The left's opinion change on Pakistan and the drone war
Sep 17, 2011

The left's opinion change on Pakistan and the drone war

The issue of the drone war and the public reception to it, particularly among progressives, demonstrates both the strength and failings of that movement. The hallmark test of legitimacy for any body that espouses political opinion is and must be consistency. If we change our tone and criticism based on the zeitgeist of the times and the switching of power in government, there can be little hope the criticism is more than partisanship.

While I would not say it has reached mainstream consciousness, it can no longer be claimed that opposition to the drone war is entirely confined to the furthest fringes of the pacifist movement and indeed enjoys consistent and widespread repetition among progressives and elements in the policical left. And so it should. As the program expands to include Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, recently Somalia, and Gaza (run, to be fair, by Israel), the scope of the drone program surpasses anything found in the Bush doctrine.

What has been forgotten, I think, is that this was all entirely predictable and indeed openly called for by Obama in that most public and mainstream form of public discourse, the 2008 presidential debates. I remember very distinctly being shocked at the time that considering how so much of his message and popularity was anti-war about ending the war in Iraq, that Obama would come across as strikingly belligerent calling for increased focus on Pakistan. McCain even mocked him for the superficial mistake of bad tactics that one would announce strikes against Pakistan, one should not announce it and just do it he seemed to think ( note that when one conducts many hundreds of strikes as has been done this tactical difference doesn't make a difference after the first couple). In the public debate it wasn't specified that these would be explicitly drone strikes, but any analysis of the tactical considerations would immediately make that point clear. To be fair, then presidential candidate Obama only mentioned Pakistan and not Yemen or Somalia (or Libya, but that was hardly predictable).

At the time, most of the left was caught up in a hopeful optimism about Obama - regretfully myself included, I don't see a need for revisionist history. There was certainly no big uproar against the future president making blatantly warmongering threats. Quite the opposite, there was a movement (partially valid in my view) to point out just how good this was as policy. Given the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the free movement of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters over this border, Pakistan's feet dragging on dealing with the problem in the NWFT and their general program of half supporting the Taliban as a proxy for Pakistani hegemony in Afghanistan - given all of this - there is some veracity over the need to deal, one way or another, with the problems in Pakistan and, further, that these problems were ignored in the push towards Iraq.

This general argument was picked up by the left with the idea that Obama would lead in this way a smarter Af-Pac war than the failed, myopic, Bush Afghanistan war. It became, rightly or wrongly, simply the orthodox opinion of the left.

None of the problems so manifest in the drone program today were not entirely predictable. There was never any reason to suspect that it would gain a shred of accountability or transparency so we could know who was killed, how many civilians died, and as such be anything less than a vehicle of state sponsored targeted assassination without due process or review of any kind. There was never any reason to suspect it would not occur at the scope and magnitude it has, or kill as many civilians. Perhaps one could have hoped that the Obama administration would at least official acknowledge that it was occurring given the hints in the debate, but it has refused to do even that.

Over the last year or so, there has been a shift in the left from the previous "expanding into Pakistan is good policy" narrative into the "drone war is bad" narrative. Neither of these claims is black and white, and I think there is both some truth and falsehood in both of them, but that shift is nonetheless noteworthy.
Today the left deserves some credit. It cannot be said that the entire left has become Obama apologists (although some undoutably remain in that role) unable to criticize current problems from Obama like the drone war that they would have criticized were a republican in office. I don't think it is close to equal - Obama still gets free passes Bush would never have gotten from the left - but there remains an independent spirit capable of judging the issues as they are and not based on who is in office. To the extent that this is true, it is laudable and there can be no comparison of this to the deeply hypocritical criticism the right now levies against Obama that they utterly and systematically failed to do under Bush.

That said, the left also deserves some blame. It deserves blame for buying into the Obama wellspring of optimism and not strongly and critically attack him for his belligerence at a time when the nearly inevitable consequence would be at best a slightly more civil version of the drone program we see today. And it deserves blame for not going far enough and being more critical than it is on a wide range of issues (take the recent discovery of a blacksite in Somalia, for instance).

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