The Return of the Anti-War Left?: The Carnage of Drone Warfare

As a friend of mine said in response to this Tweet, “The left is anti-drone bombing once again. Welcome home after 8 years.” Now, if you think his quip is unfair, it should be noted that it’s based on sound social science: the majority of anti-war Democrats of the Bush years weren’t really all that anti-war as much as they were anti-Bush. As soon as Obama took office, the opposition dropped considerably.

But to wake people up to the reality of the continued violence, here are the estimates of total bombs dropped by the U.S. in 2016:

In President Obama’s last year in office, the United States dropped 26,172 bombs in seven countries. This estimate is undoubtedly low, considering reliable data is only available for airstrikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, and a single “strike,” according to the Pentagon’s definition, can involve multiple bombs or munitions. In 2016, the United States dropped 3,028 more bombs—and in one more country, Libya—than in 2015.

Most (24,287) were dropped in Iraq and Syria. This number is based on the percentage of total coalition airstrikes carried out in 2016 by the United States in Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the counter-Islamic State campaign. The Pentagon publishes a running count of bombs dropped by the United States and its partners, and we found data for 2016 using OIR public strike releases and this handy tool.* Using this data, we found that in 2016, the United States conducted about 79 percent (5,904) of the coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, which together total 7,473. Of the total 30,743 bombs that the coalition dropped, then, the United States dropped 24,287 (79 percent of 30,743).

Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations points out,

As Donald Trump assumes office today, he inherits a targeted killing program that has been the cornerstone of U.S. counterterrorism strategy over the past eight years. On January 23, 2009, just three days into his presidency, President Obama authorized his first kinetic military action: two drone strikes, three hours apart, in Waziristan, Pakistan, that killed as many as twenty civilians. Two terms and 540 strikes later, Obama leaves the White House after having vastly expanding and normalizing the use of armed drones for counterterrorism and close air support operations in non-battlefield settings—namely Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia.

…Less than two weeks ago, the United States conducted a drone strike over central Yemen, killing one al-Qaeda operative. The strike was the last under Obama (that we know of). The 542 drone strikes that Obama authorized killed an estimated 3,797 people, including 324 civilians. As he reportedly told senior aides in 2011: “Turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.”

This is what leads Nathan Robinson at Current Affairs to chastise his fellow leftists:

The newspaper headlines today all blare shocking reports about Trump’s continued bigotry. But further down the page, a different story about Muslim lives is receiving far less attention: the U.S. bombing of Syria, and its increasing numbers of civilian casualties. While Trump says racist things about Muslims, U.S. warplanes are actually killing them, something far less discussed even though (or perhaps because) it morally implicates Democrats.

The U.S. has also been accused of concealing the true death toll…[But i]t’s also important to remember that death tolls themselves only begin to capture the scale of a bombing’s impact. The numbers of injuries are often far higher (and frequently unreported). “Injuries” can mean lost limbs, blindness, and paralysis. They can mean permanent disfigurement. They can mean that a person will never work again, and will suffer from depression and PTSD, or will require medical care for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, even those who are not “injured” can experience deep and lasting trauma, after seeing loved ones or even strangers torn to shreds before their eyes. The actual pain of a mother realizing her child has been blinded, or a brother watching his sister die, is absent from death toll statistics.

The complaint of human rights advocates has centered around the fact that the United States is downplaying and concealing casualties, and that the deaths are growing in frequency without any justification…All of this occurred under a Democratic president. So while the organizers of the Democratic National Convention where proudly presenting the Khan family as evidence of their superior devotion to Muslim lives (and while DNC attendees were chanting “USA, USA, USA” as if they were frenzied 2004-era Bush Republicans), the Obama administration was directly responsible for killing scores of living, breathing Muslim civilians. While Democrats were voicing their outrage that Donald Trump had said yet another despicable racist thing, the party was speaking up in defense of a candidate who had decimated a Muslim country, and who had actually voted for the senseless war that killed Cap. Kahn in the first place.

Rhetorical attacks on Muslims are indefensible. But physical attacks on Muslims, using tanks and gunships, are even more horrific. Democrats might not want to be so certain that they have the moral high ground when it comes to valuing Muslim lives.

Of course, this by no means lets Republicans off the hook. Nor does it equate Obama and Trump (or the GOP) or fail to recognize the nuances of war. It shouldn’t dampen our optimism about the decline of war and violence in the modern era either. But it does call for some consistency; to minimize selective outrage. If we treated all administrations like public servants accountable to us instead of celebrities on our favorite football team, some of this might have been avoided.

By Riley Yates

Thoughts on Obama’s Response to Garrett.


After watching the recent presidential news conference, I agree with Nathaniel that Garrett’s question was exploitative, and that the tone of president Obama’s response was effective and appropriate. I’ll even go so far as calling the response masterful. Garrett lost. That being said, I find the content of Obama’s response deeply problematic.

Obama knows only too well that the no ransom policy is not exactly straight-forward. In November of last year, Obama had the US policy on hostages reevaluated. In June of this year, it was announced that while the US government will continue its official no ransoms policy, family members may pay ransoms themselves. Not only that, the government will assist in communicating and negotiating with the captors. In other words, ransoms can be paid, and the leg work can be done by the US, but the ransoms cannot be paid by the state. This is because not paying ransoms does not actually prevent hostage taking. What it does is ensure the hostages’ deaths. Ransoms do provide an easy source of funding for terrorist organizations, which is where the real concern lays as far as counter-terrorism is concerned.

The US, though, has made exceptions to its policy, most notably in the case of Bowe Bergdahl. I personally think that Obama did the right thing in securing Bergdahl’s release. Soldiers need to have the confidence that everything will be done to bring them back. The deal itself, though, is a classic case of giving terrorists concessions. The Taliban received five of its men for one low-ranking US soldier. Of course they will leap at an opportunity to take more soldiers (and civilians) captive.

Obama, then, can and has made exceptions when it comes to securing the release of US citizens held by terrorist organizations. He has made emotional appeals not to consider them abstractions, but to understand that they are real people who may never see their families again. The response to Garrett does not explain no exceptions were made in this case, or why the release of the Americans was not insisted upon for any of the major concessions Obama was willing to grant Iran. If Iran, China, and Russia were given the choice of either an Iran with American prisoners and no lifting of the conventional arms embargo, or an Iran with American prisoners and a continued embargo, it is hard to see why they would pick the latter when they stand to gain quite a bit more from the former.

Obama is also being a little disingenuous when it comes to employing the hostage logic. The four Americans (or at least the three whose whereabouts are known) are not being held hostage, they are prisoners. They have not been used by Iran as bargaining chips in the nuclear negotiations. Obama wants Iran to be considered a responsible state actor with whom other state actors can have normative relations. These states do not take hostages for the purpose of gaining concessions. If Iran is not such a state, then Obama has done far worse damage by granting Iran political legitimacy and lifting sanctions than any concessions in the prisoners matter would have done. He cannot have it both ways. Garrett’s trap backfired, but Obama’s response leaves too many big questions unanswered.

Obama, Major Garrett, and Jaw-Dropping Partisanship

In case you don’t want to watch the video, here are some snippets.

Major Garrett: As you well know, there are four Americans in Iran — three held on trumped-up charges and according to your administration and one whereabouts unknown. Can you tell the country, sir, why you are content with all the fanfare around this deal to leave the conscious of this nation, the strength of this nation unaccounted for in relation to these four Americans?

President Obama: I’ve to give you credit for how you craft those questions. The notion that I’m content as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails — Major, that’s nonsense, and you should know better. I’ve met with the families of some of those folks. Nobody is content, and our diplomats and our teams are working diligently to try to get them out. Now, if the question is why we did not tie the negotiations to their release, think about the logic that that creates. Suddenly Iran realizes, you know what? Maybe we can get additional concessions out of the Americans by holding these individuals.

I’ve seen this story making the rounds on Facebook, predominantly among conservatives where it has been paired with headlines like “Obama finally snaps” or “Garrett unloads on Obama.” From the headlines, you’d get the impression that this was some kind of Joseph N. Welch “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” moment.

Well, it’s not. And it’s not even close.

I’m not going to weigh in on the entire Iran nuke deal issue, because I don’t know enough about it. I’m generally optimistic and hopeful. I have a very high opinion of Iran and the people who live there (in distinct contrast to the radicals who run the place), and the deal seems reasonable, based on what I’ve heard. On the other hand, lots of conservatives seem to be pointing out that the deal with North Korea seemed reasonable as well, and look how that turned out. So I don’t know.

But on the specific issue of signing the deal with Iran while Americans are still in Iranian jails, Obama’s response was absolutely on point. He cited the exact same logic behind the US policy of not paying ransoms or negotiating with terrorists. The fact is that if you make it profitable to take hostages, then more hostages get taken. So, even though in any one case you want to negotiate for the sake of today’s hostages, you can’t because it would cause more people to become hostages tomorrow. That response is an excellent rebuttal to Garrett’s question, and it’s one conservatives (with all their much-vaunted tough-mindedness and realism) should be particularly cognizant of.

Secondly, in terms of tone, Obama’s response was equally fitting. Garrett’s question was loaded and arguably even exploitative. For Obama to address that directly was well within bounds. So, on both levels, Obama handled this particular question fairly and adeptly.

And yet, I see conservatives everywhere continuing to share this story as though their “team” won. It’s depressing. It’s almost as depressing as Donald Trump taking the lead in the GOP presidential polling.

Seriously, guys? Seriously?

Georgetown University Panel: Obama, Putnam, and Brooks on Poverty

The President joined Harvard’s Robert Putnam and AEI’s Arthur Brooks on a panel at Georgetown University on the problem of poverty. It’s an interesting discussion that displays not only how liberals and conservatives view and approach the problem of poverty, but how they believe each other approaches it. It’s an enlightening and somewhat irritating thing to behold, but worth the watch.

Check it out below.

When Economists Agree No One Wants to Listen

906 - Container Ship

Credit where credit is due: I heard an NPR report recently about opposition to President Obama fast-tracking a trading deal with countries in the Pacific (called the TPP for Trans-Pacific Partnership) and–though I didn’t yet know the details–I was surprised and impressed that he was willing to take a stand against his own party for a common sense but unpopular policy. The NYT has been reporting on the story as well, with an April 16th story emphasizing the internecine struggle to come (“In what is sure to be one of the toughest fights of Mr. Obama’s last 19 months in office, the “fast track” bill allowing the White House to pursue its planned Pacific trade deal also heralds a divisive fight within the Democratic Party, one that could spill into the 2016 presidential campaign.”) and an April 21st story describing GOP efforts to broker a compromise between Obama and the left-wing of his own party (“Republican lawmakers and the White House have agreed to subject any trade deal negotiated by President Obama to a monthslong review by Congress and the public, a concession aimed at winning the support of Democrats who view trade agreements as a threat to American workers.)

This is all a bit sad because, as Greg Mankiw wrote for the NYT on April 24th, that this fight was a prime example of what Alan Blinder called Murphy’s Law of economic policy: “Economists have the least influence on policy where they know the most and are most agreed; they have the most influence on policy where they know the least and disagree most vehemently.” As Mankiw puts it:

Among economists, the issue is a no-brainer. Last month, I signed an open letter to John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. I was joined by 13 other economists who have led the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, a post I held from 2003 to 2005. The group spanned every administration from Gerald Ford’s to Barack Obama’s.

If the issue is so clear-cut, why is it so divisive? Mankiw discusses that as well, citing Caplan’s book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. According to Caplan’s research, the public isn’t just ignorant about economic policy. Ignorance would not be so bad, because mistakes would at least be random and therefore might cancel each other out. Nope, the public is systematically biased in particularly unhelpful ways, all of which are at play in this debate:

The first is an anti-foreign bias. People tend to view their own country in competition with other nations and underestimate the benefits of dealing with foreigners. Yet economics teaches that international trade is not like war but can be win-win.

The second is an anti-market bias. People tend to underestimate the benefits of the market mechanism as a guide to allocating resources. Yet history has taught repeatedly that the alternative — a planned economy — works poorly.

The third is a make-work bias. People tend to underestimate the benefit from conserving on labor and thus worry that imports will destroy jobs in import-competing industries. Yet long-run economic progress comes from finding ways to reduce labor input and redeploying workers to new, growing industries.

I hope President Obama will do the right thing and continue to fight for the TPP, a deal that will be better for the lives of everyone involved. But the longer the fight goes the more likely it is to become an issue in the 2016 election. In that case, voters will have more say and, depressingly, the likelihood of sensible economic policies will diminish accordingly.

President Obama and Immigration

I’ve blogged before about the benefits of immigration reform and (more) open borders. I also think our path to citizenship is a mess. So, my initial reaction to the President’s announcement regarding immigration was mixed. Peter Suderman at Reason has a pretty balanced take on why my reactions were mixed. In response to the claims that President Obama’s actions are “unprecedented and illegal,” Suderman notes the following:

1. Probably legal: “As Reason’s Shikha Dalmia and Case Western Reserve University Law Professor Jonathan Adler have noted, the president has a great deal of authority to set enforcement priorities and exercise discretion when it comes to immigration law. Even some of the loudest critics of Obama’s action have come around to the idea that, at least technically, it would not exceed the president’s discretionary power, even if it would constitute an unusual and strained use of it.”

2. It is unprecedented: “The administration and some of its supporters are arguing that various presidents, including Republicans, have taken comparable steps before, limiting deportations through executive order, and that makes this well within political norms. This argument leaves out crucial details about congressional involvement and support for those previous presidential orders.” These crucial details have been well-documented by David Frum at The Atlantic.

3. It is a further expansion of executive power and the norms around using it: “Just because an executive action is technically legal does not mean that it falls within legal norms, and executive power can be expanded not only through explicit assertions of previously off-limits authority, but by making use of powers that existed but were never used, or never used to such an extent…Anyone who worries about executive overreach, even those supportive of expanded immigration, ought to be wary of the precedent this move, and the thin line of reasoning behind it, could set.” Expanding the power of one man should be troubling.

4. Executive action may be preferable to reform bill: “If you favor making immigration easier and more straightforward, and think that draconian enforcement efforts are both wasteful and counterproductive, then there are real upsides to executive action when compared to a big congressional overhaul.” Increased border control funding and an “incredibly invasive form of workplace nannying which would create huge hassles for workers and employers, as well as large numbers of false positives—making hiring, and finding employment, an even harder process than it already is.”

5. Executive action could poison broader, more stable reform: “There’s no question that the immediate political consequence would be to further outrage Republicans, and turn a party that has long had a mix of views about the virtues of expanding immigration into one dominated by opposition…But the backlash might not just be the immediate consequence, and it might not just be limited to the congressional GOP and its core supporters; unilateral action might result in a deepened long-term opposition to greater immigration as well.” I highly doubt this has anything to do with the morality of immigration. It is likely nothing more than a political move meant “to provoke Republicans into a frothing rage, in hopes that they will do something politically stupid as a result. (They might oblige.)”

Suderman concludes with caution:

This is not to simply condemn Obama’s plan, but instead to warn enthusiastic supporters that the choice to act at this time, in this way, without legislative backing or public support, might be satisfying in the moment, but also stands a real chance of closing off opportunities for a better, more lasting solution at some point in the future. Consensus is hard, and sometimes it seems impossible, but in politics, it’s also important.

I Miss Mitt (America Does, Too)

I’ve been saving this adorable BuzzFeed Politics article since I saw it a couple of weeks ago: Mitt Romney Has The Same Problems We All Have Flying Coach. It made me miss Mitt–by which I mean, miss what might have been–almost as much as the documentary Mitt.

2014-07-30 Mitt's Pink iPad
There are lots of photos of him flying coach, but my favorite is the one with the pink iPad.

Then today I saw this article in The Week: Americans really wish they had elected Mitt Romney instead of Obama.

Americans are so down on President Obama at the moment that, if they could do the 2012 election all over again, they’d overwhelmingly back the former Massachusetts governor’s bid. That’s just one finding in a brutal CNN poll, released Sunday, which shows Romney topping Obama in a re-election rematch by a whopping nine-point margin, 53 percent to 44 percent. That’s an even larger spread than CNN found in November, when a survey had Romney winning a redo 49 percent to 45 percent.

Yes, as the article says, you should take the polls “with a grain of salt,” but at the same time the list of things Romney was right about is both extensive and depressing.

Well, we’ll never know what could have been. But hey, maybe in 2016 we’ll get a chance at the next best thing. It’s not likely–and I’m not sure it’s politically wise–but I’m still hoping.

The End of Obama’s Credibility?

2013-11-05 Obama

The last paragraph of this National Journal article pretty much sums up how I feel:

On history’s scale of deception, this one leaves a light footprint. Worse lies have been told by worse presidents, leading to more severe consequences, and you could argue that withholding a caveat is more a sin of omission. But this president is toying with a fragile commodity: his credibility. Once Americans stop believing in Obama, they will stop listening to him. They won’t trust government to manage health care. And they will wonder what happened to the reform-minded leader who promised never to lie to them.

At this point, I’m well past “I told you so” and just fairly sad about the whole thing. There was so much promise in the Obama campaigns, and so little has actually been delivered. We’re not a nation fundamentally transformed. We’re a nation accelerated down the same path we were already headed on under W. Bush.

The Administration’s Case for a Strike on Syria

The Washington Post has video of a speech by US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power which, I presume, represents that Obama Administration’s official position on Syria.

What I like about the argument:

In arguing for limited military action .. we are reaffirming what the world has already made plain in laying down its collective judgment on chemical weapons. There is something different about chemical warfare that raises the stakes for the United States and raises the stakes for the world.

I support that rationale and limited, symbolic strikes based on it. Strikes that do not have the intent of changing the balance of the conflict or of disarming Assad, because such goals beyond what is required to sustain the convention against use of chemical weapons, and would incur an open-ended use of American power leading, potentially, into another quagmire.

Samantha Power Discusses Use Of Chemical Weapons In Syria

What I do not like about her argument, however, is the fact that it is irrationally manipulative and basically an extension of the Bush Doctrine. First, she describes a father’s grief at the loss of this two little girls. Personal tragedy is no basis for foreign policy, and the inclusion of this rationale is not merely spurious. It’s an affront to common sense and an insult to the intelligence of her audience. 

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