Droning on about prudence

by chabonsby

It would be fair to say America’s so-called ‘drone warfare’ has been a huge issue in recent weeks, and indeed recent months and years if you’ve been paying attention. Its higher than ever profile has seen debate about the efficacy and ethics of such attacks become fiercer than ever. In as much as I’m not instinctively opposed to either American power or killing one’s enemies, I’m typically conflicted about the use of air power in this way. Indeed, my first thought is always to remember that this is merely another manifestation of the USA’s long-standing obsession with air power. The whole ‘drone’ angle is a pointless distraction, in part because the presence of a pilot makes no difference ethically, and in part because UAVs aren’t ‘drones’. The ethical issues remain rooted in the use of air-power itself, America’s traditional fetish for it, and the cowardice that lies behind it.

It is neither the efficacy nor the ethics which most concern me here, instead it is the decision-making behind the ‘program’ which worries me most. This may seem callous in the face of hundreds of dead civilians and the considerable potential for blowback, but, as some of the Obama administration’s more cogent critics have noted, the implications for the future of the American presidency could be much more damaging in the long-run. The growing power of the President over foreign affairs has been a widely-recognised trend for a very long time, and never moreso than with the dramatic escalation of that power during the Bush administration. Whilst this tendency has been slowed during Obama’s first term, the extent to which he has taken direct control over the so-called drone programs is right up there with the worst of Bush’s moves to centralise power. Whilst Obama will do much less immediate damage with this power than Bush wrought with his, the fact remains that he has, effectively, appointed himself, and therefore the Presidency, and therefore any and all of his successors, the position of judge, jury and executioner. As cliché as that sounds, there really isn’t any better way of expressing it. Obama clearly trusts his own judgement on the matter of which of America’s enemies should be targeted for assassination, but could he place that faith in Michelle Bachman or Rick Perry? In essence, that is what his direct control over the assassination program implies, he has set a precedent which, much as any Presidential assumption of power, could have terrible consequences for the future of the republic.

What is most tragic about Obama assuming the role of assassin-in-chief, as his critics put it, is that it is such a classic error in statesmanship and one which Obama should have known to avoid. It seems clear to me that the main reason Obama has taken such direct control of the assassination program, with all the dangerous implications of that, is because he feels such great moral responsibility for the actions he, as commander-in-chief, must directly order. Many scoffed at the lines in the New York Times piece referencing Obama’s study of just war theory, but everything we know about him suggests that he takes these things very seriously. Indeed, we know this, in no small part, because of his repeatedly stated passion for the works and wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr, however, would recognise the folly in Obama’s actions, and the fundamental tragedy in putting what might be deemed the obviously moral course ahead of the prudent, and therefore truly moral, action. I find myself surprised, disappointed even, to see a supposed pupil of Niebuhr make this mistake, because it is such a perfect example of the tragic irony which Niebuhr warned against. In seeking to sate his own sense of right and wrong, Obama has pushed America a little bit further along a very dangerous path. In other words, he’d be best served not by reading Augustine and Aquinas, but by reacquainting himself with his own nation’s finest theologian.