Eugene Robinson Live

Dec 03, 2013

Chat with Post columnist Eugene Robinson about his latest columns and political news.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to our weekly chat. Now that Obamacare is fixed, what is there to talk about? My column this morning, for reference, is about the drone wars. Drone attacks by U.S. forces are down, but they are still occurring with deadly enough frequency for the people who live in their shadow. I believe President Obama's rules about using them -- which amount to, basically, "trust us" -- are morally ambiguous at best. What we're doing makes me uncomfortable and I think it should do the same for you. I realize that this is not a popular view in Washington, but it's my view. Let's get started.

I get what you're saying in your column on drones. And I share the general concerns about the authority taken by the executive branch in carrying out strikes -- mostly as it pertains to use by hypothetical future presidents. But I guess where I differ is that I don't see use of drones as a tactic in and of itself...I see it as an alternative to indiscriminate bombing or boots on the ground. Either of those alternatives would result in a dramatically higher civilian death toll and greater overall misery for the local population. I've just personally come to the conclusion that the preponderance of needless mass violence is inspired and commanded by a relative few. And that we're best off -- and at our most moral -- when we target those few to limit the harm that they can do...rather than drag whole populations into it. (Okay, we'd be at our most moral if those individuals could be apprehended and dealt with by an effective international court...but I just don't see that as a practical alternative.) I worry most for when the tactic of drones is not the exclusive domain of the US military and intelligence community, but is part of the terrorist toolkit. The "mainstreaming" of drones to me is where the long-term danger resides. But I don't know that the answer can possibly be to put the genie back in the bottle.

At times, I can convince myself to agree with your very thoughtful analysis. And yet I'm nagged by the feeling that there is something different -- and, frankly, pretty sinister -- about drones. As these things become more capable and operationally autonomous, what we're doing is sending armed flying robots to seek, identify and kill people. The United States is doing this today. How many nations or groups will be doing the same tomorrow? If you fire, say, a cruise missile at a target, you know there will be pretty widespread casualties and damage. Drones give the illusion of antiseptic assassination -- but of course they kill innocents, too. We wouldn't launch cruise missiles at Yemen but we send drones, and somehow that's supposed to be, what, less of an invasion of sovereignty?  Genies don't get stuffed all the way back into their bottles, but it just seems to me that we ought to agree on some international rules about how these things can be legitimately used.

Hi Gene, Let me preface the following by saying that I agree with you about 90% of the time. This is an exception. I've heard a lot of criticism of the drone program by those further left than I am (plus occasional libertarian types), but *realistic* alternative options are rarely/never forthcoming from this program's critics. How do you propose we deal with the continuing threat from AQ and allied groups (who continue to plot attacks inside the US)? I doubt that you're advocating US invasions of Yemen, Somalia, and/or Pakistan. The reason why the drone program exists is because these countries are unable and/or unwilling to address the threats emanating from inside their borders. (To be clear, civilian deaths are always a tragedy, regardless of whatever successful strike has taken place.) I'm open-minded, but have yet to hear of any viable alternative from this program's critics. Absent that, I think it remains our least-worst option for addressing this threat overseas. Thanks.

One way the Israelis have slowed the Iranian nuclear program is apparently by assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists. (I said apparently because nothing is ever confirmed or denied, but it sure looks like that is what has happened more than once.) Should we do that too, except with drones? How do we decide who gets a no-due-process death sentence? President Obama's rules say the target has to pose an imminent danger. But what's imminent? When does the clock start ticking? I understand what you say, but it still bothers me.

Hi Gene- Now that you have used the M word, murder, to describe drone attacks I wonder if your thinking on the killing of OBL has evolved as well. I have contented to you that it was murder and you were cheerleading murder, which you do not agree with. So was he murdered and if so aren't we all complicit? If not, kindly explain.

Pretty simple. He was not some shadowy leader of an alleged al-Qaeda cell heading toward what looks like it may be a training camp in Yemen. He was the founder and leader of al-Qaeda who had boasted of his responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, as well as other deadly attacks. That was a clearly justified execution, in my view, and I don't mind at all being complicit in it.

Do you think its unlikely that another politician who is relatively unknown, like Pres. Obama was before the '04 speech, will be able to be elected president.

I guess that's the conventional wisdom here inside the Beltway. But the conventional wisdom is always suspect. Sometimes it's right, sometimes it's wrong. In 2005, no one was predicting that Barack Obama would be elected President Obama in 2008. So all those people who tell you they know what's going to happen three years from now? They don't.

"Now that Obamacare is fixed, ..." What? First, the problems weren't with Obamacare, they were with the website. Second, assuming you were referring to the website, it isn't "fixed." It may be better, but a lead story on the Post's website today refers to as being "plagued by bugs." Saying it's fixed is foolish. It isn't fixed until it can accommodate the target 50,000 simultaneous users with an error rate that is much less than 1%, and I'm not seeing that.

Read the Post story again. Yes, there are bugs. It's not yet a great website, by a long shot, but it works well enough to get the job done -- on the front end, at least. The big challenge that remains, and I don't understand why it's such a problem, is making sure the website passes correct information on to the insurance companies. This function works miles better than it did on Oct. 1, but that's not saying much. From the users' point of view, though, the website is fixed enough.

Has there been any study or report about those who operate the drones? Actual deaths of innocent civilians has got to weigh heavily on those doing the firing even though they are long distances from the targets.

Not that I know of. The CIA, by the way, seems to have resisted the attempt to transfer all drone flight operations to the military. I know that these life-and-death decisions weigh very heavily on decision-makers in the White House. Yet they refuse to relieve themselves of any significant portion of that burden. For example, the White House fought hard against the idea from some in Congress to prohibit "signature" strikes -- drone strikes in which the target's identity is unknown, but he/she/they are doing things that make them look like terrorists -- heading toward a known terrorist camp, for example. But what if he/she/they just took a wrong turn? We'll never know, because they are just put down as terrorists or Taliban and that's that.

The Drone issue is the same as the NSA running wild. You have some security Govt staffer painting the scenario that without these programs the mushroom cloud will appear over DC. I get it, the President can't say no and then have it revealed he said no to a particular program that 'may' have stopped it. The drones, much like the NSA abuses that would make the old KGB jealous, will continue. Never mind we could have stopped 9/11 by having the FBI read its field reports and airport security having been just a little better.

Not to mention that the spooks can't come up with a single terrorist plot that they first learned of by sifting through the NSA database containing records of all our phone calls. Don't get me started.

Of course we probably only ever find out about a small number of the drone strikes. Although local media is pretty good about telling us about them. Especially when innocent people are murdered by mistake. I think that is my biggest issue. It's not the "bad guys", it's when we kill people who have nothing to do with terrorism but who are just trying to go about their daily lives. Like that sickening video that ended up getting Chelsea Manning locked up. The terror that people in those areas are constantly living under must be truly awful. In claiming to fight terrorists we've become terrorists ourselves.

This is difficult moral terrain, no matter how much we pretend it isn't. Say a certain Afghan villags is identified as a "Taliban stronghold." What does that mean? Is everyone considered Taliban, therefore a target? In a ground war, our troops would shoot the people who shot at them -- but wouldn't shoot unarmed women, children, or elderly. Do drones know the difference?

Drones do cause collateral damage, and when mistakes happen numerous innocent can get killed. But there is also a second reality. We can't just go and arrest these people, or try them in court if we do. Even in a perfect scenario we have often cross into countries with little to no government. The outrage of sending US troops to a supposed ally to arrest terrorist causes a massive foreign relation debacle as well. Worse, it is also likely that a seal like team performing an extraction would often encounter heavy resistance that could also lead to both innocent deaths and those of our service members. Drones are the best of a number of unenviable choices.

I'll leave aside the fact that in the case of Osama bin Laden, one of the options was to use a drone to basically vaporize the compound; but the president decided to listen to those who wanted to send in a Seal team so we could be certain that we'd got him. My question is this: If you're going after bin Laden, fine, use a drone or a Seal team or whatever. But the people being targeted aren't bin Laden. We say we have concluded they pose a threat. That's a pretty loose definition. I genuinely think that President Obama is careful in these decisions, but he can't be perfect -- and what's to say that a future president will even be careful?

...what's the moral alternative?

I don't know. Perhaps it's "don't kill people with drones." Perhaps it's "the only legitimate targets are people who demonstrably have committed, or are in the process of committing, terrorist acts." I'm pretty sure that "signature" attacks in which we don't even know who the targets are should be ruled out.

Who is the "we?" Do you suppose Afghanistan or Yemen would agree to any rules at all? But I do agree that people need to be actively discussing better approaches, and thank you for continuing to talk about the dark side of their use.

I appreciate your kind words, and I also want to thank all those who disagree with me on drones for at least being willing to have this conversation. I keep writing about the dark side of the drone wars for two reasons: First, hardly anyone else seems willing even to consider the possibility that there are moral issues here. Second, we ain't seen nothin' yet. Drones are going to become more sophisticated, more able to think and react on their own. I think around 80 countries now are flying drones, and of those, aroud 30 countries are flying fairly heavy-duty military drones; not all are weaponized, which is hard to do, but this is not like the threat of nuclear proliferation, which faces the extremely high hurdle of getting enough enriched uranium to make a bomb. There are no hurdles to drone proliferation. Now is the time to set up a framework for drone use, or someday we'll wish we had.


As for me, I wish I had more time, folks, but I don't. Thanks for a lively and interesting hour, and I'll see you again next week.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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