Christopher R. W. Dietrich writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
The cynical manipulation of legal and historical precedent regarding unmanned targeted killings vehicles damages the credibility of the Obama administration. The recently-leaked argument by the Justice Department is as weak and counterproductive in the light of contemporary international history as it is in terms of constitutional law.
Commentators have admirably analyzed the flouting of the U.S. Constitution. The Obama administration vindicates the potential liquidation of American citizens through a spuriously broad redefinition of “imminent threat,” even when the U.S. government does not have clear evidence that a specific attack will take place. The administration holds that the use of deadly force is “reasonable” even in the case of relative ignorance. This “trust us” argument moves against a core constitutional right of citizens to neutral judicial review. Yet the Justice Department rationalizes quashing speech and assassinating citizens without sound evidence of an imminent threat.
The rationale of the Justice Department paper is just as specious in the light of recent history. At its most disturbing moment, the Justice Department invokes the legal reasoning of the Nixon administration for the extension of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. In 1969 and 1970, Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, approved secret bombing missions and then outright invasion. A legal adviser rationalized that decision in a February 1970 report. “If a neutral state has been unable for any reason to prevent violations of its neutrality by the troops of one belligerent…the other belligerent has historically been justified in attacking those enemy forces in that state,” he wrote. The Obama administration takes this bad argument and makes worse. Because “transnational non-state organizations” are so diffuse, and “terrorist organizations may move their base of operations,” the United States is justified in eliminating threats with the consent of a host nation. If the U.S. government determines that the host nation is “unable or unwilling to suppress the threat,” both the Obama and the Nixon administrations reserved the right to act unilaterally.
Even if Wikileaks cables seem to prove that the governments of Pakistan and Yemen have approved American drone attacks at different moments, the Cambodia analogy should be met with flat rejection and ultimately treated with derision. The invasion of Cambodia did little to ensure the security of American citizens, as Morton Halperin noted when he resigned in protest. Public protests exploded across the United States, including at Kent State University, when Nixon admitted to the bombings in May 1970. Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973 on the notion that the President should consult with officials that do not owe their jobs to him before escalating or extending war.
The international response to overweening American power in history also moves in the opposite direction of the Obama argument. Another sort of Cambodia analogy is more apt. The consequences of that abuse extended beyond the geographical boundaries of former French Indochina into the international community. The Red Cross and the United Nations noted the negative effect of the bombing of civilian populations in Southeast Asia itself in 1969 and 1970. In an era of decolonization, many UN delegates had recently been colonial subjects themselves. A number of them compared the cross-border escalation of the war to the human rights abuses of Southern African and Portuguese imperial forces that had pursued national liberation fighters into Zambia or Tanzania.
The bombing of Cambodia, along with the revelations of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, helped create a climate of doubt about the balance between means and ends in American foreign policy. Through Senator Frank Church’s Select Committee, Congress began to investigate the FBI and the CIA in 1974 and 1975. After exposing just the details that led to the conclusion that the CIA was “a rogue elephant rampaging out of control”—emphasizing plans in the early 1960s to “neutralize” Fidel Castro, Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Abdul Kassem of Iraq, and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic—the committee turned to the international impression such activities left. Targeted killings, even on a far slighter level than the thousands of drone strikes since 2008, produced a backlash that threatened Americans’ safety.
Recent studies of drone violence support the appraisal of international history. The joint report by the Stanford International Human Rights Clinic and the New York University Global Justice Clinic, “Living Under Drones,” confirms the Cambodia effect. After nine months of interviews, the authors concluded that “the dominant narrative” that drones are a surgically precise tool that makes the United States safer is utterly false. Missiles kill innocent civilians on a regular basis. Extensive evidence also pinpoints an injurious effect of the drone policy itself: increased anti-American sentiment.
Drone violence is not only immoral, it is counterproductive. The harmful impact of drones extends beyond the death and psychological trauma of people in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Stepping up the use of unmanned killing machines is not beneficent for the image of America abroad. The moral justification for drone attacks—that they make the United States a safer place—is even less certain than the legal one. Such a wrongheaded notion moves against national security, not for it.
Christopher R. W. Dietrich is assistant professor of History at Fordham University.