Barack Obama and his enabling opposition

Lessening the need to “send our troops into harm’s way” may actually increase the odds of future military interventions.

Keith Ellison
"Like many on the professional centre-left, the biggest problem US Congressman Keith Ellison seems to have with US drone policy is that it cuts politicians like him out," writes Davis [AP]

The classic anti-murder talking point peddled by prophets and other long-haired purists has been that murder is wrong. Or, put another way: Murder is wrong. But if enough people die, a killer can often end up being labelled a statesman, the dark magic of democracy – meaning the only real democracy, of course: the United States of America – turning wanton destruction into a “difficult decision”.

When the murderer is a liberal with a peace prize, it’s even harder than usual to get any respect in the serious world sticking to a rigid, killing is bad belief system. And so, most ambitious political players don’t, not even (or especially) in the Democratic Party and its media outlets. A more pragmatic stance is adopted. Careers must be thought of, after all.

Rather than outright condemning President Obama’s programme of unilateral killing, for instance, the progressive Democrat finds ways to argue that mass killing by a guy they kind of like is different from all mass killings by other murderous sociopaths. Something about the social contract, maybe; or what might start out innocently enough as honest moral outrage over the slaying of women and children and other living things is, through the process of reform, stripped of its urgency and turned into: Why is there not some easily manipulatable bureaucratic process in place to lend legitimacy to all this arbitrary killing?

That’s the stance of most centre-left politicians, in office and on TV. The critique of state-sponsored bloodshed, if it appears in liberal politics, is typically limited to the way the blood is being spilled – where’s the rubber stamp? – as if the problem is the typo on the death certificate and not what sent the body to the morgue.

Unmanned drones

Take that venerable liberal institution, The New York Times. Presented with evidence that the White House is killing whoever the president deigns to kill, the paper had a blistering editorial effectively calling for more paperwork. “If the administration has evidence that a suspect is a terrorist threat to the United States,” the editorial declared, “it would have to present that evidence in secret to a court before the suspect is placed on a kill list.” 

A similar system is in place for electronic surveillance of alleged terrorism suspects. In 2011, every government request to conduct such surveillance was approved, though liberal guilt has been sufficiently assuaged.

But that’s just the Times, hardly a representation of American liberalism as a whole. What about all those fiery progressive congressmen? (“Yes, what about them?” asks every military-age male in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.)

Well, those fiery progressives essentially call for the same thing, taking issue with the form of unilateral assassinations, not the substance. US Congressman Keith Ellison, chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus – the House of Representatives’ largest and traditionally least effective voting bloc – embodies this self-neutering and perfectly respectable liberal opposition so prevalent in Washington. In an op-ed published in the Washington Post, Ellison laments the civilian deaths caused by his president’s wars. That’s a good thing, the lament, and not so common in his town. 

 US memo ‘justifies’ drone killings

But the gist of Ellison’s opposition – essentially, “Why isn’t Congress signing off on these deaths?” – doesn’t serve any real good. Indeed, rather than simply denounce the use of unilateral air strikes to kill foreign, poor and brown young people with guns who are not members of the NRA, Ellison dissents by praising imperial efficiency, which seems bad. “Weaponised drones have produced results,” he writes. In fact, “just last week [one] took out a Taliban leader” (the specific week is of as of much importance as a “Taliban leader”). And, just so you know, unmanned drones “lessen the need to send our troops into harm’s way, reducing the number of US casualties”.

That lessening the need to “send our troops into harm’s way” may actually increase the odds of future military interventions – CNN doesn’t care about dead non-Americans, nor do most Americans – does not appear to enter into Ellison’s pragmatic progressive mind. Drones make it easier to initiate acts of war of dubious justness, but: fewer (American) flag-draped coffins, probably. So there’s that.

Like many on the professional centre-left, the biggest problem Ellison seems to have with US drone policy is that it cuts politicians like him out. As Ellison puts it, “unilateral kill lists are unseemly and fraught with hazards”. But he can’t even bring himself to condemn the unilateral killer, bizarrely arguing that “the president should be commended for creating explicit rules for the use of drones”.

‘Military necessity’

Talk about unseemly. That’s about the point where a lacklustre dissent becomes a dangerous legitimation of evil: when you praise a mass killer for having a system in place. It’s not like Chuckles Manson was just having anybody killed all willy-nilly, ya know.

Indeed, rather than oppose remote-controlled murder, Congress should work on “codifying a legal framework to guide executive action on drone strikes”, argues the most progressive congressman in America. This framework should “require an independent judicial review of any executive-branch ‘kill list'”, or rather: the Times‘ idea of a clandestine court glancing at the president’s assassination plans. As for civilian casualties, “they are not acceptable”, writes Ellison, “except” – because that’s the sort of opposition we’re dealing with here – “in cases of demonstrated military necessity”.

Important bit of trivia: the number of strikes that the CIA and US military have claimed was not of “demonstrated military necessity” is precisely zero.

Typically, neutering one’s opposition to evil is seen as savvy by those doing; it will help achieve incremental reform, the irrespective-of-results thinking goes, which would certainly be a good thing and how can you oppose a good thing? It’s the sort of alluring thought that leads peace groups to embrace drones and defence secretaries because, sorry young radical, that’s the best we can do. It’s what leads politicians hailed as “bold progressives” to embrace reactionary pragmatism, at least if you believe their impulses are honest. But if progressive change is the goal, as opposed to co-opting progressive energy for purposes of the status quo, it’s a damn bad idea.

The role of a person with conscience is to speak out in the face of injustice, not to play the role of a savvy pol and compromise one’s dissent, a behaviour regrettably mirrored by many who are far from the limelight. If you want to end slavery, call for an end to slavery. If you want to reduce state-sanctioned murder, call for an end to state-sanctioned murder – and leave it to your elected progressive to interpret that as the lesser evil of “a few less dead foreign babies”.

Meaningful change, when it comes, usually does so as a result of radical demands, not well-it-would-be-awful-nice “open letters” and pre-emptively compromised moral stands. When it comes to the unilateral murder of poor people on the other side of the globe, there’s the right position – stop it now – and then there’s the reasonable, progressive stand: maybe require a few more lawyers. The latter stance won’t save any Pakistanis, but then it’s mostly about appearances. Dead foreigners don’t make many appearances.

Charles Davis is a writer currently based somewhere in the Los Angeles underground.