues, I'm guessing there would be more examples for Obama.

Which then brings us back to wondering if the drone strikes are a bad thing. Even if, the president has the ability and we need him to have the ability and we know that there are bad guys out there, is this a wise thing to do? My answer is, I have no idea. I accepted a doctor's analysis of my brother's kidney disease last year, even though the stakes were as high as possible, because I know that, even if he's not perfect, the doctor knows a lot more than I do. I feel the same way about Obama.

I do worry that he's miscalculating the nasty effect on our international reputation. I also worry that his acts might embolden a future George Bush to act on his daddy issues in the international arena. I am not happy about the fear and damage to innocents in target areas.

But I also figure that Barack is likely to be worried about these same things and, given his infinitely better access to information, I guess that he's more likely to make a good decision about it than either myself or Ed Schulz (and all the other whiney liberals) could do.


One of the great innovations of the Obama era was to remind us that due process does not only refer to the courts. For example, the Supreme Court considered the Florida recount in 2000 to be invalid because it would have been a failure of due process. The counts, being conducted differently in different places would result in each citizen having a different process that, in their opinion, was not sufficiently 'due'.

I use this example for two reason. If anyone knows the definition of due process, it's the justices on the Supreme Court. They realize, as Obama's people have now reminded us, that due process exists in a million forms. What's required is that the process is 'due', ie, "of proper quality or extent". The other reason I use this is to remind us that judicial proceedings, even when 'due', can be completely, politically, mindlessly wrong.

So, what's the due process that people are worried about with drones? Mainly two things. There is no trial for the condemned and that there is no trial for the killer, in this case, the president. (I say trial, you say review or transparency, in any case, no airing of the facts for judgement). Both are good principles but being thought about simplistically.

Obama has made clear that there is a process and that, in his opinion as the leader of the country, it is 'due'. It does not involve the courts. It involves some other process that he feels is sufficiently thoughtful that he can go to sleep at night after having ordered some guy to be killed. Were it George Bush who told me this, I would say, "Fuck you. You'd order a killing of someone because he insulted your daddy." Not so with Obama.

The media and congress are all enraged that they don't get to know enough to decide whether he is right. I sympathize, for sure, but what on earth makes them think they could make a better decision? Certainly they cannot possibly have access to all the secret stuff. That's obviously a disastrous course. Without that, how could anyone believe that they are doing any more than second guessing?

The Obama administration is releasing papers explaining its legal justification. What has happened so far and will happen as more comes out, is that people will nitpick. They will say, "not even directly engaged in an attack? That's simply immoral. If he's not attacking then go arrest him," and so on. A complicated topic like this necessarily has many components that you can argue with. Even more because we can never know half of the story.

Sure, the guy was not actually engaged in an attack but, he was incredibly charismatic and gaining a following at a terrifying pace. He hadn't ever actually suggested violence himself but has a patron who has already bankrolled several terrorist attacks that have killed many people. His politics are viciously anti-American and we know that a dozen of the nastiest terrorist guys are part of his gang.

Given that story, you could treat him like we treat criminals in America. Wait until he commits a crime and then arrest him. Or, until he has put the plan into place.

But what if Barack can easily see where this is going? What if he knows that this guy is putting people in the mood for sacrifice and violence very effectively and, the longer he is allowed to do so, the greater the potential for violence will be? What if he has seen this before a dozen times and, when he didn't send in the drones soon enough, there were another dozen vicious people that our security people had to deal with.

Do we really want Barack to be looking over his shoulder? To be making the calculation in ihis head, "even though I know that this is going to end badly, I will lose so much support in Congress that I won't be able to pass the extension for unemployment benefits that millions depend on?" Or some other nasty tradeoff.

I don't actually think Barack is saintly. I just think he is as good as me and I know that I would not kill some bad guy who was only mildly bad. (Unlike Bush, who I think would make bad judgements.) The only serious leap I make in my analysis is where I infer that the terrorist threat caused Barack his "Holy fuck!" moment.

ANOTHER CHAPTER: American Citizen

I've never thought this was an important point. It's my opinion that the Constitution applies to the government, not the people, and that everyone the government touches is protected by the Constitution. I am furious (and here Obama gets my full opprobrium) about the indefinite detention of immigration violators. The idea that they do not get trials, a lawyer, etc, merely because they are not citizens seems completely immoral to me.

So, Anwar al Awlaki deserves the same treatment, to my mind, as does Osama bin Laden. Whatever process is 'due', should be the same. I consider the notion that he deserves more consideration because he is an American to be flawed on its face.

But then, one worries, does that mean that Barack can send a drone into your neighborhood to kill your American ass? What's to stop him from sliding down some slippery slope and declaring martial law, killing everyone, sending us all to Guantanamo? If he can kill al Awlaki, why not you and me? Of course, that's just silly: you are not a terrorist, neither am I.

The old 'nuclear bomb in downtown LA' scenario is so overused that it's become a canard but, that doesn't mean it's entirely useless. It is possible and, so are lots of other things that are equally bad. Would you really prevent Obama from torturing someone to find out where the bio-terror vial is? Would you really prevent him from sending soldiers to capture the terrorist cell while they are putting on their armor in a suburban house before they drove the the Mall of America? Would you really prevent Obama from using a drone to blow up a truck full of fertilizer bomb while it's on the outskirts of Denver? Just because it's in America or it might be an American citizen?


I think the principle applies everywhere. If it is important to prevent mass murder then the citizenship of the bad guy is not important. Nor is the nature of the process. Nor is the means. The only questions I want answered are: Will the prevention happen in time? Is it going to be effective? And (and I agree that this is very important) will the right people, and only the right people, be killed?

For me, the conclusion is pretty clear. First, if I were president and was presented with a law that said, "You can't do this!", I reply, "Sorry, but you can't take away my role as Commander in Chief nor my obligation to protect our citizens, so forget about it." That is, it is an intrinsic power of the Presidency. Second, I accept as real the threat that is being addressed in this way. And, third, with some reservations, I think that the person who is making the judgment is more likely than most to be doing it correctly. While I am ok with people chewing this over in the public dialog, I conclude that the situation is as it should be.