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Obama's drone program escapes liberal scrutiny in campaign

United States Air Force

Liberals had plenty to say about the moral and legal implications of torture, wiretapping and other tools that George W. Bush employed to fight the war on terror. But President Obama’s equally controversial escalation of drone strikes against al-Qaida and Taliban militants in Pakistan has been almost completely absent from presidential politics this year.

“This is a central issue in American foreign policy, it is vital to the way in which the United States responds in the short term to potential terrorist threats, and to the long term nature of the U.S. response, as well as the legal framework that will control—or not—drone use by other countries,” said James Cavallaro, a law professor at Stanford University who co-authored “Living Under Drones,” a study analyzing the impact of the strikes on civilians in Pakistan.  “It should have been an issue that was debated much more robustly and it warrants much greater attention by the presidential candidates.”

Voices that may have been eager to jump on the issue four years ago are hesitant to criticize a Democratic president, one who has worked to erase the Republican Party’s longstanding national security advantage. Cavallaro put it this way: “It’s curious at least that many who have spoken out about suspect national security policy in the last administration have chosen not to do so in the past few years.”

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, is one of the only vocal opponents of drone policy in Congress.  “Parties are always about supporting their own first, in everything,” Kucinich said. “What you have is a new pseudo philosophy of national security which is devoid of constitutional underpinnings, sweeps aside international law and is morally depraved. There is no defense, there is no justification, there’s just no debate.”

Kucinich recently delivered a letter to Obama, signed by 25 other members, including Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, demanding legal justification for “signature drone strikes,” where the identity of the targets is unknown.   

The absence of the subject from the campaign stems from a number of factors. The drone program has a low profile among most voters, who are concerned most this year with the state of their pocketbooks. It costs the United States little in blood and treasure, and the precise details of drone use are scant.

The Obama administration has undertaken approximately 300 drone strikes in Pakistan. Some estimates put the number of civilian casualties as high as 800; the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London says 176 children have been killed in Pakistan.

There is an argument to be made that drones are the lesser of many evils when it comes to targeting terrorists. Research done by Avery Plaw, a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, makes the case that drone strikes are the best means available and result in fewer civilian casualties than other methods.

Still, civilian casualties have stirred powerful anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and Yemen, becoming an effective recruiting mechanism for terrorist groups; last year, an American citizen, teenager Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was taken out in a drone strike without a trial. Some analysts worry as well that the program could set a precedent for other countries to launch drone attacks in nations they are not at war with, just as the United States has.

In addition, the Obama administration has also recently taken to counting all military-age males within a strike zone as “a combatant” and expanded the so-called “kill list” of terrorist targets.

Many political observers expected Obama to be quizzed about his drone program during the foreign policy debate Oct. 22. But instead moderator Bob Schieffer merely asked Republican Mitt Romney what he thought about drones. “I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology and believe that we should continue to use it to continue to go after the people who represent a threat to this nation and to our friends,” Romney said.

And then it was on to China.

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