Drones and race

There's a mention of drones way down in  Ta-Nehisi Coates'  fascinating article "Fear of a Black President".  Despite the other strengths of Coates' writing and analysis, this passage exhibits the crippling effect of the "progressive consensus"
The political consequences of race extend beyond the domestic. I am, like many liberals, horrified by Obama’s embrace of a secretive drone policy, and particularly the killing of American citizens without any restraints. A president aware of black America’s tenuous hold on citizenship, of how the government has at times secretly conspired against its advancement—a black president with a broad sense of the world—should know better. Except a black president with Obama’s past is the perfect target for right-wing attacks depicting him as weak on terrorism. The president’s inability to speak candidly on race cannot be bracketed off from his inability to speak candidly on every­thing.
Barack Obama came into office promising to wage war on Al Qaeda. He has done so with great success. To argue, as Coates does, that President Obama's drone war on AQAP results from a craven "submission" to right wing fear mongering is to attack President Obama's character because he is doing what he said he would do, not what Dennis Kucinich promised to do. The progressive fantasy that the President somehow should be following their policies and not his policies is a damaging fantasy. Coates even alludes to the progressive complaint that their criticism of the President meets with hostile response from many Democrats but he does not understand what draws the hostility. Progressives don't seem to be able to make policy criticisms without insisting that the President is, as the Republicans claim, a weak vacillating character whose statements about his own intentions can be ignored. Such arguments don't make much sense, but they do have the effect of amplifying the fundamental GOP marketing message that Democrats are weak and untrustworthy.  Enough of this stupidity. We have a strong Democrat in office - give him his due.

And the fixation on drones is strange. The United States government has been regularly conducting air-strikes in third world countries since World War II ended - directly and via proxies. How can anyone argue that a drone strike is somehow less humane than a B-52 bomb raid, or attack from a helicopter gunship, or a jet fighter strike or an artillery cannonade? Obviously all of those are more likely to go astray and wipe out whole villages. The Obama administration promised to bring the war to AQ and its allies, and it is doing so through a relatively small number of highly targeted drone strikes each of which is requiring approval at a very high level. The  Progressive analysis is backwards: the President actually has imposed a great deal of relative restraint on US warmaking.  Drone warfare, to be sure, is disturbing, but helicopter gunships are not warm and fuzzy either. Drone strikes often kill the "wrong" people. But what the hell do the progressives think happens in a war?  If you want to make a coherent argument that the drone war is a relative escalation of US military action, you should at least make some attempt to explain what it is relative to.

And all the hand wringing about US citizens in the line of fire is also misplaced. The Constitution does not provide a right to take up arms against the United States or to judicial proceedings before force can be used against you if you do take up arms. In the heart of New York City,  a man who pulls a gun on police can be shot down without a hint of a judicial proceeding (NYPD, of course, does not even need that excuse). Someone who takes up arms against the USA and chooses to live in a war zone where the US military is actively targeting enemy forces has removed himself from judicial protection until or unless he is in custody of the government. The idea that the lives of US citizens who join hostile military forces are somehow more special than those of some Yemeni peasant who did not have the choice and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time strikes me as morally dubious. Furthermore, the hand wringing about poor Mr. Awlaqi  functions to whitewash the real dangers of the Republican attack on the Constitution. George W. Bush's administration claimed that a US citizen  in custody could be designated an "enemy combatant" who was not protected by US law or by Geneva convention or even by prohibitions on torture.  This is the doctrine of the secret police in Pinochet's Chile. In New Orleans, during Katrina, the Bush administration ignored constitutional limits and sent Blackwater mercenaries onto the streets, established secret prison camps with no laws, and winked at police executions of civilians. The progressive argument that President Obama's drone war is anything like Bush doctrine constitutes an irresponsible cover-up for the dangers of Republican rule. What do the progressives think "rule-of-law" would look like under the Romney administration?

And that brings us to the peculiar absence of proposals for alternative foreign policies. One thing you won't find in the progressive blogs and magazines is a wide discussion of how the United States could develop a foreign policy that does not depend on blowing people up around the world.  This silence is due to both an unwillingness to confront the popular support for US world military presence and the jumbled and superficial nature of progressive ideology.  In 2008, nobody could have been elected President on a proposal of, say, leaving AQAP alone in Yemen. Dennis Kucinich's ideas for a Department of Peace were not taken seriously by many people and Ron Paul's fraudulent anti-imperialism was not even taken seriously by Paul himself.  Every plausible candidate proposed in one form or another to pursue the "global war against terrorism"  vigorously and bloodily and Barack Obama was no exception. The public supported these policies because they make sense. So where is the progressive counter-proposal? To kill innocent villagers wholesale with 20th century technology instead of using less damaging 21st century technology? To step away from Yemen and let a hostile military force capture a nation next to our primary oil source and pursue attacks on the USA unmolested? To walk away from Pakistan and let nuclear weapons fall into the hands of the people who organized the slaughter of civilians in Mumbai? What's the plan? We're dying to find out.

In fact, the progressive drone line has, as is common with progressive arguments, mostly served to displace any hope of seeing a more systematic critique of  US policy or public awareness of alternatives. The reason the US military is sending drones over Yemen is that our economy is dependent on middle eastern oil and the political power of the oil industry, the arms industry, and the associated finance industry is blocking the changes needed for us to switch to domestic, green, sources of energy. The political power of this old economy depends a great deal on the use of racism to mobilize opposition to change.  But nobody can discuss any of that because the "left" that should be making this argument is obsessed with attacking the character of the President.

Also see Prof Kelley's note.

(also published  here )

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