Why the “Drone Doctrine” Is Such a Flashpoint

As The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf notes, we’re seeing a very unusual set of battlelines developing over the Obama administration’s internal justifications for drone strikes against American citizens:

Some neoconservatives have suddenly begun defending the president. John Bolton, former ambassador to the UN, says the drone program “appears to be consistent with the policies of the Bush administration,” in which he served. Max Boot of Commentary insists Obama’s drone memo is a “careful, responsible document.” I’d half expect John Yoo to start praising Obama if he weren’t busy “turning away in disgust” at the McRib’s disappearance from his local McDonald’s.

Dick Cheney has yet to comment.

Meanwhile, Obama’s beginning to get serious heat over this issue, not just from the antiwar Left or the civil-liberties Left, but from conventional liberals.

It’s worth pondering why this has become such a flashpoint for progressives. Yes, it sits at the juncture that connects the “War on Terror,” extraconstitutional executive powers, and official secrecy–all hallmarks of the hated Bush administration. And yes, this controversy is erupting after Obama has been re-elected, meaning it will not immediately benefit a Republican presidential candidate who would almost certainly double-down on every questionable national security policy of the current administration.

But I think something a bit more subtle is going on under the surface. What a lot of progressives fear–what I fear, for that matter–is that drone technology is facilitating a new kind of warfare whose costs–financial, diplomatic, and yes, moral–are kept out of sight on the grounds that most Americans really don’t care what’s happening so long as direct U.S. casualties are minimized. The secrecy involved in authorizing and executing drone strikes increases that hazard.

But in the current case, we are talking about drones killing U.S. citizens, not foreigners, so that in theory at least brings the practice into the area where Americans view themselves as having some stake. It remains to be seen whether most people will ultimately care about “traitors” being “taken out.” But the issue does provide a rare level of scrutiny over what has been thought to be a sanitized and politically fail-safe form of warfare.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.