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Aaron Rainwater on drones: an argument that won’t fly


As many people will know, President Barack Obama recently delivered a speech on “The Future of our Fight against Terrorism” at the National Defense University at Fort McNair (May 23, 2013). Though I don’t agree with every claim in it, in my view the speech was basically correct. In fact, I’m inclined to say that it was the best speech by any recent American president that I’ve read or heard in the three decades I’ve been paying attention to politics—better than anything by Reagan or Clinton, widely regarded as great orators, and certainly better than anything by Nixon, Carter, or either George H.W. or George W. Bush.

Obama’s speech was judicious, logical, filled with relevant facts, and attentive to possible objections. His delivery of the speech itself was, to my ears, fluent and pleasant, and his handling of the heckler who interrupted his speech was perfectly appropriate to the occasion, both in content and in manner. As someone who’s recently traveled to Pakistan (where I defended the use of drones in front of a Pakistani audience at Forman Christian College in Lahore—and where part of the audience agreed with me), and is about to travel to Arab East Jerusalem (where I’m perfectly content to do the same), I’m happy at long last to have some discursive help from an American politician. In other words, with a few exceptions for claims in it that I reject, Obama’s is a speech that I can defend to anyone anywhere—be it in Lahore, East Jerusalem, or right here in front of my computer.

A day after the speech, The Atlas Society’s Aaron Rainwater published a short critique of it. A one sentence summary gets his message across: “The President’s speech was riddled with just as much inaccuracy as one might expect from the head of what is, in light of recent scandals, considered by many to be the most corrupt administration in American history.” In what follows, I’d like to judge the adequacy of Rainwater’s criticisms. As I see it, every criticism Rainwater makes of the speech is either explicitly answered in the speech itself, or is so inadequately stated as to fall apart after a few minutes’ scrutiny. In the first case, Rainwater simply ignores Obama’s pre-emptive responses to his criticisms. In the latter case, Rainwater seems content to make large accusations without feeling the need to provide evidence for them. In either case, The Atlas Society’s membership or readership has been ill-served—as I think at least one commentator on the page itself (Joseph Friday) has also suggested.

I quote now from Rainwater’s essay. The first sentence in the following block quote is from Rainwater himself; the next two, in quotation marks, are from Obama’s speech:

 However, one particular passage stands out

“The use of drones is heavily constrained. America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists – our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute them. America cannot take strikes wherever we choose – our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty.”

The fact that “one particular passage stands out” doesn’t mean that it’s the only relevant passage in the speech. It may “stand out” for a particular reader because that reader doesn’t want to bother to integrate it with the rest of what was said in the speech. But a fair criticism of a speech doesn’t fasten on three sentences taken out of context, especially not when the speech discusses the criticisms made of it.

Here is Rainwater’s critique:

Considering that in just Pakistan alone, in almost four and a half years Obama’s administration has administered at least six times as many drone strikes and subsequently killed more than four times as many people as the Bush administration did in eight years, characterizing Obama’s drone program as “heavily constrained” is like saying the actor Nicholas Cage’s willingness to accept career killing roles is also “heavily constrained.” Neither is true, but at least with the latter no innocent lives were ever taken.

This bit of sarcasm says nothing of substance. Let’s grant that the Obama administration has engaged in more drone strikes and killed more people by drones than the Bush Administration. It doesn’t follow that their doing so was morally unjustified or morally or legally unconstrained. It doesn’t even follow that the Obama administration killed more people per se. The drone program was technically and logistically in its infancy for part of the Bush Administration. It grew up over the course of that Administration, and came into its own in the Obama Administration. Innocent lives were taken in both administrations because we were at war in both administrations, and innocent lives are lost in wartime. The moral responsibility for those lives belongs with those who started the war. Neither administration did. So what exactly is Rainwater’s point? That Obama is to blame for lives lost in a war begun by Al Qaeda and the Taliban? While I’m asking questions, I wouldn’t mind getting a source for the figures Rainwater cites here (“four times as many”). I’m not disputing the figures. I’d just like to see the source for myself.

Rainwater continues:

It may be true that many individuals targeted by drones were located in well-fortified facilities that would have proposed significant challenges were live military personnel sent in to capture those targets. But in cases too numerous to count, targets were located in relatively unfortified tribal territories or had no protection other than their vehicle which was traveling down an unguarded road or passing through a civilian village. So in those cases, why use drones if an armed extraction team could have completed the task? Could it be that this administration’s real preference is to drone first and ask questions later?

This is Rainwater’s single, inadequate attempt to respond to a series of claims in Obama’s speech. The first sentence doesn’t really make grammatical sense, but I think I know what it means, so put that aside.

(1) Rainwater refers to “cases too numerous to count.” I’d like to see a source or sources for those “cases.” If there are that many cases, it shouldn’t be hard to produce such sources. In particular, I’d like to hear an example of a “relatively unfortified tribal territory” in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, the case with which I’m somewhat familiar. The territories in question are ones in which almost every male is armed, in which any outsider can be shot or beheaded at the slightest provocation, and which the Pakistani Army has been unable to subdue after repeated campaigns there. Just this past fall, the well-known Pakistani politician Imran Khan was denied entry into Waziristan to protest the use of dronesby the Pakistani Taliban and its allies! I wonder if the names Malala Yousafzai, Salman Taseer, Shabaz Bhatti, Benazir Bhutto, Daniel Pearl, or Lal Masjid mean anything to Rainwater, or whether he’s familiar with the fact that whole cities in Pakistan (e.g., Quetta) are now no-go zones for Pakistanis, much less for “armed extraction teams” from the US military. I wonder if he’s seen footage of the attack on Dar-ul-Zikr Mosque in Lahore in 2010. That event is an illustration of how a handful of militants can hold security forces hostage while holed up in an unfortified building. When I was in Lahore last year—Lahore is arguably the most peaceful and cosmopolitan city in Pakistan—a cousin of mine pointed out the names of Ahmadi religious heretics, scrawled on the city walls. The names were scrawled there to alert local assassins as to whose throats to cut when the time came to start the killing again. That one phenomenon suggests a certain dispersion of militants among the civilian population. But you needn’t take my word for it. The fact of militant dispersion has been acknowledged by every responsible reporting source, including the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, whose reports are often quoted minus the pages of methodological qualifications that precede them. “Relatively unfortified tribal territory,” whatever that means, is still territory filled with armed militants who can surround and kill an extraction team–and who have every incentive to do just that.

So it really is not plausible in this context to imagine “armed extraction teams” waltzing into Pakistan on the hunt for members of the Taliban or Al Qaeda, inviting their targets to accept a peaceful, consenting capture, and then transporting them, placidly, back to a military base without violence or contestation. What we are talking about are enormously risky operations in which huge numbers of lives are put in danger by every step that an extraction team would take. If both tactics (drones and extraction teams) involve risks, both involve the possibility of innocent loss of life, but drones reduce all of the relevant risks, how could armed extraction teams be a better alternative to drones? Never mind that armed extraction teams themselves require air cover, whether by drones or by jets, and that if a team is pinned down (as it very easily can be), that air cover has to be used in a lethal manner—the very thing Rainwater claims to be rejecting.

(2) I’d also like to know what a “civilian village” is. To my knowledge, villages do not typically come pre-designated as “civilian” or “militant” and are not marked that way on some publicly-available map. (Was Abbotabad a civilian town in 2012?) Anyway, “civilians” are fully capable of being militants. (Osama bin Laden was a civilian. He held no military rank. Ditto his couriers, assistants, family, and supporters.) A given village will typically have a mix of non-combatants and militants, with the militants cleverly dispersed among the non-combatant population precisely so as to avoid being hit by retaliatory fire. If Rainwater thinks that there are villages with no militants in them, but that were targeted despite that fact in the knowledge that there were no militants in them, I’d like to hear some details and see some sources. Which villages? When? Where? Under what circumstances?

As for the last two sentences in Rainwater’s paragraph, they’re explicitly answered in Obama’s speech. In fact, the arguments Obama gives on this general topic stretch across several pages of the speech in the pagination that I’m using. Let me quote the entirety of the relevant passage to give you a sense of what Rainwater has omitted from his discussion. I’ve bolded passages that respond directly to Rainwater’s questions.

In some of these places – such as parts of Somalia and Yemen – the state has only the most tenuous reach into the territory. In other cases, the state lacks the capacity or will to take action. It is also not possible for America to simply deploy a team of Special Forces to capture every terrorist. And even when such an approach may be possible, there are places where it would pose profound risks to our troops and local civilians– where a terrorist compound cannot be breached without triggering a firefight with surrounding tribal communities that pose no threat to us, or when putting U.S. boots on the ground may trigger a major international crisis.

To put it another way, our operation in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden cannot be the norm. The risks in that case were immense; the likelihood of capture, although our preference, was remote given the certainty of resistance; the fact that we did not find ourselves confronted with civilian casualties, or embroiled in an extended firefight, was a testament to the meticulous planning and professionalism of our Special Forces – but also depended on some luck. And even then, the cost to our relationship with Pakistan – and the backlash among the Pakistani public over encroachment on their territory – was so severe that we are just now beginning to rebuild this important partnership.

It is in this context that the United States has taken lethal, targeted action against al Qaeda and its associated forces, including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones. As was true in previous armed conflicts, this new technology raises profound questions – about who is targeted, and why; about civilian casualties, and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under U.S. and international law; about accountability and morality.

Let me address these questions. To begin with, our actions are effective. Don’t take my word for it. In the intelligence gathered at bin Laden’s compound, we found that he wrote, “we could lose the reserves to the enemy’s air strikes. We cannot fight air strikes with explosives.” Other communications from al Qaeda operatives confirm this as well. Dozens of highly skilled al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers, and operatives have been taken off the battlefield. Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.

Moreover, America’s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.

And yet as our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power – or risk abusing it. That’s why, over the last four years, my Administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists – insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday.

In the Afghan war theater, we must support our troops until the transition is complete at the end of 2014. That means we will continue to take strikes against high value al Qaeda targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces. However, by the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we have made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.

Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces. Even then, the use of drones is heavily constrained. America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists – our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute them. America cannot take strikes wherever we choose – our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty. America does not take strikes to punish individuals – we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.

This last point is critical, because much of the criticism about drone strikes – at home and abroad – understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties. There is a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties, and non-governmental reports. Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars. For the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties – not just in our cities at home and facilities abroad, but also in the very places –like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu – where terrorists seek a foothold. Let us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.

Where foreign governments cannot or will not effectively stop terrorism in their territory, the primary alternative to targeted, lethal action is the use of conventional military options. As I’ve said, even small Special Operations carry enormous risks. Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and likely to cause more civilian casualties and local outrage. And invasions of these territories lead us to be viewed as occupying armies; unleash a torrent of unintended consequences; are difficult to contain; and ultimately empower those who thrive on violent conflict. So it is false to assert that putting boots on the ground is less likely to result in civilian deaths, or to create enemies in the Muslim world. The result would be more U.S. deaths, more Blackhawks down, more confrontations with local populations, and an inevitable mission creep in support of such raids that could easily escalate into new wars.

I think that more than answers Rainwater’s questions.

Here is Rainwater’s last substantive criticism:

As amusing as it is to hear President Obama pay lip service to any notion of state sovereignty, either foreign or domestic, digging into the content of the speech raises questions as to who exactly these partners by whom America is held in-check are? Pakistan certainly isn’t among them, considering Pakistani officials describe the American use of drones as “counter-productive, contrary to international law, a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Actually, what’s amusing here, if anything is, is Rainwater’s use of the word “certainly” in connection with statements by Pakistani officialdom: In fact, Rainwater’s certainty contradicts several years of reporting on the subject. In 2009, Senator Diane Feinstein revealed that drones were in some cases taking off from Pakistani airfields. (The exact nature of the revelation was unclear–but that’s my point.) Bob Woodward has reported in Obama’s Wars, and Wikileaks has confirmed, that Pakistani officials at the highest levels gave their approval to drone strikes. Recently, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has admitted that the Pakistani government gave its consent to drone strikes. Scrutiny of Musharraf’s demeanor in this interview, and of the blatant self-contradiction within it—no, we did not approve drone strikes; well maybe on a few occasions we did; but just two or three times, or well, we did whenever we couldn’t reach the militants ourselves—suggests the need for caution in relying on Pakistani officials for truth understood as correspondence to reality.  So before making claims to certainty, I would consider the possibility that the Pakistanis are playing a double game here, as they have in so many other contexts, so many times before. On the face of it, however, Rainwater seems to be willing to take the claims of unnamed and unsourced “Pakistani officials” [for granted]* simply to have a rhetorical stick with which to beat Obama. That’s not a method any rational commentator should employ.

I can’t resist closing with the following issue: the issue of “sovereignty” comes up repeatedly in Rainwater’s essay. Here’s a question: what nation has sovereignty over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, and in what sense of “sovereignty”? That question by itself is worth an essay, if not a book. For a more sensible (but still preliminary) discussion, I’d suggest reading this piece in the fall 2012 Reason Papers by Khalil Ahmad, a libertarian in Lahore, Pakistan, and founder of a libertarian group there. The article contains numerous citations, many of them substantiating claims I’ve made in this post. Feel free to follow them. But don’t start with the assumption that the “sovereignty” of FATA is something that should constrain an American president while American troops remain on the ground in Afghanistan–unless you don’t mind seeing American troops shot at by militants who cross the Durand Line and expect sanctuary once they reach Pakistan.

The issue of drone strikes is a difficult and contentious one. It deserves better in the way of commentary than Rainwater’s essay.


*I originally omitted the bracketed phrase.


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