Until recently, many people—even the Nobel Peace Prize Committee—trusted Barack Obama. And even if they didn’t trust the person in the Oval Office, the American civic tradition tells them to find solace in the genius of the U.S. system of government, with its carefully calibrated array of checks and balances designed to prevent presidents from doing anything too terrible.
But the wishful thinking surrounding the Obama presidency’s role in the world has collapsed, beginning roughly around 2011, as details about the CIA’s program of covert drone operations in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines became public. And this year’s shocking—and ongoing—revelations about the NSA’s far-reaching and unchecked surveillance program have shaken the tacit social contract behind the national security state to its core.
Both these programs are top secret and bypass most constitutional checks and balances. Signing off on such dramatic extensions of executive power requires much more than public trust—it mandates a leap of blind faith, and multiple willful suspensions of disbelief. It’s become difficult not to wonder whether Obama is, in fact, doing something terrible. To judge by the steady accumulation of troubling evidence, America is now evidently fighting a perpetual, undeclared tri-continental war directed by a president who has jettisoned the traditional institutions of democratic accountability.
How, exactly, did all this happen? At what point did the idealistic young senator who vowed to restore the public’s hope and establish a new era of accountability, transparency, and diplomacy steer America even further into the grip of a global, clandestine and illegal war? This is the question that historian Lloyd Gardner tackles in Killing Machine: The American Presidency in the Age of Drone Warfare. Gardner suggests that this shift has less to do with Obama and more to do with the nature of the presidency itself. Presidents are held accountable to the law, yet certain “emergency” considerations of national security require them to secretly exercise power beyond legal limits, usually by way of the CIA. This makes it difficult to tell where presidential power begins and ends. As Richard Nixon famously argued, “when the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal.”
The presidency has always been bound up with the exercise of expansive powers in the interest of national security, but Gardner argues that a dramatic shift has ratcheted up the unaccountable use of executive power over the past decade—and that this shift has coincided with the rise of drone technology. Drones—which officials prefer to call “unmanned aerial vehicles” or “remotely piloted aircraft”—have become an increasingly popular military technology. At first, war planners used them exclusively for surveillance, but since the second year of the war in Afghanistan, the CIA and military have used weaponized drones to surveil enemies—and, under still-undisclosed operational criteria, to kill them—particularly in areas that are difficult to reach with ground forces. Since the use of drones doesn’t require a congressionally approved declaration of war, military and intelligence leaders can dispatch drones into any country. “Counterinsurgency theory had posited wars without front lines,” explains Gardner. “Now drone theory and practice simply assume that national boundaries [do] not really mean sovereignty.” A drone strike can happen in times of war or peace, and mere political geography poses no obstacles to the use of drones. The president can even carry out a strike on an American citizen without having to seek the permission of a federal court.
Gardner’s scope in Killing Machine stretches from the years leading up to the war in Afghanistan to the spring of 2013. He covers America’s fraught experiment with counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan and Iraq; the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni cleric who was the first American citizen targeted and killed in a US drone strike; and of course, the Obama administration’s escalation of the drone program. Though Gardner wrote the book “to halt the flight before the drone hits its target,” he doesn’t excoriate his subject so much as explain, in a tone that mostly stays on the better side of professorial, how the drone became the weapon of first resort in some of the more remote theaters of the war on terror.
Gardner’s treatment of this brave new mode of presidential war-making is admirably comprehensive—though he does miss the opportunity to analyze how the introduction of drones has affected the way that policy makers define the threshold for deciding to kill the people we designate as enemy combatants in the first place. He also doesn’t address the notion that the “drone era” might not be entirely new. The backers of drone warfare contend that the drone is simply a technological breakthrough in the kind of targeted killings that have figured into the conduct of diplomacy since time immemorial.
What about Obama’s stance in all this? Gardner seems to have trouble making up his mind. He vacillates between the idea that Obama is directly responsible for the rise of drone warfare and the more sympathetic argument that he “fell into the embrace of Reaper and Predator drones by circumstances beyond his control.” But Gardner is far more unequivocal in pointing out the potentially disastrous consequences of drone warfare in the Obama age. If the view that a president must sometimes break the law prevails, Gardner writes, “then no president can ever be held accountable for anything done in the name of national security.”
Arthur Holland Michel is the founder and Co-Director of the Center for the Study of the Drone, an interdisciplinary research, art and education project at Bard College.