Via Mediaite, another friendly reminder to Democrats that the policies they’re back-slapping each other for setting these days are creating precedents that’ll be used against them later. Or will they? Paint me a picture where either party in Congress goes after Obama on drones circa, say, 2020 the way Senate Dems are going after Bush now. Republicans won’t do it. Most GOP voters support drone strikes. Democrats won’t do it either. Democratic voters are more ambivalent about drones, but more than one poll taken within the last two years shows that they tend to support them too. (A WSJ/NBC poll conducted in July 2013 found 64 percent approval among Dems of using drones to kill suspected terrorists.) When I tweeted out the Scarborough clip this morning, lefty Greg Sargent replied, “We’re with [Republican critics] on Obama NSA and drone overreach. Yet, oddly, they’re not with us on Bush-era torture.” Who’s “we,” kemosabe? As I say, despite grumbling from progressives on the left and libertarians on the right, objecting to drone warfare is a minority position in both parties.
But back to my hypothetical, a Senate report condemning Obama’s drone program. Imagine the politics. If there’s a Democrat in the White House in 2020, it’s likely to be Obama’s own former secretary of state. Are Democrats going to put her on the spot by rhetorically indicting the administration she served in? If there’s a Republican in the White House, any attempt to to rein in his GOP successor on drones by condemning Obama retroactively for using them too will backfire by simply reminding the public how deeply compromised Democrats are in their criticism, with Obama having been celebrated at the time by the media for his impressive jihadi body count, civilian collateral damage notwithstanding. Unlike torture, which congressional Democratic leaders quietly supported until progressives forced them to pretend they’d been horrified by it, there’s nowhere for Dems to hide on drones. Even more so than Bush, Obama is the face of drone warfare, ironically because he’s more squeamish than Bush was about capturing jihadis and then having to figure out how to question them. Good luck getting Democrats to revisit the foreign policy legacy of the first black president and trying to convince the public that, in hindsight, it was actually a human-rights abomination. One which they, um, happily tolerated for eight years.
Mainly, though, the reason there’ll be no “drone report” slamming Obama is because, unlike EIT, drone warfare will still be used by presidents from both parties for years to come. What’s the alternative? Special forces raids behind enemy lines to capture a target carry too much risk; Obama’s ordered several, most famously the Bin Laden operation, and has been lucky nothing went badly wrong. We’re one disastrous raid away from that tactic being a no-go for the foreseeable future. Conventional airstrikes via manned aircraft are another alternative, but they have all of the drawbacks of drones — bombing the wrong people, infringing on another nation’s sovereignty — without the advantage of keeping U.S. personnel out of harm’s way. If President Hillary or President Scott Walker gets a hot tip that ISIS’s “caliph” will be in transit on a particular Syrian road at a particular time, of course they’re going to try to take him out. It’d be much harder to explain to the public why they declined to take a shot at such a big bullseye than why they went ahead with it and regrettably hit the wrong people. The more war-weary Americans get, the more attractive the drone becomes to the White House as a foreign policy problem solver — stealthy, surgical, and with no risk of American casualties, all the benefits that are lost with a large ground force. Neither party will ever give it up, although the lip service each pays to its dangers will probably get more robust over time.
Oh, by the way. You know how releasing the torture report was supposed to undercut enemy propaganda and improve our “standing” in the world by reminding everyone that America acknowledges its mistakes? That’s going exactly as well as you’d expect.