President Obama’s drone policy is inconsisistent but mostly correct
Libertarian Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director, a proxy to rail against the Obama administration’s drone policy, created a remarkable torrent of praise from right-leaning America on media platforms large-scale (Fox News) and small-bore (hundreds of conservatives and libertarians on my Facebook and Twitter feed took to the social networks to #standwithrand.) It was a very good day for Kentucky’s junior senator.
But for those who believe that a strong national security posture is indispensable — who fear the threat that terrorists pose to our nation’s interests — Paul’s words give cause for pause.
On the central matter that brought Paul to the Senate floor — should the federal government reserve the authority to launch a Hellfire missile at Jane Fonda while she sucks back a frothy Joe at Starbucks? — there is little disagreement. Most senators and Americans would say, of course not.
(I say “most” because Attorney General Eric Holder apparently isn’t ready to say no, and in the specific case of Jane Fonda, my dad and other Vietnam veterans might be tempted to say yes.)
When it comes to the use of drones, however, this is where anything like consensus ends.
Indeed, Rand’s stand Wednesday is an inevitable entre into a wider discussion of the controversial morass that is the Obama administration’s prolific use of drones to target terrorists abroad. This is where Paul’s worldview becomes worrisome.
The details of Obama’s drone program are well known —- the kill list under his “targeted killing program” is estimated to be a couple thousand. A liberal critic of the policy put it this way: “During the Bush administration, there was an American drone attack in Pakistan every 43 days; during the first two years of the Obama administration, there was a drone strike there every four days.”
Most controversial of these many cases is the drone-induced death of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born radical who became one of the most prominent mouthpieces and recruiters for global jihad. A charismatic loon who mastered news media to mobilize and move radicals to attack, al-Awlaki is known to have been in close communication with many of the 9/11 hijackers and was knee-deep in the planning of the failed Christmas Day bombing plot of a U.S. airliner, among other dastardly acts.
But as horrific as this guy was, al-Awlaki’s death has become a rallying cry for opponents of Obama’s War by Drone. Libertarians and liberals have asked: How can Americans be targeted and killed without due process, no matter their crime?
In these blindly partisan times, some Republicans have been drawn into attacking the drone program because, well, it is the president’s. Obama is so polarizing that it can feel impossible to say: “Mr. President, I agree.”
To be clear, Obama’s policies in dealing with terrorists are riddled with cognitive dissonance. Like his wider foreign policy, there doesn’t seem to be any coherent, unifying worldview at the foundation. How the same president can emotionally oppose the use of waterboarding while near-daily deploying drones on those who might otherwise be arrested and waterboarded is a philosophical inconsistency so confounding that it stretches even the bounds of credulity for this president.
Pointing out such inconsistencies is, of course, fair game. But it is quite another thing for conservatives to use Obama’s peculiar inconsistency as invitation to jump on the anti-drone bandwagon. And just the same, conservatives and Republicans shouldn’t reflexively oppose Obama’s drone program just because it is Obama’s.
Wednesday, Paul was uncomfortably milquetoast on the question of drones used overseas, suggesting that al-Awlaki “probably” deserved his fate. Probably? That’s awfully wishy-washy for a man who was consigliore to the butchers of 9/11.
Paul’s father, Congressman Ron Paul, took it a step further last year. He actually condemned Obama’s use of the drone in the case of al-Awlaki. Many prominent libertarians have said the same.
For foreign policy realists — realists in the mode of Ronald Reagan, not Donald Rumsfeld — this is where Rand’s Stand gets sticky. Should we tread judiciously in a brave new world where power can be applied with impunity via remote control? Yes. But just the same, this is a world full of radicals and terrorists who rise every day asking themselves, “How can I kill Americans?” In that world, a drone program like Obama’s is not only justified for our nation’s security, it is required.
Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.