The Political Animal

Discussing Drones: the Right Way, the Greenwald Way


Last week, in response to “Glenn Greenwald’s Mitt Romney Surrogacy,” a commenter defended Greenwald by describing his work as “independent non-partisan scholarship.” Not that very long after the laughter faded, I read at the Boston ReviewDavid Luban’s “What Would Augustine Do? The President, Drones, and Just War Theory.” If you don’t have the time right now to read Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars, Luban’s article provides an excellent brief primer on some essential issues and their practical application to the U.S. drone warfare against Al–Qaeda.

Beyond Luban’s instructiveness on the issues in general and in specific application, he also illustrates a crucial point I made about Greenwald’s style of argumentation. I quoted Brad DeLong about Noam Chomsky.

What I object to is that Chomsky tears up all the trail markers that might lead to conclusions different from his, and makes it next to impossible for people unversed in the issues to even understand what the live and much-debated points of contention are.

Even a quick comparison of Luban to Greenwald is telling on this score. Greenwald hails his former work as a “Constitutional and civil rights litigator.” He trades on this in his focus on potential national security abuses, but as I pointed out here, he is, these days, nearly silent on those civil rights abuses being daily pursued by GOP legislatures and that the Romney presidency Greenwald is doing his best to produce would support federally.

Luban has credentials, too. He is “University Professor and Professor of Law and Philosophy, and the Acting Director of the Center on National Security and the Law” at Georgetown University. What Luban offers at Boston Review, while he offers his own judgments on certain issues, nonetheless provides fair acknowledgement of the debatable issues – the “trail markers” as Delong put it, which might also include in some contexts, the history and evolving focal points of a debate. Greenwald does none of this. Indeed, as I some time ago wrote in “The Hypocrisy and Bullshit of Glenn Greenwald,” it is precisely his point not to. A bullshitter, Harry G. Frankfurt tells us,

does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires.

That is,

The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

A bullshitter

ignores these demands [of the truth] altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

Thus a bullshitter does not argue against “trail markers,” or even acknowledge and record them as part of the discussion. He simply ignores them.

The first lesson from Luban is that the relevant issues, conceptually and practically, are complex. Greenwald simplifies everything.

Writes Luban,

In the war context, striking the military target is the intended effect, the collateral damage is the unintended effect, and it is the former, not the latter, that determines the moral character of the action. The requirement of proportionality between the intended and unintended effect is a modern refinement of this principle.

These are distinctions Greenwald will not honor. So he will write in the most inflammatory manner, of

Obama’s penchant for violence, aggression and civilian slaughter.

Luban continues on this topic,

The most troubling point in the Times article is that the CIA has apparently counted civilian casualties in a self-serving, dishonest way. Any dead military-age male in the vicinity of a targeted strike is presumed a “militant” unless proven otherwise. That sounds wrong, and the more you think about it, the worse it gets.

What would constitute proof that a dead young man is not a militant? And how diligently is the CIA looking for evidence of its own fatal mistakes? After all, this is the same CIA that is investigating itself for illicitly censoring its own critics because it doesn’t want knowledge of its misdeeds and mistakes to see the light of day.

Now, while I agree with Luban’s article overall, I may disagree with him somewhat on this issue. I cannot say for sure because there is so much detailed information I do not have.

For instance, to raise some questions within a more traditional military context, when one attacks a military base from the air, does one know for sure that there are no civilians on it? Almost certainly, any domestic military base has civilian workers. Then again, are they not facilitators of the war effort, just as were German railway employees transporting their human cargo to concentration camps, or those manufacturing V-1 rockets in factories? What about the poor teen boy impressed into uniform at the war’s end, in Germany or for the Confederacy? The soldier who never fired his weapon? Or when an army assaults a town or city, its command structure knows without a doubt that civilians will die, even in large numbers. Estimates are that 15,000 French civilians died in the bombing that was preparation for the Normandy landings, nearly 20,000 during the Normandy campaign.

For some, like Greenwald, what one actually knows is a condition of no consequence. However, since Luban always identifies the relevant points of consideration, where reasonable interlocutors might depart in their judgment, the issues are always illuminated, regardless of the judgment he himself makes about them. If one wishes to argue with him – about the issues – one is able to do that in recognition of his honest intellectual engagement with the ideas and the others debating them. One need not resort to denouncing him as a foul defiler of all that is humane. One can, instead, cite the precise points of disagreement and continue argument on them in light of more information or deeper analysis.

Here is Luban on the central issue:

The verdict on Obama turns on the morality of targeted killings themselves. In my view, they are no different in principle from other wartime killings, and they have to be judged by the same standards of necessity and proportionality applied to warfare in general: sometimes they are justified, sometimes not. There are no simple answers.

Luban has certainly equal, if not clearly superior, credentials in expertise to weigh in authoritatively on the subject so that at the very least his judgment might not be simply ignored or morally denounced. Nor does he treat in that manner those who make a different judgment on this central issue, even acknowledging them in response.

Even those who favor the use of law enforcement rather than military action in the struggle against al Qaeda accept that force employed to defend against terrorist attacks is justified when lesser measures don’t work.

In contrast, here is Greenwald on Friday, deploring a Daily Beast video by Daniel Klaidman about the use of drones.

His blithe dismissal of concerns about illegality — as the words of the Fifth Amendment’s due process guarantee flashed on the screen — is nothing but pure ignorance: someone please explain to him that an act of Congress like the AUMF cannot override Constitutional protections.

This is Greenwald ignoring for a count in instances few of us has patience to make the differences between a law enforcement and war frame of the drone campaign. No one perhaps but Greenwald would argue that the presence of an American citizen on a traditional battlefield, with the opposing forces and as a declared enemy of the nation, would require of the commander-in-chief – in contrast to the SPEC who would otherwise pull the trigger – a warrant based on probable cause and an attempt at apprehension.

Greenwald simply will not honor the integrity of opposing views. How little will he honor them?

Consider Glenn Greenwald just yesterday, a player who cannot even take his at bat without edging his foot out of the batter’s box toward first base. So, to turn one of Greenwald’s favorite terms back on him – the “smear” – the very title and subhead of his post are a guilt-by-association smear: “Obama defender Rep. Peter King: Why does one of the House’s most radical right-wing Islamophobes so often find common cause with the President?”

And what is the association? That King endorses some of Obama’s defense policies. Greenwald is the man who all throughout the GOP primary season wrote favorable post tumbling after favorable post about reactionary libertarian Ron Paul, consort, in his works, with anti-Semites and other racists – and then defensively countered with his trademark contempt whenever it was suggested that he was thereby endorsing Ron Paul as a candidate. Here we have not even the parallel of Obama offering positive views of King, but of King offering them of Obama – yet Glenn Greenwald will smear Obama with it.

Salon deserves better, I guess. We all certainly do. It’s a shame.


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