In preparation for tonight’s town hall-style debate at Hofstra University, CNN’s Candy Crowley has been choosing questions from the undecided voters who’ll attend the event. The contending questions are likely heavy on the stuff that everyone’s talking about, such as jobs, the economy, health care. Yet if Crowley finds one on drones, she should stick it in the rotation. If she doesn’t, go rogue!
A drone inquiry would veer the country from the topical cow path that the media and the campaigns have trampled for months. In the Republican primary debates, drones were genuinely stealth devices. An analysis by NYU’s Studio 20 and the Guardian newspaper of 20 Republican debates through Feb. 16 found that the sessions posed some 839 questions. A total of four questions mentioned drones, according to Nadja Popovich, who assisted in the study.
Topics that are not up for debate in this election: Torture, civil liberties, misuse of filibuster, drones, and so much else.— Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor) October 15, 2012
Not a single one of those questions took on the morality or the prudence of launching fatal missile attacks on overseas targets that claim the lives of noncombatants/civilians/innocent people. Here are the questions cited by Popovich:
1) “Senator Santorum you said Monday president Obama has made the country less safe and his policies have made America’s enemies less fearful and less respectful of us. But when it comes to going after terrorists for example, drone attacks in Pakistan have more than tripled under president Obama, he sent 30,000 more US troops into Afghanistan last year and he just authorized — as we talked about — this mission to kill Bin Laden. How much more aggressive could he be?” — Brett Baier, MAY 5, 2011 | FOX SOUTH CAROLINA DEBATE
2) “We have time, governor. But are the Pakistanis — comfortable with our using drones?” — Scott Pelley to Romney, November 12, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Spartanburg, South Carolina
3) “I’m Fred Kagan, resident scholar and director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. And my question is, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was obviously an important success in the struggle against al-Qaeda, although it also drove U.S. relations with Pakistan into a new low. Do you think that an expanded drone campaign in Pakistan would be sufficient to defeat al-Qaeda and to secure our interests in Pakistan?” BLITZER: “Governor Huntsman?” — audience question, November 22nd, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C.
4) “Governor Romney, this week President Obama said the U.S. asked Iran to give our downed high-tech drone back. As you know, the Iranians have it on display. They claim they are extracting data from it and they have no intention of giving it back. Yesterday you called the president’s response, quote, ‘extraordinarily weak and timid.’ Now in your book you write, quote, ‘weakness invites challenges, acts of intimidation, acts of aggression, and sometimes war.’ So in this case, are President Obama’s actions inviting war?” — Bret Baier, December 15, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Sioux City, Iowa
Note the assumptions underpinning these questions — that drone attacks are a standard and unquestioned resource in the U.S. fight against extremism and terrorism. Perhaps that’s the reason that drones didn’t occupy a central place in the primary debates — there’s not much here to debate!
The October clashes thus far have scarcely had a chance to address drone strikes. The first debate, after all, stuck to domestic issues, and the vice-presidential version had to cram everything into a single 90-minute session. Don’t be surprised, though, if the remaining two sessions don’t graze this crucial topic.
Blame for the likely omission rests with the Doctrine of Shared-View Omission. Or at least that’s what I’m calling the dynamic identified by Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald in a recent piece. Greenwald lashed out at the claim made by moderator Martha Raddatz in the vice-presidential debate that Iran represents a major national security issue for the United States. That’s a bogosity to which both parties hold firm, according to Greenwald — and so no mainstream media person will see fit to challenge it. “[O]ne of the most strictly enforced taboos in establishment journalism is the prohibition on aggressively challenging those views that are shared by the two parties. Doing that makes one fringe, unserious and radical: the opposite of solemn objectivity,” writes Greenwald.
Drones fit into this model as comfortably as the pressing danger posed by Iran. Look at the positions of the presidential contenders on drones: The Obama administration, as detailed in this deep New York Times piece, counts on drone strikes as a cornerstone of its anti-terrorism efforts. Targeted killings, says Brookings Institution scholar and Lawfare editor in chief Ben Wittes, are “one of the principal national security legacies of this administration.”
As for Romney? When I asked campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul about the candidate’s position on drones, she directed me to a survey published by the New York Times back in December. Among other questions, the survey asked:
Under what circumstances, if any, would the Constitution permit the president to authorize the targeted killing of a United States citizen who has not been sentenced to death by a court?
That question referenced the drone program’s killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born “Qaeda propagandist” who, in the words of the Times, was “hiding in Yemen” and “had recently risen to prominence and had taunted the president by name in some of his online screeds.”
Candidate Romney responded to the question this way:
“All U.S. citizens enjoy due process and habeas corpus rights under the Constitution. Due process permits the use of deadly force against all enemy combatants, including citizens, who engage in acts of war against the United States on behalf of an enemy of the United States. U.S. citizens have no right to affiliate themselves with al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups plotting attacks against our country from foreign shores.
“As president, my top priority would be to protect the American people from all of our nation’s terrorist enemies, whatever their citizenship or country of origin. My preference would be to capture, interrogate, and prosecute any U.S. citizen who has engaged in acts of war against the United States. But if necessary to defend the country, I would be willing to authorize the use of lethal force.”
Is there a single strand differentiating that position from the president’s position? Wittes wrote recently — along with co-author Ritika Singh — that the two parties have come together on counterterrorism policy. “There’s a convergence that parties don’t like to acknowledge,” Wittes, a defender of drones as instruments of warfare, tells this blog. “Nowhere is it more true than in targeted killings and drones.”
The two sides have little interest in bringing up drones on their own, either. Ben Swann, a reporter at the Cincinnati Fox affiliate WXIX, pressed President Obama on his “kill list” in early September, an interview that created an Internet stir. Ideological warfare, suggests Swann, explains why drone warfare gets short shrift. “If it were any other Republican president, then the left-[wing] media would call him out for it, but it won’t say anything about it because [Obama’s] their guy,” says Swann. “The right-wing won’t say anything about it because it makes Obama look strong.”
Now there’s a conspiracy.
And one that could be undone with a well-turned question on debate night. If nothing else, a drone question would take the campaign off of its rhetorical droning problem, in which the candidates repeat the same lines about the same issues. What’s the likelihood that the remaining debates will plow new ground on taxes and health care?
Ask Obama how he justifies the civilian casualties caused by the attacks. Ask Romney if he’d intensify, maintain or ramp down the Obama administration’s targeted-killing campaign. In either case, the responses would likely break news.