The final presidential debate was the place to ask some compelling questions about US foreign policy related to drone warfare. That didn't happen, but there's still an opportunity to press the media to seek answers to five key issues.
Before Monday night's presidential debate, many of us urged Bob Schieffer to ask a question about drone strikes.
And, in fact - credit where credit is due - Bob Schieffer did ask a question about drones.
It can't be said that we learned a great deal directly from the interaction. For reasons that aren't really clear, Schieffer asked his question only of Mitt Romney. Here was the exchange:
SCHIEFFER: Let - let me ask you, Governor because we know President Obama's position on this, what is - what is your position on the use of drones?
ROMNEY: Well I believe we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world. And it's widely reported that drones are being used in drone strikes, and I support that and entirely, and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology, and believe that we should continue to use it, to continue to go after the people that represent a threat to this nation and to our friends.
Schieffer's choice to exclude President Obama was odd. About any current administration policy one could say that we know Obama's policy; after all, he's in charge. The point is to give him the opportunity to defend his policy and to say what he intends to do going forward. Arguably we know Obama's policy on health care reform, because he's in charge of a policy that is being implemented. Would a debate moderator say: "Let me ask you, Governor because we know President Obama's position on this, what is - what is your position on health care reform?"
And so, using language Malcolm X might have appreciated - "we should use any and all means necessary" - Romney endorsed the president's policy. (For those scoring at home, it's a basic principle of the law of armed conflict that combatants do not get to use "any and all means necessary.") So, at this level of abstraction, the candidates agree.
Nonetheless, the exchange was useful, because it put the issue on the table for discussion. Schieffer didn't take the ball far, but he got it on the field, and that's more than anyone else of his stature had previously done. As Mark Weisbrot noted at the Guardian, "It was a victory just to have drones mentioned."
Others picked up the discussion. On MSNBC, Joe Scarborough said:
What we are doing with drones is remarkable. The fact that ... over George W. Bush's eight years, when a lot of people brought up a bunch of legitimate questions about international law - my God, those lines have been completely eradicated in a drone policy that says that, if you're between 17 and 30, and you're within a half mile of a suspect, we can blow you up. And that's exactly what's happening.
Joe Klein responded:
But the bottom line in the end is: whose 4-year-old gets killed? What we're doing ... is limiting the possibility that 4-year-olds here are going to get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.
Writing in the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald noted that "Klein's justification - we have to kill their children in order to protect our children - is the exact mentality of every person deemed in US discourse to be a 'terrorist'" and that "Slaughtering Muslim children does not protect American children from terrorism."
But it should also be noted that US drone strikes in Pakistan currently are not really about protecting civilians in the United States from terrorist attacks in any event. US drone strikes in Pakistan today are primarily an extension of the war in Afghanistan, targeting suspected militants believed to be planning to attack US troops in Afghanistan. Since the majority of Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan and want US troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan, this is a highly relevant political fact: US drone strikes in Pakistan are being carried out in support of a war in Afghanistan that most Americans oppose. Pretending that US drone strikes in Pakistan are about protecting civilians in the United States when they are primarily about extending the unpopular Afghanistan war across the border with Pakistan is therefore a pretty significant deceit.
When US troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan, as most Americans want, then there will be no reason to use drone strikes to target militants in Pakistan who are trying to attack US troops in Afghanistan, because there will be no militants in Pakistan trying to attack US troops in Afghanistan, because there will be no US troops in Afghanistan for them to attack. The situation is analogous to that which we faced in Iraq during the Bush administration: We were told we had to keep our troops in Iraq to fight the people who were attacking our troops in Iraq, but the people attacking our troops were attacking our troops because they were there. Now that our troops have left Iraq, no one is attacking our troops in Iraq anymore. The best solution to the problem of people trying to attack our troops in other people's countries is to get our troops out of other people's countries where people are likely to attack them.
Moreover, it is crucial to recognize that the mere existence of drone strikes is not the focus of international criticism. It is specific features of the drone strike policy that are overwhelmingly the focus of international criticism. There is relatively little international criticism, for example, about the US use of drone strikes in Afghanistan compared to other use of air power, given that whether one supports or opposes it, the war in Afghanistan is generally considered internationally to be lawful overall (which is different from saying that specific actions within the war are lawful). But there is a great deal of international criticism about the US use of drone strikes in Pakistan, where considerable international opinion does not accept that the US is conducting a lawful war.
And this is why, although it was a great first step that Bob Schieffer even said the word "drone" and made Mitt Romney say it too, to let politicians merely answer the question at this level of abstraction - "I support drone strikes, too" - is to let them off the hook. It's crucial to drive down into the details of the policy as it exists today and get politicians on the record saying not just whether they support drone strikes as an abstraction but whether they support the details of the policy as it is being implemented today. And this is even more important now, given recent press reports that the current policy is being made permanent.
And this is why it would be tremendously useful if the high-profile TV talk shows would take this on, and devote enough time to it to drive down into details. CBS's Bob Schieffer ("Face the Nation"), NBC's David Gregory and Betsy Fischer ("Meet the Press"), CNN's Christiane Amanpour, and MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow should all be pressed to drive down into the detail of the current drone strike policy. It would be tremendously useful, for example, if these shows would invite the authors of the recent Stanford/NYU report on drone strikes on as guests and invite an Administration surrogate to respond in detail.
Here are five specific questions that it would be really helpful if these shows would explore:
1. The US Ambassador to Pakistan recently acknowledged that 1) the US government has an official count of the number of civilians the US thinks have been killed in Pakistan as a result of US drone strikes since July 2008 and that 2) this number is classified. What is this number, and why is it classified?
2. Journalists and independent researchers have reported that the US has targeted rescuers with "secondary" or "follow-up" drone strikes. International law experts have said that if this is true, this is clearly a war crime under international law. The US Ambassador to Pakistan has denied that the US is targeting rescuers and has denied that the US is conducting secondary strikes. What is the truth here? Is the US targeting rescuers, or not? Is the US conducting "secondary" strikes, or not? If the US is targeting rescuers, is this a war crime?
3. Pakistani officials say they oppose US drone strikes in Pakistan. The Pakistani parliament unanimously demanded that they stop. But US officials claim that the Pakistani military has secretly approved the strikes. What is the truth here? If there is secret approval by the Pakistani military, but not by the democratically elected Pakistani government, should we be satisfied by that? Is such a situation politically sustainable in Pakistan? If there is not secret approval, is the US violating international law with its drone strike policy? If the Pakistani military accepts some US drone strikes but not others, does that count as approval of the drone strikes that the Pakistani military opposes, for the purposes of international law? If not, doesn't that imply that the US is violating international law, even if the Pakistani military approves some drone strikes?
4. US officials have claimed that US drone strikes in Pakistan are narrowly targeted on top level terrorist suspects. But the US is reported to be conducting "signature strikes" on unknown targets based on signals intelligence indicating "suspicious activity." How is this consistent with the claim that the strikes are narrowly targeted on top level terrorist suspects?
5. White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan has claimed that civilian deaths in US drone strikes have been "exceedingly rare." The international humanitarian law principle of proportionality in armed conflict requires that civilian harm not be excessive in relation to anticipated military advantage. It has been reported that a mere 2 percent of the deaths in US drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 have been high level targets, while at least 15 to 30 percent of the deaths have been civilians. Are these numbers basically correct? If so, is it honest to say that civilian deaths have been "exceedingly rare?" If these numbers are basically correct, is the US violating the international law principle of proportionality?
If you'd like the big TV talk shows to take these questions on, you can tell them so here.