“Words I Never Said”: My Reaction to the White House’s Announcement on Drones and Some Post-election Thoughts on US Foreign Policy

Posted on February 7, 2013

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Some may remember when I announced that I would publish a series of thoughts about particular issues after the 2012 election. Well, I did write a few notes on several issues such as Obama’s electoral coalition, the role of the industrial Midwest, and a discussion of the two bailouts of Chrysler in 1979 and 2009. Of course, I really did not have time to elaborate more on those ideas and even my remarks below are very preliminary and far from being comprehensive. I did not comment on Israel and Palestine, Iran,  etc. I only lightly edited my comments. However, I thought that I should publish them upon learning about the White House instructing the Department of Justice to distribute classified documents detailing the Obama Administration’s drone policy. To say that I am troubled by the legal legal implications of the policy is an understatement. Then to watch liberal pundits either defend the use of drones or rationalize it troubled me even more.

The first thing I thought was, “We [speaking broadly of liberals and Democrats] wouldn’t have taken this ten years ago. As a matter of fact, we did not stand for the Bush Administration lying to us about going to war, nor did we tolerate the use of torture.”

[and I know quite a few people on the left who are really critical of the use of drones, nor am I necessarily assuming that all liberals and Democrats would defend this policy.]

Yeah, using drones is not torture, so I would expect the Obama Administration to argue that we cannot look at it the same legally. The problem is, drone use, itself, and the information contained in the memo, is worse because we are talking about state-sanctioned assassinations, not to mention the potential killing of bystanders.

One of the most controversial aspects of the drone program was its secrecy, despite the fact that many critics pointed to its existence. Well, the Obama Administration really broke the silence today, and not in the way that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967.

So, these are some of the words I never said. I wrote them weeks ago, but I never published them. You may not find anything extraordinary below since it is more descriptive, so I guess I am counting the act of digging this up and writing this excessive preface.  What appears below is essentially a “heads up.”  I take my title from Lupe Fiasco’s hit song off of Lasers. This is the same song that Lupe performed repeatedly (for 30 minutes) at an inaugural event before promoters asked him to leave. The song is pretty instructive in this context because, in the midst of criticizing the Obama Administration for its perpetuation of the “war on terror,” he raps about the cost of silence in the face of such policies. Of course, many criticized and dismissed Lupe for his protest, but I wonder how many critics will put two and two together? Drones over Pakistan, mass shootings in Newtown, gun violence in Chicago are all branches extending from the same tree. Empire abroad, violence at home, poverty and economic exploitation, and racial, ethnic, and sexual discrimination are all part of the same system. We can only hope that more people with the capacity to write, sing, draw, paint, sign, and rap about justice will do so.

Members of Congress may not be the only ones who need to learn the contents of the White House’s “white papers” on the use of drones. American citizens really need to know, especially since the administration is executing this program in our name.

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Preliminary Thoughts about Foreign Policy: 

For better or for worse, the economic crisis seemed to take precedence over foreign policy issues (which drove the Democratic and leftist critique of the Bush Administration) during Obama’s first term. With the Obama administration setting their sights on reforming the health care system first, tea partiers and Republicans honed in on a general and relatively effective argument about governing strategy—Obama should have focused on creating jobs first, presumably through cutting taxes, especially those of the corporate variety. Of course, the 2008 near-meltdown of the financial sector and recession forced many Americans to focus on the economy because their (our) well-being was at stake.

So it was no surprise that the economy remained central during the presidential campaign. Yet, for a moment, the right argued that the Democrats have a Benghazi problem. But, for the left, the Democrats could have a foreign policy problem on their hands in the next four years.

The war on terror continues, only though our leaders operate more silently and the weapons are quieter.

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The first policy is a holdover from the Bush Administration—Obama has yet to close Guantanamo, an action that he promised as a presidential candidate in 2008 (even though Obama’s administration has not added to the inmate population).

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The second, and the more apparent, policy is the use of drones as a primary means of continuing the war on terror. The Obama administration envisioned the increased use of drones as a strategy to surgically eradicate ‘terrorist’ leaders instead of deploying troops and spending political capital in more unpopular ground wars. What is most controversial is that no one really knew how the government determined who was killed and the collateral damage wrought by such attacks until the White House decided that it would release classified memos explaining its policy today.[1]

What cannot be denied, however, are the deaths of hundreds of civilians in hot zones such as Pakistan.[2]  Unfortunately, the sum of the once ‘unacknowledged drone policy’ is the emergence of a secret and systematic assassination program. The ACLU has tried (unsuccessfully) to sue the government for information on how it determines who is targeted.[3] I know congressional Democrats and Republicans usually support a president’s decision to go to war, especially when the claim is well substantiated. I wonder if congressional Democrats would have supported such a program if the Bush administration had advocated for it. I highly doubt it.

The third policy would have been the Obama Administration’s move to potentially curtail civil liberties if it were not for some left activists. In a manner similar to the Bush Administration’s first Patriot Act, Congress and the President passed the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).[4] The NDAA, itself, is nothing special in that it is the yearly budget for the Department of Defense. What makes the 2011-2012 budgets controversial is that it allows the federal government and the military to detain anyone, even American citizens, suspected of engaging in terrorist acts without charge or trial.  In a win for the left, activists like Chris Hedges, Jennifer Bolen, and Noam Chomsky successfully challenged the controversial statute in court. U.S. District Court Judge blocked the measure this past May.[5]

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Despite Hedges’s, Bolen’s, and Chomsky’s victory, opposition to Obama’s ‘leaner’ war on terror does not seem to have matched that to Bush’s policies. I have several potential explanations for this. Scores protested the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. I remember marching with thousands of anti-war activists in Washington, D.C. in 2007.[6] One could argue that the antiwar opposition in the U.S. during the Bush years constituted a bonified social movement with the multitude of local organizations and mass demonstrations. Yet, one variable distinguishing the opposition to Bush  and the perceived lack thereof to Obama is the position of Democrats, the absence of a dubious war, and the lack of polarizing figures like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and John Bolton. I remember Democrats addressing antiwar activists at the D.C. march in 2007. One possible reason for this is that the antiwar opposition during the 2000s represented the confluence of antiwar, anti-Iraq War (which I would argue is distinct), and anti-Bush sentiments. True, many of us held all three views, but I would argue that most Democrats were anti-Iraq War and anti-Bush, but not all were antiwar and/or anti-empire like many of my activist friends. Democrats in the last four years have proved to be pro-empire and pro-war as long as the face of American empire is Democratic and/or liberal and American human and political costs are low.

True, the Obama Administration closed the deal on the Iraq War and winding down Afghanistan also remains in the works. But the question of how to confront an empire with the Democrats as its face remains. Confronting an explicitly imperialistic Bush Administration seemed easier in retrospect, especially when we watched the administration lie to go to Iraq, watched the Bush Administration brazenly flout international law and openly defend torture. What served as Bush’s strength also served as a rallying point where leftists and centrist Democrats could come together and criticize Bush. Now, I would be hard-pressed to see many democrats come out and speak out against drone attacks, the NDAA, or possible action in Syria. And what I see is, on the one hand continuity—the interest of law enforcement, military, the state department, and many in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches to continue waging the war on terror by any means necessary—and the other—discontinuity—dropping the boisterous rhetoric and the term, ‘war on terror,’ and continuing their anti-terrorism policy. I also see the emergence of a more ‘flexible’ empire that utilizes ‘softer’ power—avoiding U.S.-led ground wars and “nation-building,” using drones and special forces in “surgical” strikes, asking the Pentagon to operate with less funding, an increased role for the CIA and surveillance, and hiding behind a possible economic recovery and the popular sentiment for Democratic economic policies that will accompany such a rebound. Hedges, Chomsky, and Bolen illustrated how the left could successfully confront empire through the courts. Yet, the U.S. left will find itself confronting a moving target in the next four years.


[6] I would argue that antiwar activity constituted much of the student organizing that I witnessed.

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