It’s become accepted wisdom that Washington has become pathologically polarized and partisan, with every new debate inevitably breaking down along party lines. That’s why it was so remarkable when Rand Paul’s old-fashioned talking filibuster last week scrambled the even more old-fashioned right-vs.-left way of looking at the world. The Paul-provoked debate on the confirmation of John Brennan to head the CIA in turn provoked a wider and critical debate about the use of drones — a debate that needs to continue well beyond Brennan’s confirmation.
In February, Paul had sent Brennan a letter asking, “Do you believe that the president has the power to authorize lethal force, such as a drone strike, against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil?”
A few weeks later, Attorney General Holder replied:
“The question you have posed is therefore entirely hypothetical. … It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the president to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.”
And so Paul took to the floor to mount the first talking filibuster since 2010.
Democrat Ron Wyden soon joined the filibuster. “The executive branch should not be allowed to conduct such a serious and far-reaching program by themselves without any scrutiny because that’s not how American democracy works,” said Wyden.
On the other side of the aisle, Lindsey Graham called the idea of the U.S. using drones to kill American citizens on U.S. soil “ridiculous,” and said the controversy was the result of “paranoia between the libertarians and the hard left that is unjustified,” while his frequent ally John McCain, went the other way, calling Paul and fellow filibusterers “wacko birds” (which sounds like a good name for a cereal). Right vs. left was suddenly scrambled.
Not surprisingly, the poles of the debate were only partly dislodged from party affiliation, as Wyden was the only Democrat to join Paul — though Democrats Patrick Leahy and Jeff Merkley, along with Independent Bernie Sanders, did ultimately vote against Brennan.
But even if the terms of the debate on drones were only partly rearranged, it was still a step in the right direction. We need to stop framing the debate as a question of national security vs. human rights. Those in favor of drone strikes have simply assumed for themselves the national security position. From their perspective, it’s unquestionable that drones make us safer, so those arguing against them a) don’t care about protecting us, and b) must come up with some other — and softer — rationale for their opposition. The problem is that this line of reasoning just isn’t true.
Until Paul vs. Holder, the debate was largely about drone use overseas. Bringing the question to the U.S. definitely served to heighten the legal arguments, but the questions we are facing with the use of drones overseas are anything but “hypothetical.”
First, there’s the right/left-scrambling statistic that President Obama has authorized six times more drone strikes than President Bush — his 300th was on Dec. 1 of last year. And what kind of national security return are we getting for all those aerial attacks? Since 2004, only 2 percent of those killed have been confirmed as militant leaders.
Even more sobering were numbers from a study by professors from NYU and Stanford last year. Relying on data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, they found that from mid-2004 to mid-2012, between 474 and 881 civilians were killed in Pakistan. This includes 176 children. While “we may not have declared war on Pakistan, the people living in Northwest Pakistan under drones,” might as well be “in a war zone.”
And when people feel like war has been declared on them, they tend to mirror the feeling back.
“What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world,” said retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal in January. “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”
Visceral-level hate — not exactly an effective “hearts and minds” strategy. In Iraq, it finally became conventional wisdom that we couldn’t win with a military strategy alone. But this kind of thinking has yet to penetrate the conventional wisdom on drones. We euphemistically call them “targeted strikes” but the collateral damage they inflict is political as well as human.
So do drone strikes make us more safe or less safe? Those in favor of them, especially those ordering them and charged with their oversight, seem to think the answer is so obvious that it needs no justification. Maybe this is because they won’t even acknowledge the facts in the first place. And, as we saw in Iraq, the combination of refusing to look at the facts and allowing claims of national security to go unquestioned can be toxic.
Arguing against drone strikes on the basis of their legality is certainly important, but there’s no reason to cede the national security card to the pro-droners. Even those who care deeply about civil liberties need to push back against the idea that this is a trade-off between civil liberties and our safety. The drone debate may have ended on the Senate floor, but let’s keep it going everywhere else.
Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Arianna Huffington