Thursday, March 14, 2013

Guest Post: Economic Austerity in the UK

The issue is that the current coalition has doubled down on policies that have a failed record. They've cut the fuck out of social welfare, education funding, unemployment, and housing benefits while raising a regressive tax that overwhelmingly affects the spending capital of middle and lower class people while having little noticeable effect on the spending habits of the wealthy. That has helped to severely curtail economic growth because people buy both services AND goods, some of which are imported, but many of which are based right here in the good old UK. Sure, I bought a Samsung Blu Ray player with my tax refund, but I bought it from a local guy who made a profit and used it to buy a car made out somewhere near Milton Keynes or something. The idea drops in consumer spending aren't a significant drag on growth because we import shit has been pretty roundly disproved. 

Instead, the government has spent a lot of money on a shit-load of QE, which has its uses and has worked to stymie the economic decline, but also has its limitations. For one thing, it's done wonders for the equities markets, which are miraculously back to where they were in 2007, and has utterly failed to trickle down in to substantially increased investment in hiring or infrastructure, despite that being kind of the idea behind keeping asset prices high. What it's done is inject an enormous amount of liquidity in to financial markets, boosted asset prices and made the rich VERY rich, but is essentially the same trickle-down bull-shit that exacerbated income inequality in the 80s. If QE went away tomorrow, the price of oil would drop sharply, and for good reason - global demand currently doesn't support oil prices, but all that extra money? THAT sure does! This has actually been underscored recently when recent rumblings that the Fed could cut back on quantitative easing prompted big and really sudden drops in commodity prices. Actually, it happened last week, come to think of it. I wrote a couple of articles about it.

Is there a moral problem with that? Yes. Yes there is. You know there is. In fact, we basically agree about that. What I object to INCREDIBLY strongly is the idea that countries who run deficits are somehow morally bankrupt, while countries that don't are somehow morally superior. That is an incredibly puritanical concept and it's one that is used ALL OF THE TIME when people talk about the current economic climate. Countries fall in to arrears for all sorts of reasons -- sometimes for really good ones -- and pretending that all debt is bad and all surplus is good is ridiculous.

What it all comes down to what qualifies as an acceptable level of debt, doesn't it? Who decides that? You? The government? The bond markets? For the last four years, people have said that deficit spending is something we have no hope to repay, but it's predicated on a fundamentally flawed idea - namely that growth has infinite potential and yet somehow there is a finite level of acceptable debt. Quite frankly, that essential misconception is the most insane part of the whole argument. The idea that the same rules that apply to debt amongst individuals applies to nation states is extremely flawed. There is no lifetime cap on nation state earnings - they can grow as far as the innovation of their people and businesses can take them - whereas there is a cap on what people are capable of earning and repaying within a lifetime. Debt is a huge weight on the agency of the individual, but it is arguably less of a thing for most nation state governments UNTIL THEY MAKE IT ONE. Greece would be in a much better position if they were able to structurally adjust out of it like a normal economy, but since they're tied to an incredibly draconian monetary policy, they're mired in the opposite of growth and a spiralling debt problem they will never be to pull out of until the economy grows.

People have been warning about borrowing costs in the US and UK for YEARS, and their justifications for why they haven't spiralled out of control have evolved and shifted and gotten increasingly weird, and the dire predictions have continued unabated. They haven't spiralled out of control. Perhaps that's to do with low growth, perhaps that has to do with asset purchasing, perhaps it has to do with the fact that bond vigilantes are a made up concept, the explanations are pretty endless. The fact is they haven't spiralled out of control, so the fact that people think they could someday is kind of a moot point.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Paul Ryan has no clothes. Someone should say so.

I apologize for the visual.

Paul Ryan, failed Vice-Presidential candidate and Chairman of the House budget Committee released his budget today. In a just world, his appearance before the press would have been met with jeers, heckling and perhaps a few accurately aimed, over-ripe tomatoes.

Image from The Atlantic Wire

But "there ain't no justice". Ryan is an indefatigable phony. He lies more than my cats, and I think they may be narcoleptic. In the coming days, his budget will be dissected line-by-line, and will be shown to be based on delusional assumptions, accounting gimmicks and intentional misrepresentation. Everyone who follows this stuff, and I mean everyone, knows this is the case. Certainly the Beltway media know it.

In fairness to Ryan, this budget isn't intended to be a serious contribution to the actual public policy process. It's a symbolic budget, released to legitimize the Republican Economic paradigm, and as an opening offer in the legislative bargaining process, and as the first step in Ryan's candidacy for the Presidency in 2016. Responsible observers of our political elites have already called bullshit on a number of its provisions.

Image from the Washington Post's Wonkblog

Responsible political observers within the Beltway are limited to a precious few. We are living in a "Tale of Two DC press corps", where it is simultaneously the best of times and the worst of times. We have Ezra Klein and Dave Weigel and Greg Sargent. We also have Dana Milbank and Thomas Friedman and Chuck Todd. I intentionally leave the explicitly partisan media, represented by FOX, the Daily Caller or the editorial page of the Wall St. Journal, out of this. They're not Beltway Media, they're part of the Conservative Scandal Machine

The majority of the political press have treated Ryan's budget as though it is a serious contribution to our nation's policy dialogue. They haven't called him a "liar", or a "hypocrite" or a "charlatan", despite the fact that these are objective and justified adjectives for the author of this budget. To do so would be to violate a key value of the Beltway Community: False Equivalence.

This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons

The Beltway policy community is an identity group composed of sub-communties, such as the political press, politicians, political staff, bureaucrats, lobbyists and a few academics. As with any identity group there are mores and values and conventions. There are elite and mass members. There are in-group and out-group identity markers allowing members to identify "us and "them". Status within the group is determined by how successfully a member epitomizes the group's values, and the group's values are communicated to the mass membership by the modeling of those values by the elites.

Key values within the Beltway are "success" "access" and "sophistication". Success is measured by one's status within one's occupational sub-community. A writer for TPM is less successful than a writer for the New York Times, and both are less successful than the White House correspondent for a major television network. The Chief of Staff for the Senate Majority leader is more prestigious than an intern for an obscure member of the House. Just ask Virginia Foxx.

Congresswoman Virginia Foxx. I am informed that to claim she owns a gingerbread cottage is sexist, so I'll just call her a prick and leave it at that.

The "sophistication" value is measured by the extent to which someone displays a world-weary cynicism regarding the entire process, and the motives of the people taking part in that process. Politicians come and go. Presidents come and go quickly. Staffers get recycled, and a bureaucrat, or a lobbyist may be a "lifer", having been an observer of the process for decades. Adding to this is the "revolving door" phenomenon, where (for example) a legislative staffer may become a lobbyist, and then be nominated to a position within the bureaucracy that oversees the industry for which they lobbied. After a career of lying to people to advance your agenda, and being lied to by people doing the same thing, after seeing the most crass personal motives wrapped in the flag of selfless patriotism, after seeing idealistic and charismatic leaders brought low by the most squalid personal failings...

one becomes "sophisticated". Everyone's a sell-out, everyone lies, and the "national interest"...

well, that's in the eye of the beholder, right?

Image from Newsweek via Huffington Post

You CAN'T call Paul Ryan a liar, because your editor would want to know if you could read Ryan's mind. Maybe he really believes this stuff? You can't call him a liar, because you're going to get an angry phone call from Ryan's staff. Or worse... your PUBLISHER might get an angry call from John Boehner. You can't call Ryan a liar because Republicans will spread the word that you're a bad guy, and you'll never get another quote again. You'll lose access. You can't call Ryan a liar, because that would imply that perhaps someone in DC was telling the truth. Your friends will make jokes about your naiveté, people will call you a "lightweight" behind your back, and you'll never, ever get invited to one of Cokie Roberts' cocktail parties again.

The Beltway community, and the media that is an important element of that community is deeply invested in the "equivalency" narrative. The mass migration of the Republican Party away from the center and towards the radical right of the ideological spectrum has undermined any basis this narrative ever had in fact. The GOP has been captured by ideological purists to whom compromise is anathema and for whom contradiction is treasonous. The parties are NOT the same; one of them is led by crazy people and one of them is not. But to acknowledge that fact would undercut "equivalency".

The Beltway HAS to pretend Ryan is a serious figure. He's the closest thing the Republicans have to one.

Post Script: My delightful and wise editor tells me the tone of this post is too personal. I disagree. The whole point of this post is that Paul Ryan is an unethical liar subordinating the national interests to his own career intentions. There aren't enough people willing to say so, directly. He doesn't have a different viewpoint. He doesn't see things differently. This isn't an honest disagreement about the facts from equally well-intentioned parties. Paul Ryan is a shameless and inveterate liar, and anyone who glosses over that central point is doing a disservice to the country. The young Republican prince has no clothes.

Image from Wonkette

Monday, March 4, 2013

Why are Democrats so timid?

Let me start by admitting that's an unfair question. It is NOT the case that "Democrats" are timid. The party is blessed with a number of bold, daring thinkers, unafraid of conservative bluster and willing to take courageous stands in pursuit of social progress. Our President is the most obvious example of such a leader, but others include Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren and Patty Murray.

This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore, the "timid" charge applies to politicians generally, not to politicians from either party. As David Mayhew points out in his brilliant book Congress, the Electoral Connection, members of Congress are "single minded seekers of re-election". They have to be; the system selects for that behavioral value. Anyone who isn't absolutely focused on the next election loses, usually at the state or local level. Getting elected to Congress is usually the final outcome of a Darwinian process of selection, a career path marked with the defeated campaigns of one's opponents. Politicians who gamble too much lose, and go off to find more lucrative careers elsewhere.

Nevertheless, it is absolutely fair to observe that Democrats in the House and the Senate tend to be be more timid than their Republican colleagues. Their rhetoric is more moderate. Their policies are more incremental. They have a frustrating tendency to adopt the assumptions and narratives of the Beltway press, even when those narratives involve a false equivalence, and attribute a subjectivity to things that are objective, empirical facts.

The most recent example of Democratic chicken-shittedness has been "Dismal" Harry Reid's capitulation on the filibuster. Given the opportunity to reform the filibuster and finally allow    Democrats to legislate, Reid instead opted to preserve the traditions of his beloved Senate. It remains to be seen just how damaging this choice will be for President Obama's policy agenda, but if we get a filibuster of his nominees for the Supreme Court, we'll have Dismal Harry to thank.

Mitch McConnell and Dismal Harry (right) negotiate filibuster reform

Democratic timidity has been a source of intense frustration for many Progressives, going back years. We saw that frustration manifested over the failure of Healthcare Reform to include a public option, the President's tardy enlightenment on Same Sex Marriage and his decision to "surge" in Afghanistan. But it is important to realize that there are reasons for that timidity, and that indeed, timidity is a rational paradigm for people whose guiding motivation is to win their next election.

I have noted elsewhere that the defining characteristic of the American electorate is apathy. Americans (taken as a whole) of this era don't like politics. It bores them. They have only a superficial understanding of their political system. They can't tell you who their elected representatives are, or what positions those representatives have taken on most policy issues. They don't know what their own position is on most policy issues, with any certainty.

But while the average American voter can't recall the name of their Senator, or their Congressman, or (God help us) the Vice-President, they can recognize that name and choose it from a list. A list like, for example, a ballot.

This "recognition" phenomenon explains one of the enduring anomalies of the American political system. Congressional approval rates are lower than David Vitter's morals. The American people regard Congress as corrupt, lazy and completely self-serving. Nevertheless, they continue to vote for them. Incumbent re-election rates were at 90% in 2012. They were at 85% in 2010, commonly portrayed as a "wave" election. We nearly always choose to return the same people we hold in contempt to office, because confronted with a list of names about which we know as little as possible, we select the one we recognize.

It's an odd way for a free people to govern themselves.

The old saying goes, "the only way to lose an election is to get caught with a dead girl or a live boy". There are other ways; anything that gets enough publicity to pierce the willful ignorance of a politician's constituents is dangerous. Keeping a stack of bribe money in your freezer is colorful, it gets lots of press and the voters will hear about it while waiting for the weather on the 11:00 news. An attempted bathroom tryst with an undercover cop is titillating, people don't forget that kind of detail. And a big policy initiative, or a controversial vote, or a deviation from local prejudice or conventional wisdom may have the same effect. Supporting an assault weapons ban won't get as much ink as having an affair with your chief of staff's wife, but it will get some ink, and you can be damned certain your next opponent will try to publicize it.

Adulterer and poster child for Evangelical Christianity John Ensign.

Incumbents thrive on anonymity. Any publicity they seek is of the safe, "I brought you Federal money!" type. They agonize over the tough votes, and pressure their leaders to write legislation to be as uncontroversial as possible. If they keep their heads down, and use their frank to promote name recognition, and don't make anyone in the district too angry, they're a lock to win their next election. They can live in Washington, and make 6 figure salaries, and be wined, and dined, and stroked, and gifted (although they need to be careful about this) and fly to exotic locations on the public dime...

as long as they don't make too many waves.

But that is an explanation of the timidity of politicians. It does not explain the peculiar and institutionalized timidity of Democratic politicians. Political apathy emerged as a dominant value in the electorate in the mid 1950's. As with any complex phenomenon, there are probably many causes. Some of these may be with the gradual replacement of newspapers by television as an evening activity, the rise of consumer values and identity at the expense of community identity, and a broad policy consensus between the two political parties on the basis of support for the Cold War and the existing welfare state as an acceptable status quo. Or maybe not, it's awfully hard to test those hypotheses from the early 21st century.

Liberal Democrat and ardent Cold Warrior Harry Truman

What we do know empirically is that the House of Representatives stopped changing hands. Between 1955 and 1994, Democrats had a majority in the House every single Congress. It was an unbroken hold on power reminiscent of the LDP in Japan or the PRI in Mexico. Democrats controlled the Speakership, the committee chairmanships, the committees themselves. Republicans were limited to the role of a largely symbolic opposition, raising objections from time to time but never exerting any control over the actual process of public policy.

The Senate was nearly the same; Democrats controlled the Senate for the exact same stretch as in the House, with the exception of 6 years under Ronald Reagan. The political timidity that guaranteed reelection for nearly all incumbents also guaranteed Democratic control of the legislative branch. Timidity became ingrained in the culture of the Democratic party more deeply than in the Republican party. Timidity was to the advantage of individual Republican politicians; it was to the advantage of the entire Democratic party, providing them with nearly monopoly control of 1 branch of government, a guaranteed influence over the policy process and domination of that process when they could elect a president, as well.

No strategy is always effective, however. The wave election of 1980 frightened Democrats badly. Not only did they lose control of the Senate for the 1st time in a quarter century, they lost the White House to a candidate who openly challenged the broad policy consensus between the two parties. Ronald Reagan did NOT accept the desirability of the status quo. Rather than the "containment" approach to the Cold War, Reagan was a proponent of "roll-back", the idea that the United States should aggressively attempt regime change in those countries allied to the Soviet Union. He was equally aggressive on "rolling back" the policies of the welfare state, slashing taxes on top wage earners and savaging many programs aimed at the poor.

"Amiable dunce" and national disaster Ronald Reagan. And no, he didn't win the Cold War, either.

And congressional Democrats supinely acquiesced. Democrats were spooked; 1980 was a terrific year for the Republicans, 1982 was just around the corner and opposing the party the electorate had just selected was too much to ask of Democratic politicians who equated controversy with risk. Reagan's entire program was implemented with token opposition, and the Republic suffers from that colossal error to this day.

On the other hand, Democrats held onto the House for another 15 years, so there's that.

Newt Gingrich ended that string of wins by learning the lesson of Reagan; timidity might serve the interests of individual Republican incumbents taking advantage of an apathetic electorate. But timidity was poison for the party, and for ambitious Republican megalomaniacs who wanted to govern rather than simply quietly enjoy the perks of office. Gingrich's time in office illustrates both the advantages and costs of demagoguery. He broke an historic Democratic monopoly on the House, achieved the Speakership... and promptly destroyed his party's brand with an unpopular government shutdown and a nakedly partisan impeachment.

Controversy is a tactic, Newt. It's not a lifestyle choice

Through the entire conservative realignment initiated by Ronald Reagan, Democrats have assiduously avoided controversy. They're happy to take advantage of Republican missteps, of course. Iran-Contra, Gingrich's own political scandal, the Katrina debacle have all been used to good political effect by Democrats. But Democratic policy can be viewed as an acceptance of the narrative established by Ronald Reagan; government is too big, and incompetent. The financial elite in this country must be given every possible incentive and subsidy or they'll... choose to be less wealthy, and we'll all suffer. We must spend more on defense than the next 14 countries on the list combined.

A jellyfish. Note the striking absence of a spine.

To challenge that narrative would be to court controversy. It would invite charges of being a "tax and spend liberal", or "Washington insider" or "soft on defense". It would risk reelection, and that is something Democratic office holders do not do.

Democratic politicians operating in an electoral environment of pervasive political apathy can count on reelection. An inattentive electorate will cheerfully choose their name off a list of total strangers, as being the one that rings a bell. A secure career of perk and privilege and deference is almost guaranteed after your second term...

if you don't make anyone mad. That value, and the institutional culture which generates it are why Democrats are so timid.

It's an horrendously bad way to govern, however.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Drone Wars

The insane and dishonest ravings of FOX news not withstanding, President Obama has been a huge disappointment to many on the American Left. (Others of us have by and large been thrilled with his leadership.) His signature health-care reforms did not create a single-payer system. His handling of a structurally corrupt financial sector has been positively deferential. But nothing has enraged the far Left in the way that the President's expansion of the drone war has.

This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons

To a certain extent, criticism of the use of drones is proxy criticism of "The War on Terror". A frequent argument of those opposing the War on Terror is that "terror is a tactic", and that one cannot wage a war against a tactic. And in fact, "terror" IS a tactic.

Terrorism is the intentional use of violence against non-combatants for political purpose.

Some drone strikes are requested by the governments of Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia. Most however, are initiated by American intelligence. The purpose of the unfortunately named "War on Terror", and of the American initiated drone strikes that are a critical part of that war, is not to end "terrorism". The purpose is to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States from being carried out by a specific group of people, described in Fawaz Gerges' masterpiece Journey of the Jihadist. Our target is not every single Muslim fundamentalist. It is not every single terrorist, or every Muslim terrorist. Rather, the targets of the drone strikes are a specific ideological sub-group of jihadists who are ideologically committed to striking "the far enemy", by which they mean the United States.

These people, of whom Al Qaeda is the best known example, believe that their goal of creating an Islamic state, governed on the basis of their peculiar interpretation of the Koran, can never take place while the United States opposes that goal.

They hold the United States responsible for the secular governments in the Arab world, and for the western culture they believe is corrupting muslim societies. They believe that only by directly punishing the United States can they discourage American intervention against them in their struggle to realize their political goals. In the words of Ayman al-Zawahiri:

"The struggle for the establishment of the Islamic State cannot be launched as a regional struggle... we must prepare ourselves for a battle that includes the apostate domestic enemy, and the Jewish-crusader external enemy"

Ayman al-Zawahiri

These groups have demonstrated the capacity and the willingness to kill American non-combatants within the United States. The purpose of the drone strikes is to degrade that capacity and discourage that willingness. This is a much more limited and achievable goal than many drone critics are willing to acknowledge. But there are other objections to the program.

If (as we should) we ignore the unhinged assertions of the 9/11 Truthers who insist the entire War on Terror is based on  a hoax that involved the US government deliberately killing thousands of its own citizens, objections to the use of drones fall into three basic categories: 1) the way in which we use drones is a violation of international law 2) the way in which we use drones is immoral 3) the use of drone strikes is ineffective

Each of these three types of objections: legality, morality and efficacy have several variations, and deserve careful examination.

Journalist and drone critic Jeremy Scahill. This is a thoughtful, talented and patriotic journalist, despite being wrong on this issue.

Are the strikes legal?

The argument that the drone strikes are illegal has several bases. The first of these is that they constitute extra-judicial killings by the United States. Various reputable legal scholars and human rights experts are cited as evidence of this assertion. But an equal number of legal experts insist that the drone strikes are authorized by previous case law and congressional statute. In the absence of a specific legal finding that the strikes are illegal, drone critics are simply expressing an opinion. It is not an established matter of law that the strikes are illegal, Glenn Greenwald's insistence notwithstanding.

A second aspect of the illegality claim involves the "double-tap" tactic of launching a second strike at people involved in rescuing victims of an initial strike. but even critics of the tactic concede,

"A positively identified combatant who provides medical aid to someone amid fighting does not automatically lose his status as a combatant, and may still be legally killed."

There are two key points here that critics of the Drones typically ignore. 1) Combat medics must be clearly identified by insignia, and 2) a person with an AK-47 strapped to their back is a combatant.

Hypocritical self-promoter and outrage merchant Glenn Greenwald. This darling of the far Left supported the Iraq War, and has been trying to re-establish his progressive credentials since.

Finally, critics of the drones claim that the civilian casualties inflicted by drones are a violation of the laws of war. But in fact, the laws of war permit operations which may injure and kill civilians, if such collateral damage is proportional to the military effect of the attack. I will also note that it is a violation of the laws of war to use the presence of civilians to hinder military operations (Article 28). Finally, the actual number of civilian casualties resulting from the strikes is in dispute.

The upper range of civilian casualty estimates comes from The Bureau for Investigative Journalism.  It has published the work of some flakey people. It's methodology is described here

More credible numbers come from the New America Foundation, whose methodology is here. I urge those who insist that large numbers of civilians are being killed in drone attacks to compare the two methodologies for analytical rigor. BIJ, for example, explicitly employs as one source attorneys involved in lawsuits against the United States. NAF by contrast, makes extensive use of the category "unknown" in labeling a casualty as militant or civilian. NAF requires at least two independent sources before they will make that determination.

I should note here that NAF's numbers have been heavily critiqued by the Human Rights Clinic of Columbia Law School. For reasons that completely escape me, this report assumes that any casualty identified by name is "strongly identified as a civilian". I am not a lawyer, nor am I a military analyst. But the rationale for this classification eludes me. The report also relies heavily on BIJ's on site investigations in Waziristan. I am perhaps being unfair when I suggest that going to the site of a drone strike and asking the inhabitants, "Hey! Any terrorists around here?" is a methodology of dubious utility.

Image from Department of Defense. If it disappears, blame the sequester.

Unaddressed in this post is the more limited question of whether drone strikes targeting US citizens are legal. For the sake of completeness, I link the legal rational justifying such strikes here, and the ACLU's response here. As with the question of the general legality of the drone strikes, critics have vastly overstated the objective certainty of their interpretation of the law. 

Are the drone strikes moral?

This is a much trickier question. The morality of any particular act is a subjective judgement made by the viewer. If one accepts (as I do) that the strikes meet the legal test of proportionality, then the morality of the strikes hinges on the morality of killing the intended target of the strike.

One argument against the morality of the strikes is that "we're just as bad as the terrorists". This can be dismissed as facile. The terrorists are intentionally targeting non-combatants. We are accidentally hitting non-combatants while striking legitimate military targets who are hiding among non-combatants. The terrorists who supplied Faisal Shazad with money and training also shot a 14 year old girl in the head for advocating women's education. One can argue that the drone strikes are immoral. But one cannot credibly argue that they are as immoral as the actions of those we seek to kill.

Image of Malala Yousefzai from ABC news

Another is that even if the strikes are proportional, it's immoral to kill civilians. It is absolutely the case that civilian casualties are a foreseeable consequence of the drone strikes. But it is equally the case that civilian casualties, like atrocities, and displacement, and utter, wretched misery are the foreseeable and inevitable consequence of ANY military conflict. A drone strike will kill fewer non-combatants than an air strike. It will kill far fewer non-combatants than an artillery barrage, and exponentially fewer than a pitched battle in an unevacuated area. If civilian casualties mean that drones are immoral, then armed conflict is immoral, and drone opponents need to make their case by identifying themselves as pacifists, rather than simply as drone opponents.

Drone opponents frequently express moral repugnance at the US tactic of striking militant funeralsRevulsion at funeral strikes seems illogical to me. The decision to kill another human being, or group of them is a horrible, bestial, dehumanizing thing. Where one does it is irrelevant, in my view.

In any case, there is a logic to the practice. The death of a prominent jihadist will draw other jihadists seeking to pay their respect to a fallen comrade. They're easy to spot; they're at the head of the procession in the SUVs, surrounded by armed men. I will also note that all of the funeral strikes I have found accounts of are against Pashtun targets. Women do not participate in Pashtun funeral processions, as a matter of custom. This reduces the likelihood of collateral damage, and is perhaps an attempt to address that concern.

Are drone strikes effective?

There are two key arguments used to assert that the drone strikes are ineffective. The first of these is that the United States is simply not killing very many jihadis. I saw this argument made most vehemently by an organization called Global Research, in a post where they asserted that the ratio of civilians to militants killed by drone strikes was 36 to 1. That post now appears to have been scrubbed from their site, which is interesting considering the other dreck they apparently believe. Among the items still up on the site are articles detailing US government attempts to control the weather, 9/11 Truther claims, and assertions that Syria's Bashir al Assad is a victim of Western imperialism who enjoys the support of his people.

I would normally dismiss this particular organization with with a single sentence, or ignore it completely. But somehow that 36 to 1 figure made it into the Twittersphere, and was uncritically accepted by a number of smart progressives that I deeply respect. The debate on the desirability of drone strikes is not improved by the participation of looney conspiracy theorists or devotees of Lyndon LaRouche.

It is a matter of indisputable fact that the top leadership of al Qaeda has been decimated. Top leaders of a number of Taliban factions have been killed as well; we know this because the jihadis themselves acknowledge it in posts on their websites.

Of considerably more concern is the charge that the drone strikes actually strengthen the militants, by causing resentment among the civilian population and serving as a recruitment incentive. A particularly compelling proponent of this view is The Nation's Jeremy Scahill. Drone attacks are cited as a motive for two unsuccessful attacks on US soil by Stanford Law School's International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution study, Living Under Drones (p.136)

What this criticism fails to take into account is the purpose of the strikes; Scahill and others subscribe to the fallacy that this is a war on "terror", or "terrorists". As I stated at the beginning of this post, the purpose of the drone strikes is to disrupt and discourage the proponents of a particular ideological branch within militant Islam. 

A small group of intellectuals within the Islamist movement have concluded that their goals necessitate terrorist attacks within the borders of the United States. They are attempting to plan those attacks. They are attempting to gather financing and material for those attacks and they are attempting to train individuals for those attacks. The presence of drones, the unpredictable nature of the strikes and the lack of effective defenses against drones have made these activities nearly impossible

There is absolutely no question that the drone strikes breed hostility and hatred towards the United States. Some of the people who resent us will no doubt wish to extract some form of revenge against us, although the overwhelming number of them probably simply wish the attacks would stop. But these "new militants" are foot soldiers. They are tribesman who probably don't speak English, lack the resources to strike back and the ability to operate within american borders. Making enemies of these people is regrettable, but infinitely less dangerous than allowing educated, elite members of terrorist organizations to plan their next attack in security.

I believe that drones have become a symbol of the War on Terror. In the minds of many progressives, to approve of the use of drones is to approve of the worst aspects of Bush Administration's execution of the War on Terror, including the use of torture and the unrelated invasion of Iraq. While discussing these issues, I am constantly surprised when people assume that because I don't regard drones as illegal under international law, I must necessarily have supported the invasion of Iraq.

Such views lack nuance. The question of the legality of drone strikes or the efficacy of their use is unrelated to water boarding, or warrantless wire-tapping, or the no-fly list. The conflation of drones with these other issues has led to a kind of intellectual dogmatism more common in political conservatives than progressives. It is simply not the case that drone strikes are self-evidently and objectively illegal. The view that their use is immoral is a subjective view, frequently based in mistaken views regarding the number of civilian casualties they cause. And concerns about their effectiveness are simply concerns, not established and indisputable facts supported by evidence.