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Sunday, January 01, 2012

Obama's magic death ray

Covert operations involving drones, including targeted counter-terrorism assassinations, are something on which I'm inclined to give the POTUS, as Commander in Chief — whoever is in that office, even Obama — a lot of deference and discretion. But as suggested by this Wall Street Journal story entitled "Tensions Rising Over Drone Secrecy," this is turning into a situation from Marvel Comics: The only difference is that in the funny papers, it was always an orbiting death ray instead of an unmanned drone made out of composites, cameras, computer chips, and Hellfire missiles. As we use this power, it's increasingly going to motivate other countries and, yes, non-state actors like al-Qaeda, to want their own equivalent toys. But even before they can match our capabilities to use (and defend against?) such drones, there is going to be international attention and concern.

I hope and (must, for now) trust that the White House and the Pentagon and Langley have a cohesive, comprehensive, and wise plan for what America's going to do to moderate, channel, and otherwise affect the resulting change in international security affairs. This is already a bigger deal than most folks realize, and it's going to become a very, very big deal indeed.

But that hope and trust require me to assume, however, a degree of wisdom and simple competency that the Obama Administration has never displayed in anything else. Certainly its handling of the just-lost drone in Iran suggests that they're making up American diplomatic and military/operational policy as they go along, and that they're making it up not just on a day-by-day basis, but an hour-by-hour basis. And as the WSJ story points out:

John Bellinger, a top legal adviser for the State Department during the Bush administration, said the White House needs to start thinking about a legal framework that would define acceptable practices. He pointed to the risk that other countries will start using drones in ways that the U.S. may find objectionable.

"If Russia starts using drones to go after terrorists, will the U.S. look like we have a double standard if we criticize them?" Mr. Bellinger asked.

In short, the whole world, including his own legislators and constituents, is going to be listening more carefully to what Obama says (and doesn't say) about drones during the coming year, and comparing those words to what's actually being done (and not done) with the drones in actual practice, much of which will be covert.

The growing Congressional challenges to Obama's authority here — implemented so far only by demanding broader reporting to Congress, but likely to be subjected to more intrusive involvement, with associated security risks — suggest that I'm not the only one to have noticed this, or to have become concerned by it. Certainly the mainstream media is doing very little to put it on the voting public's respective radar screens. But even carefully targeted Hellfire missile strikes eventually demand attention; and any one of these strikes might trigger something quite unexpected, and potentially much bigger, as a counter-response by someone.

I'm perplexed at the silence of my liberal friends who, in theory, at least the last time we discussed such things in other contexts, don't share my views on the breadth of the Executive's authority to prosecute the war on terror and to defend the country from both foreign and domestic threats. How many layers of duct tape have they had to wrap around their heads to prevent them from exploding at the notion that, by executive order, the POTUS can now selectively vaporize almost any given roomful or carload of people, including U.S. citizens (at least while abroad)? The enormity of their double-standard has never been more obvious: If any Republican, and certainly if George W. Bush, had taken the same positions and engaged in the same volume of drone activities that Obama has, we'd be in the midst of full-blown impeachment proceedings by now.

Posted by Beldar at 03:18 PM in Congress, Foreign Policy, Global War on Terror, Mainstream Media, Obama, Technology/products | Permalink


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(1) Cecil made the following comment | Jan 2, 2012 10:06:57 AM | Permalink

Being a liberal/progressive means never having to worry about consistency.

(2) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Jan 3, 2012 1:40:03 AM | Permalink

Dear Mr. Dyer: I'm not so concerned about this as you are. For starters, drones don't run themselves. They need networks, they need air superiority so they aren't blown out of the sky, they need skilled operators. These aren't insuperable barriers, but they will filter out quite a few would be death rayers. What seems far more important is the weak fiscal/financial/monetary position The One's imbecilities have led us to. That is more dangerous to this nation than death rays. I have to admit, I'm not wild about the idea of a steadily growing Executive power. I wouldn't want Reagan to have the authority The One now has.

You are right about liberal bigotry and hypocrisy, but at the moment that doesn't seem like much. Krugman is a ninny? Business as usual. I suppose this is because liberalism has such a dim future, e.g. the New York TIMES after another decade of Pinch Sulzberger.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(3) ech made the following comment | Jan 4, 2012 12:04:53 PM | Permalink

A few points to consider.

Right now, only the US and the Russians have the kind of satellite network needed to control drones in remote areas. You need to have a domestic comsat industry and a launch system for them. China might have such a network soon, and it's certainly possible for Japan and several of the EU countries to build and launch one. Brazil, S. Korea, India, and Taiwan could decide to join the club. Israel has the technical know-how but has no launch site.

Having staff to fly them is not hard to get - the spread of videogames has trained a lot of potential operators.

The pre-WWII division of power, as Jerry Pournelle has pointed out on his blog, was that the president controled the Navy (and Marines) and the Congress controlled the Army. This limited the president to keeping the sea lanes open and to small, local operations. To get us into a bigger mess required Congress to approve a DOW and commit the Army.

WW II and the ensuing continuing overseas deployment of the Army, along with the nuclear standoff meant that the president had to be able to able to command rapid response to a Warsaw Pact invasion or a nuclear strike, and we delegated that power to that office. What we see now with the drone strikes is a logical extension of that power to action against non-state actors, something that we never contemplated. I'm not sure that we can come to a rational decision in the current political environment.

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