Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Liberal Argument FOR Drone Attacks

During the second presidential debate, the one focusing on foreign policy (remember that snoozer?), the big take-away was the fact that President Obama and perennial presidential hopeful Mitt Romney were in such lock-step on foreign policy that they hardly had anything to argue about. It seems the center-right and center-left essentially agree when it comes to how to prosecute the War on Terror, or at least they’ve both learned a lesson from one of Bush II’s mistakes; Don’t stand in front of a Mission Accomplished banner and pretend that an unconventional war will lead to a conventional parades-in-the-streets victory celebration. This one is going to be ugly, and it’s best if we have tamped-down, realistic expectations about that ugliness.

This has not stopped the far-right and far-left from criticizing the use of unmanned drones to prosecute this war. Some of these concerns are more legitimate than others. Among the least legitimate are concerns that unmanned drones are a step across some great divide toward artificially intelligent robots bringing war against humanity (sorry, but they are no more or less human than the cruise missiles we sent after Saddam Hussein back in Gulf War 1), that drones were fine when a real American was ordering their use but not when our current president is doing it (quit choking on your sour grapes, guys), or that drones are somehow undignified or cowardly (as though we are obligated to show up and slap people with white gloves when they would gladly blow up civilian targets with truck bombs). These arguments are patently ridiculous.

Unfortunately, most of the other arguments against the use of drones fall into a category in between the absurd and the worthy-of-debate. Some argue that the President does not have the right to use drones in countries where Congress has not made an official declaration of war.  They use this as an example of President Obama’s executive overreach. This is blatantly hypocritical coming from people who turned a blind eye to previous presidents who authorized military actions in countries where we were not officially at war. Here are some countries where we’ve had military actions without actual congressional declarations of war. In chronological order, we’ve had military incursions in the Dominican Republic, Cambodia, French Polynesia, the West Indies, Argentina, Peru, Indonesia, Fiji, Samoa, Mexico, China, The Ivory Coast, Turkey, Nicaragua, Japan, Uruguay, Panama, Angola, Colombia, Taiwan, Colombia, Egypt, Korea, Haiti, Samoa, Chile, Brazil, The Philippines, Honduras, Syria, Morocco, Cuba, Guatemala, Newfoundland, Bermuda, St. Lucia, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Antigua, Trinidad, British Guiana, Greenland, Iceland, Greece, Vietnam, Lebanon, Thailand, Laos, Congo (Zaire), Iran, El Salvador, Libya, Chad, Italy, Bolivia, Liberia, Sierra Leon, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Macedonia, the Central African Republic, Albania, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Tanzania, Afghanistan, Sudan, East Timor, Serbia, Nigeria, and Yemen. Oh, and there are some that don’t even exist anymore, like the Kingdom of Tripoli, Spanish Florida, French Louisiana, the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Hawaii, the Soviet Union, and Dalmatia. These are all pre-9/11, by the way. So if the argument is that President Obama has overstretched executive authority by taking military action without the formal authorization of Congress, that doesn’t make him exceptionally tyrannical; it just makes him a normal president. 

Another argument is that these are targeted killings of accused criminals who deserve the right to a fair trial. This would be an entirely legitimate argument if it came from people who had consistently held that the declaration of war on Al Qaeda was illegitimate because the group isn’t a country, so all actions against Al Qaeda should have been undertaken by law enforcement. Conservatives who gave George W. Bush a blank check to fight Al Qaeda all over the world can make this argument, but first they have to admit they were wrong and slap “We Should Have elected John Kerry in ’04” stickers on their cars. Liberals who want to make this argument would have to own it completely, and would have to forgo the electoral benefits that came from the killing of Osama Bin Laden, meaning they very well might have to accept that this position is important enough for them that it would justify a Mitt Romney presidency. I don’t hear that from either camp. 

Slightly more legitimate is the concern that Americans have been targeted. I recoil at this because it smacks of a kind of American exceptionalism I find repugnant, the same kind that says foreigners can be imprisoned without trial but Americans cannot, but I admit that our laws do make different allowances for the treatment of American citizens than for the citizens of other countries. However, if the President has the authority to send troops to attack American nationals fighting against us in foreign lands, then that authority necessarily extends to all the means at the military’s disposal, and the military should be able to choose the means that is most effective, threatens the safety of the fewest civilians, and puts the fewest American soldiers at risk. Hence, drones.

Among the most legitimate concerns are those regarding the transparency of the means by which the targets are chosen. “[The] review process occurs entirely within the executive branch, violating the principle of the separation of powers. The executive is the judge, jury and executioner,” Juan Cole argues. “The drone program in the United States is hugely anti-democratic because the whole thing is classified. Therefore, it cannot be publicly discussed or debated with the officials behind it, who can neither confirm nor deny its very existence.” This concern is real, but the same could be said about any military planning. Decisions regarding household raids in Iraq and Afghanistan were made under the same conditions, with the targets receiving no trials unless they were captured. The drone strike program is striking because it is employed when the President invokes his right to kill or capture suspected Al Qaeda operatives, despite the fact that the drones have no means to capture anyone. That shocks the conscience, but only because we were willing to take it on faith that ground forces always make every effort to capture enemies. Not only is this assumption na├»ve, but it must be counterbalanced by the recognition that our forces put themselves in incredible danger when seeking to capture suspected terrorists. As much as it seems monstrous that President Obama personally authorizes the killing of suspected terrorists, we should remember that the alternative is to personally authorize missions to capture them and to take responsibility for the inevitable loss of American lives that would accompany those decisions. I completely understand that some are concerned that this President or the next might abuse his/her authority to send in the drones, but without some evidence that the 227 strikes he’s authorized as of January 23rd of this year have been so capricious that the loss of American soldiers lives would be preferable because it would focus American attention on the abuse, this argument is simply premature.

There’s also the legitimate concern about civilian casualties. Any moral person should share this concern. Also, in a conflict with an asymmetrical group like Al Qaeda, where winning the hearts and minds of the locals is paramount to “victory” (whatever that means in this kind of war), we have to acknowledge that every civilian casualty is not only a moral tragedy but also a strategic failure. But in this context, criticizing drone strikes is also a philosophical failure. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been between 472 and 885 civilians killed in U.S. drone strikes as of October of 2012. That’s in 350 strikes going back as far as 2009. That’s certainly a lot of civilian deaths, but, for the sake of an honest comparison, consider five years of boots-on-the-ground combat in Iraq: According to our own government’s judgment (leaked through Wikileaks’ Iraq War Logs) 66,081 Iraqi civilians died in the period between January 2004 and December 2009. No one can make a claim that President Bush or President Obama lacked the legal authority to put our soldiers in harms’ way in Iraq during the period between 2004 and 2009. But putting soldiers on the ground produced 140 times as many civilian casualties as drone strikes in a similar amount of time. So if civilian casualties are the concern, criticizing drone strikes simply doesn’t cut the mustard.

Ultimately, the most philosophically consistent criticism of our drone strike policy comes from complete pacifists; if you don’t like that people are killed in wars, drone strikes are certainly a part of that equation. Wars between nations do not produce winners; they produce countries that lose more and countries that lose less. Even in a post 9/11 world, we should acknowledge that the people who actually attacked us are all dead, and that we exchanged the threat of potentially devastating future attacks for the very real and quantifiable loses we’ve suffered as a consequence of our reaction to the attacks on 9/11. The War on Terror may have prevented X, but X is unknowable, and the more than 4,000 U.S. military deaths in Iraq, the more than 3,000 U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan, the more than 3,000 U.S. contractor deaths in both, the $4 trillion dollars worth of projected costs (about $13,000 per American), and the estimated tens of thousands of Afghanistani civilian deaths and the estimated 120 thousand Iraqi civilian deaths are knowable, and should weigh heavily against any abstract threat. I used to be an absolute pacifist on religious grounds, and though I’ve always thought of the men and women who commit themselves to our Armed Forces as exemplars of duty and self-sacrifice, I’m still highly skeptical of the efficacy of any war to produce anything but human misery and opportunities for profiteering for corporations. With that being said, I would encourage my fellow liberals to lay off the drone strike arguments. Questioning the need for war of any kind should be a part of our political debate, but holding hands with hawks to criticize drone strikes threatens to sound like an argument that we should exchange the lives of more soldiers and more civilians because we’re uncomfortable with a new technology or with opaque military strategizing that isn’t actually new at all.

Righties, you hate Obama. You can’t articulate a good reason why you hate him so much (despite my requests, hell, my begging for a good explanation), so you’re grasping at straws.

My fellow Lefties, you don’t like war. Good. Stick with that. Unlike the Righties, you have literally trillions of good reasons.

But both sides, lay off the drones.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Stupid, Faulty Reasoning on Gun Registration Infects my Facebook Page

I'm back, your friendly neighborhood liberal gun owner.

Over the last few days, my Facebook page has been overrun by comments and memes devoted to protecting my second amendment rights. As a gun owner and someone who's generally a fan of rights, that's fine, but I'm really struggling not to post rude comments on the pages of my friends. Note: My friends are not stupid people. In general, they post silly, light-hearted pictures or clever memes that make me laugh. But in the last few days I've seen multiple variations on this theme:

"Criminals don't register their guns." Ergo, we should not strengthen our registration system.

In some versions of this, President Obama is pictured and called various names. In one he is writing the phrase on a chalkboard while wearing a dunce cap.

My friends, before you put the dunce cap on someone else's head, please pull the pointy end out of your own eye. Because this is simply the dumbest argument I can think of against any kind of regulation. You are hurting your own cause. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Please.

Murderers do not obey the laws that criminalize killing people. Should we, therefore, make murder legal? Rapist do not follow the law. Should we take that crime off the books? Most people (myself included) drive over the speed limit from time to time. Do you think we should take down all the speed limit signs and let people zip through school zones at a hundred miles per hour?

Laws do not prevent all crime. Laws reduce crime and allow the justice system to punish violators of those laws. Reducing gun crimes and punishing people who use guns in crimes should both be positions responsible gun owners should support, both as a matter of morality and as good strategy to maintain their own right to bear arms. 

Look, there are legitimate arguments that could be made regarding registration schemes. You could argue that regulations are only as strong as their enforcement, and you don't think they'll be enforced. You could argue that registration won't completely end gun crime (except that no reasonable person is claiming that it will).  You could argue that the right to bear arms is so universal and unassailable that it should not be limited even if a prospective owner is a felon or has been diagnosed as dangerously, violently mentally ill. That's a loser of an argument, I think, but at least it's philosophically defensible. You could even argue that you're afraid of a giant conspiracy to confiscate all guns which hasn't materialized or even been proposed, but which makes you reluctant to give an inch. I understand that's where some gun owners are coming from, though it does beg the question: Why are the most heavily armed people the most frightened? Whatever your argument, and no matter how loosely it connects to reality, it should at least follow logically from your premises. So don't argue that we shouldn't have rules because some people will break them. That's... well, not to be indelicate, but that's just dumb.

Guess what, fellow gun owners and second amendment supporters? We can't afford to be dumb. Maybe the NRA can afford it. Sure, there are lots of true believers in the NRA, but the decisions of the NRA leadership lately show that the organization is more concerned about selling memberships, getting press, and frothing up their base than they are in protecting gun rights in the long term. The NRA could have been reaching out to urban, liberal America, trying to show that they are reasonable. They were wise to push back by pointing to mental health rather than letting the debate be about types of guns, but between their vitriol about the U.N. Small Arms Ban, their commercial calling the President names and bring up his kids, and their absolutist position against expanded registration, it seems like they are making the same mistake the Republican Party has been making over the last few decades; they're doubling down on the far-right wing, rural, white men. This is about as smart a strategy as trying to conquer Russia in the winter or marching your empire's army in Afghanistan. If gun rights groups can only hold on to conservative, rural whites, they will simply be outvoted. Responsible gun owners who want to stay responsible gun owners need to go out of their way to show urban-dwelling liberals that they are, in fact, responsible. People who live in cities think of guns predominantly as the weapons of criminals and not the tools of hunters or people who want to defend themselves because they live more than five minutes from a police station. I know this from personal experience. When I lived in San Diego, my only experience related to guns was seeing a body surrounded by police tape in front of my junior high. Is it any wonder I grew up thinking guns were evil? It wasn't until I moved to a small town and got to know a lot of responsible gun owners that my feelings about guns changed.

Now, gun rights advocates will say I am advocating caving in to the anti-gun folks. Yep. Pick your battles, guys. Second amendment absolutism isn't even supported by the second amendment itself. We've had decades of fights about whether the amendment extended to individuals, we finally get a president who is a democrat and says he believes it does extend to individuals, and instead of calling that a victory, some people want to paint him as the Confiscator-in-Chief. You got a win, but even if Obama is willing to be generous (liberal, some might say) with his interpretation of some confusing language in a way that we gun owners appreciate, we can't deny the fact that the amendment explicitly says "well regulated." You can't expect him (or any sensible person) to interpret "well regulated" to mean "completely unregulated." (And I know about the argument that the militia is supposed to be well regulated but the individual right that's never mentioned is somehow exempt. That's a bridge too far, guys.) Look, if you're worried Obama might sign an assault weapons ban (you know, the kind Mitt Romney signed when he was the governor of Massachusetts), then make that your fight, but when the majority of NRA members agree that the gun show and private party sales loophole should be closed, take advantage of that and show people who are leery about guns that gun owners are reasonable. Fight to make it possible and even easy to transfer the ownership of a gun to someone else who can pass a background check. Fight to make sure guns don't have to be turned over to the government when the original owner dies, but can be willed to the next of kin who can pass the background check. Fight to make sure the definition of mental illness isn't so broad that people with no propensity for violence or self-harm are prevented from getting guns. But don't fight to put guns in the hands of criminals or the violent mentally ill based on obviously, painfully inept lack of reasoning. You will just push the growing urban, liberal majority to think you're dangerous kooks until they have the numbers to repeal the second amendment.

And you know whose fault that will be, responsible gun owners? Ours. If our arguments are dumb.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Noah and Ben sing "Man or Muppet"

Noah and I sang a song tonight at the community talent show. He was great. The sound quality of the video, however, is pretty terrible. Still, Noah won 1st place in the Youth category with his performance and made his daddy very proud.