Guest column: On drones, Obama is Bush

Bruce Ramsey

Concerning the acceptance of aerial drones to kill individuals, what is the difference between George W. Bush and Barack Obama?

“Zero,” said Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations.

President Bush authorized about 50 non-battlefield drone strikes. President Obama, who has more drones to fight with, has launched more than five times as many drone strikes, all in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The count at year-end from both was 411 strikes and 3,430 dead, according to Zenko’s new paper, “Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies.”

When Bush was president, a political movement arose to protest this sort of thing. It was the anti-war movement. When Obama was elected, the movement went away. War didn’t; the movement did.

Is killing different when a Democrat does it?

Killing may be justified if your enemy is trying to kill you or people you are sworn to protect. And drones offer precision killing. They can hover over a target for hours and strike when the target pops in view, with no hesitation.

A means of risk-free killing — risk free “to us,” said Zenko — is useful to have. The convenience appeals to people in power. Civilians particularly like the cleanliness of it. “They love to use cancer metaphors,” Zenko said. “‘We got the cancer without damaging the tissue around it.'”

These surgeries have complications. A drone strike violates sovereignty and national pride. People in the target country resent it. People in friendly countries may stop allowing the United States to use their airfields and airspace because it compromises them. People in our country may turn against drones, as they did against waterboarding and extraordinary rendition.

Zenko argued in his paper that if U.S. leaders want to retain the ability to conduct aerial assassination, they should have hearings in Congress and put this under a rule of law. At minimum, leaders should have to name the target beforehand.

Some drone strikes have targeted persons who look important but who are unidentified. Zenko would end these. He would end strikes against people whose ambitions were strictly local, such as many of the targets in Yemen. He would have each strike signed off by a person who took responsibility, rather than do it under bureaucratic cover.

These are all good suggestions, but a full solution requires a less imperial policy overall. The government should speed its withdrawal from Afghanistan. It should let the rulers of Yemen do their own counterinsurgency work. It should help drive the Somali pirates from international waters, then leave Somalia alone.

A drone is a weapon of war. Eventually, the question of when to use drones leads to the question of when to go to war, and what war consists of. It is too easy to say that the world has a new kind of war, that we are in it and have no choice about it. We have choices. To say, “We have no choice” is an attempt to talk people out of the choices they have.

You can hear our government’s choices in its words. Recall the white paper released last week insisting every drone strike has been against an “imminent threat,” and at the same time urging “a broader concept of imminence.” And further, that killing by drone raises constitutional considerations, but that, “there exists no appropriate judicial forum to evaluate these constitutional considerations.”

Does that sound like the Bush people? It does.

It’s the Obama people.

Bruce Ramsey is a columnist for the Seattle Times.