Bad Precedent: Obama’s Drone Doctrine is Nixon’s Cambodia Doctrine (Dietrich)

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.

Posted in Drone | 20 Responses | Print |

20 Responses

  1. The failure of targeted killings to achieve anything meaningful has its precedent in Israel’s use of them in Lebanon and Gaza. They were met with retaliatory attacks and galvanized the public they targeted against them.

    Israel’s own anti-terrorism experts opined that the assassinations of Sheikh Yassine and Dr. Rantissi in Gaza would be counter-productive as they would result in a strengthening of the Hamas military wing since Yassine and Rantissi were with the political wing that had been engaged in indirect peace negotiations with Israel. They also felt that the assassinations would result in greater cohesiveness between the various resistance factions in Gaza. All this occurred as predicted.

    The recent killing of Hamas military leader Ahmed Jebari caused another round of missile strikes on Israel. Hamas, like Hezbollah, has retained a viable militia wing despite such targeted killings.

    U.S. use of these drones are likely to continue to damage America’s image in the Third World with little positive results.

    • Comparing al Qaeda to Hamas or Hezbollah is deeply misguided, and not only in a moral sense.

      Hezbollah is a mass political party, commanding the loyalty of millions. So is Hamas. They have a message and a program that is broadly appealing to their own people, and have achieved political legitimacy through their success in electoral politics and their ability to deliver meaningful, effective governance.

      Al Qaeda probably had 1/1000th the numbers of either of those organizations at its peak. It is a small death cult, despised and hunted by the populaces of its “own” people, whom it frequently kills in acts of mass terror. It has achieved no political success anywhere, and has never delivered anything to its followers but death and destruction.

      • You are so right. That’s exactly why terrorism as a strategy does not work. They are anarchists and, as the Chinese would say. ‘paper tigers’. In the perpetual war on ‘terrorism’ it is so important to make these distinction. Hamas and Hezbellah use terrorist tactics (which, if used against civilians, as opposed to purely military sites) is reprehensible) but are less easily isolated and routed because they have a political base.

      • Many of those targeted have not been Al-Qaeda.

        Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was backed by the Saudis, Israelis, and the U.S. with hundreds of millions of dollars in covert aid as an Afghan warlord during the CIA’s Operation Cyclone fighting the Soviet-backed Afghan government.In 1994, he served as Afghanistan’s prime minister.

        In 2002, a U.S. Predator drone fired a Hellfire missisle at him and missed. He later announced his support for al-Qaeda, placing a bounty on American servicemen.

        • Many of those targeted have not been Al-Qaeda.

          Drones are, of course, being used for close air support and tactical bombing in the Afghanistan War. It really doesn’t make sense to talk about those strikes alongside the targeted strikes against al Qaeda, instead of talking about them as part of the Afghan War.

          I was talking about the program targeting al Qaeda, which doesn’t really have anything in common with the air support provided in Afghanistan, except for the equipment used.

      • So “we” shoot Hellfires that more or less occasionally go astray and kill Unarmed Nonenema Cohabitants, or send in the SWATs, and do the apologists for Business as Usual say that this has no patent effect on the quantum of ire directed at “us?” That we are, so to say, in the persons of the guys and gals who do the signature and other targeting and launching and post-event obfuscations, on the same side with all those other populaces who “despise and hunt” that clumsy and over-conflated personification you guys flap around, “al Quaeda Communist Menace Whatever Huge Threat to US Interests, otherwise undefined of course, Like Embassies That Are Spy Nests And Destabilization Bases, and FOBs Planted by Invaders Who Are TRYING to Get The Wogs To Shoot At Us So We Can Justify Shooting Back?”

        “Terrorism as a strategy doesn’t work,” but how many proofs are needed that “counter-terrorism” as a strategy, as implemented by the current mix of technologies and justifications and doctrines, also doesn’t work?

        (Cue the silence, or the canned response, with footnotes and shiny objects…)

  2. Drone operations require a fair amount of intelligence and infrastructure support from local governments and populations. This support will evaporate with increased anti-American sentiment. So, supporters of the drone policy ought to consider self-restraint.
    The unique features of this weapon could be enticing decision-makers into strategies that are not viable in the long-term.
    But the key issues are legal and moral. The drone policy might be moral if more lives were saved by killing bad guys than innocents were killed by drones. But it is dumb to think the authorities could or would accomplish that.

    • Drone operations require a fair amount of intelligence and infrastructure support from local governments and populations. This support will evaporate with increased anti-American sentiment.

      So why hasn’t it?

      I keep seeing people threaten all sorts of terrible outcomes to the United States from the act of shooting at al Qaeda. Where are they?

      In the meantime, I don’t have to wait for the evidence on the other side of the ledger; I need only remember the messages found in the bin Laden compound, in which he bemoans the erosion of al Qaeda’s capacity to wage its jihad because of the ongoing attrition of its leadership.

      • Our drone policy spurs proliferation. Other states are now working diligently to acquire drones.
        The number of al Queda in Yemen has tripled over the past two years. If we’ve decimated al Queda, why are they all over North Africa?
        In Pakistan, we just killed a leader of a group that the Pakistani government was at peace with , thereby increasing the danger to the Pakistani government. We tried to mollify them by killing a leader of a group at war with the Pak leaders.
        In order to keep the support our allies in the region, we’re increasingly involved in their counterinsurgecy campaigns.

        • Drones are not particularly high-tech weaponry. Fly-by-wire aircraft and video streaming are off-the-shelf technologies. This isn’t like the hydrogen bomb, where the Soviets never would have been able to build one if he hadn’t produced plans for them to copy.

          The alleged growth of al Qaeda in Yemen and North Africa doesn’t seem to have produced any noticeable harm to our security. Before the drone war, Yemeni al Qaeda operatives blasted a hole in a U.S. Navy destroyer, almost sending it to the bottom. Since the strikes… It’s the same story in North Africa. Al Qaeda has been there a lot longer than the drone program (which isn’t being conducted in North Africa, making claims about its consequences there a bit implausible).

          As for leaders that the Pakistani government is at peace with, forgive me, but they were hiding bin Laden, and the ISI has long been supporting the Afghan Taliban. I’ll acknowledge that the harm with our alliance with Pakistan is a legitimate cost, but what are we giving up there, really?

          In order to keep the support our allies in the region, we’re increasingly involved in their counterinsurgecy campaigns. This is a legitimate point, and a real cost.

    • “But the key issues are legal and moral. The drone policy might be moral if more lives were saved by killing bad guys than innocents were killed by drones. But it is dumb to think the authorities could or would accomplish that.”

      Many more lives have been saved by disrupting the bad guys’ plans and operations to attack the US and vital US interests, which would have resulted in many deaths, than the civilian loss of life resulting from targeted drone attacks on Al-Qaeda commanders and operatives planning and directing those attacks.

      • According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which seems to be the go-to source for drone casualty figures, there have almost certainly been fewer people killed in over a decade of drone strikes than there were between 9AM and 11AM on September 11.

        The people who cast themselves as the humanitarians in this argument never seem willing to own up to the humanitarian cost of a fully-capable al Qaeda.

        • WHAT ‘fully capable” al Quaeda? the guys who pulled off the 9-11 event largely because “our” state security/police system was hobbled by local empire-building and careerist behaviors and such? “Fully capable” is how WE describe OUR Big Military Hammer, and maybe the Chinese when we are talking about “confronting them” in Cold War Part III, rather than buying their stuff and borrowing their money… You griped about my use of “scare quotes” way back when: Gee, is the use of “fully capable” maybe a whole lot worse, since my use of quotes is usually to denote disbelief and irony?

          And while I’m at it, in the way of boosting your creds, how about this?

          For all you apologist-jingoist-Chauvinist-Gaullist true believers working so hard and diligently and repetitively to abort the debate over US tactics and strategy in assassinating people in favor of Hegelian ACTing, here is some real comfort: In his usual best sneering, condescending manner, from his height as one who truly has done and shaken and really done some damage in the world, he is happy to report, in his best diplomatic formulation, that he “does not disagree with” the Obama approach to worldwide terminate-with-extreme-prejudice power projection, via what’s coming to be called “droning.” Of course it’s only ok for “us,” not anybody else who might use the same technology and justification to pick off, say, people like Cheney… (Footnote: Cheney says Obama’s foreign policy and security teams are “second rate,” and are setting “us” up for terminal weakness in the future…) link to

          See? That world-renowned, everybody-fears-him expert on what’s legal, and what works in foreign policy and power projection, “doesn’t disagree with you!” You must be really smart…

  3. The US citizens in question are Unlawful Enemy Combatants planning and executing attacks against the United States and US interests as members of Al-Qaeda and its affiliated forces. They are at war with the US, not criminals, and they do not have the right to “judicial review,” and due process any more than a German commander or soldier in World War II fighting against US forces, who also happened to hold US citizenship, had a right to judicial review and due process in US courts. That the Al-Qaeda (or AQAP, AQIM, etc.) Unlawful Enemy Combatant happens to be a US citizen does not grant him the right of “due process” or “judicial review” any more than the German combatant’s citizenship status in World War II.

    The term “immediate threat” is applicable as the Administration defines it, as commanders and operatives of Al-Qaeda and its affiliated forces are, as the White Paper states, constantly planning attacks against the US and its interests. It is impossible to have knowledge of every individual, planned operation against the US in absolute real time. The President’s chief responsibility is protection of the United States and its citizens, and, thus, the definition of “immediate threat” is rational and justified.

    I do agree that the Cambodia analogy is flawed. The US bombing of Cambodia was not a violation of Cambodia’s neutrality, however, because since 1965, with North Vietnam running supplies through Cambodia to the South via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Cambodia had no neutrality to violate. North Vietnam had already rendered Cambodia’s neutrality inoperative. Where the argument is flawed is that Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are not claiming neutrality (as did Cambodia) in this fight. (Pakistan’s protests are obviously for public consumption, as they are privately working with us.)

    • The ever squishy “American Interests”! American interests in the Middle East include propping up monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf states, thuggish regimes in Mubarak Egypt and Israel or any government that the US finds useful. These are all American interests and warrant a violent American response if threatened.

      Of course people trying to overthrow these oppressive regimes become “Unlawful Enemy Combatants”. People denouncing oppressive governments and advocating their replacement become “Unlawful Enemy Combatants”. People supporting such “Unlawful Enemy Combatants” such as taxi drivers, family members, neighbors, etc, also become “Unlawful Enemy Combatants”.

      War creates a moral swamp where such logic starts to make sense. We not only need to fight such logic we also need to end the war.

      • “American interests in the Middle East include propping up monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf states, thuggish regimes in Mubarak Egypt and Israel or any government that the US finds useful. These are all American interests and warrant a violent American response if threatened.”

        Are you referring to the “violent American response” that was ignited by the removal of the “regime in Mubarak Egypt”? What was that “violent American response”? Did we target Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt with drones and missiles? Oh, wait, we are attempting to work with President Morsi and his government. So what does the author mean by the above-cited quote?

  4. The joint report by the Stanford International Human Rights Clinic and the New York University Global Justice Clinic

    Those are always my go-to sources when I need an analysis of a military or security issue, such as whether the drone strikes against al Qaeda has eroded its capacity to engage in acts of mass-casualty terrorism against Americans.

    Taking public opinion polls doesn’t actually tell me anything about whether the tiny al Qaeda death cult has been made less effective as a force.

  5. “thuggish regimes in Mubarak Egypt…or any government that the US finds useful. These are all American interests and warrant a violent American response if threatened.”

    Your hyperbole undermines any useful point you were trying to make. What, pray tell, was the “violent American response” to the deposing of Mubarak in Egypt, to which you refer above as an example that warranted such a response?

    My reference was specifically to American facilities, Embassies, citizens, and other core vital interests. I certainly was not referring to regimes that may have been friendly to the US, as several have been deposed without the “violent American response” that exists in your imagination.

  6. The drone doctrine casts the imminent al Qaida threat as if it was similar to the threat of German U-boats off the Atlantic coast during WWII.

    In reality, the droning is an extermination program that is far removed from the notion of warfare. We identify al Qaida members, acquaintances, affiliates, believers, etc. as best we can from imperfect intelligence (remember Iraq’s WMD), then build a resume that likens these people to U-boat captains off the coast of New York. Once they get on the “hit list”, the extermination bureaucracy takes over and kills them in clinical fashion with nary a spec of military confrontation, or public explanation, or need to admit errors.

    And considering who the master list reviewer is, droning adds a breathtaking new capability to the “palace guard”.

    • Careful, Sherm — you can’t even IMAGINE what those AQAPs and those AFPAK tribespeople can do… their capabilities are, like, unknown, but undoubtedly GYNormous. They could do ANYthing! Shoe bombs, crotch bombs, dirty nuclear thingies, stuff with propane tanks, homebuilt submarines like the drug cartels who employ what, German and Swedish Milspec engineers, stuff with fertilizer and a rental truck in front of a Heartland Federal Building? Just imagine the infinity of threats they can threaten with! Haven’t you read ANYthing by Tom Clancy or Dale Brown? Of COURSE it’s totally rational to do whatever the Wise Folks tell us is Wise and Necessary to Protect Us!

      We are so busy, starting from the premise that killing certain people will be the butterfly wing in Peking that somehow produces the world we insist we are entitled to, where a few of us continue to get very rich and combustion continues to be our hearth, working little complexities or implementing new technological gadgets that liberate the killers in us from constraint, debating the minuscule morality of tactics and volleying arguments about legalities created by being able to, you know, write the law to suit. Hey, guess how the world would be today if someone had killed a young Schikelgruber, or whatever his name was — link to Or Pol Pot? That rotten HoHoHoChiMinh? Or FDR?

      Don’t ask, either, by what authority “we” get to write that law, don’t ask about the larger morality or long-term wisdom or anything other than how one pulls together “serious” bits of text and emotion that can be strung into a plausible if disingenuous rationalization for doing stupid stuff that does what, again, to prolong the species? To make life better and safer and saner for most people?

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