Mary L. Dudziak: Why the Legal Issues in the White Paper on Targeted Killing are a Distraction

tags: Mary L. Dudziak, Balkinzation, White Paper, targeted killing, political culture



Mary L. Dudziak is a legal historian at Emory University whose research focuses on the impact of war on American democracy and on the relationship between international affairs and American legal history.

The leak of a White Paper on targeting killings is getting the expected attention from law bloggers and others, with much commentary focused on whether the legal analysis is correct – for example the definition of “imminence.”  The precise legal analysis is a distraction from more compelling issues, which are taken up by Jack Goldsmith in a Washington Post op-ed.  I often disagree with Goldsmith, but this time I find myself in agreement.  In part.   

Goldsmith begins:  “A decade of war is now ending,” President Obama proclaimed in his second inaugural address. But war is not ending, it is changing — and has been for years.  Obama has cut back on heavy-footprint, conventional-force war in two countries. At the same time, he has presided over the rise of a secret, nimbler war defined by covert action, Special Forces, drone surveillance and targeting, cyberattacks and other stealthy means deployed in many countries.”

The character of ongoing war, largely off the American political radar screen, has been the focus of scholarly attention across fields.  Ongoing secret war is an extension of ongoing small wars – justified for many years by the Cold War-era national security policy that American safety at home could only be protected by the projection of American military force around the world (NSC 68). 

Goldsmith is right, unfortunately, that the president is arguing that war is coming to an end, while at the same time he continues it.  (A point also made here.)  He continues:

This new form of warfare needs a firmer political and legal foundation....Because secret surveillance and targeted strikes, rather than U.S. military detention, are central to the new warfare, there are no viable plaintiffs to test the government’s authorities in court. In short, executive-branch decisions since 2001 have led the nation to a new type of war against new enemies on a new battlefield without focused national debate, deliberate congressional approval or real judicial review.

Although Goldsmith is right that the character of war has changed, his solution is disappointingly conventional: “What the government needs is a new framework statute — akin to the National Security Act of 1947, or the series of intelligence reforms made after Watergate, or even the 2001 authorization of force — to define the scope of the new war, the authorities and limitations on presidential power, and forms of review of the president’s actions.”  This is where I disagree.  Something more fundamental is in order.

The nation most needs robust political engagement with American military policy, something we have not had in a sustained way since the war in Vietnam.  Americans debated the war in Vietnam, and ultimately countless numbers took to the streets.  Congress fiercely debated war appropriations.  Elections were affected, as candidates gained or lost in the polls based on their position on Vietnam.

Deep public engagement with Vietnam was tied in large part to the fact that the costs of war came home to American families because of the draft.  In the years since, the all-volunteer armed forces are one factor among others to isolate many Americans from war.  (The other most important issues are privatization/contracting, and changes in war technologies.)  A 2011 Pew Research Center report found that "A smaller share of Americans currently serve in the U.S. Armed Forces than at any time since the peace-time era between World Wars I and II."  The data reveals  "a large generation gap,"with "more than three-quarters (77%) of adults ages 50 and older...[having] an immediate family member –a spouse, parent, sibling or child – who had served in the military."  In contrast, for people under 50, "57% of those ages 30-49 say they have an immediate family member who served. And among those ages 18-29, the share is only one-third."

In recent years, I’ve noted elsewhere,   

In Iraq and Afghanistan, war...spread across borders as American drones fired on targets in Pakistan and elsewhere.  Death and destruction were the province of soldiers and of peoples in faraway lands.  The experience of wartime for most Americans largely devolved to encounters between travelers and airport screeners, as the Transportation Security Administration adopted intrusive new practices.  At home, wartime had become a policy rather than a state of existence.

The only enduring limit on the use of force comes from an informed and engaged citizenry.  The most troubling aspect of an era of secret warfare is that its very “secret, nimbler” character makes it easier to ignore, and thereby harder for democratic limits to function.

More essential than a new framework statute, we need a form of war politics.  An essential but inadequate step is transparency, so that Americans have the capacity to know what their nation is doing.  More difficult but more essential, we must find a way to care about the nation’s most fearsome power, which is now exercised without our even noticing.  Whether the American people can become engaged again without a draft or forces on the ground is something I can’t answer.  But finding a path toward political engagement is more important now that, for Americans, the experience of war has become so easy, and so forgettable.



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