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Does the Navy Undermine our Democracy? (Or, Drone Panic II)

January 29, 2012

Recently, Peter Singer put out a piece arguing that drones might be undermining American democracy. Now, I am no fan of drone alarmism, but what I found most concerning was the piece’s skewed picture of American history – one that is unfortunately shared by many other commentators on foreign policy and military strategy.

IN democracies like ours, there have always been deep bonds between the public and its wars. Citizens have historically participated in decisions to take military action, through their elected representatives, helping to ensure broad support for wars and a willingness to share the costs, both human and economic, of enduring them.

In America, our Constitution explicitly divided the president’s role as commander in chief in war from Congress’s role in declaring war. Yet these links and this division of labor are now under siege as a result of a technology that our founding fathers never could have imagined.

If only that were the case. Unfortunately, like most pieces appealing to the values of America’s founders, it tends to both deify their decisions and attribute to them political opinions more in conformance with those of the author than with the political realities of the time.

The Constitution is not explicit that any kind of warfare must be validated by a Congressional declaration of war. Madison was quite clear that in a case where the United States was defending itself from attack, no declaration of war was necessary. This has been a decision constantly reaffirmed throughout American history, and the debates surrounding the drafting of that portion of the Constitution clearly reveal that the founders saw a distinction between declaring and making war, and explicitly did not require a Congressional declaration for America to make war, only to begin one where no hostile act had initiated it. In other words, beyond continued Congressional approval for whatever financing of the war effort is necessary, there is no requirement for a formal declaration of war for the United States to prosecute one should the war occur in reaction to the commencement of war by a hostile force.

The notion that drones are responsible for the “short-circuiting” of America’s process for going to war is illusory – particularly when the idealized version of warfare Singer describes was never the historical norm for the United States. Very few American wars have been fought with a formal declaration of war, including two of America’s earliest overseas conflicts.

Indeed, America’s flirtation with undeclared wars with broad Congressional mandates is obvious from the very historical existence of the phrase “Quasi-War,” describing US hostilities with France under the Adams administration. There, the US found it sufficient to pass a Congressional measure authorizing naval action against French ships. Lest anyone chalk this up to a mere outlying tendency in US politics, Adams’s political foe, Jefferson, continued and indeed expanded the trend significantly under his own administration.

Thomas Jefferson was eager to prosecute a war against the Barbary pirates, which had amorphous links to recognized political authorities. Yet Jefferson did not seek and Congress did not require a formal declaration of war against an enemy considered to be both hostis humani generis (hostile to all mankind, as most seafaring nations considered pirates) and engaged already in persistent hostilities against American civilian vessels. Congress passed a relatively broad mandate for military force, and Thomas Jefferson’s military proceeded to wage an undeclared war with amorphous boundaries against Islamic unconventional actors, along with the help of private mercenary armies. One can make arguments about why America should not prosecute undeclared wars, fight non-state actors alone, or use privately contracted military forces, but any appeal to the founding fathers is unconvincing at best and a cynical ploy at worst.

To blame drones for the trend of undeclared wars that has existed since America’s earliest years is grossly historically inaccurate. Not only does it completely fail to explain America’s participation in the Quasi-War, Barbary Wars, Indian Wars, and the several formally undeclared wars of the 20th century after World War II, it also fails to explain the conflicts which the United States has begun since drones existed. It is quite difficult to say there are any ongoing military campaigns which began or persist solely because of “risk free” drones. The broad authorization for use of military force which began the War on Terror and its “undeclared” nature has very little to do with drone technology, and more to do with the fact that the United States has never formally declared war on a non-state actor in its history. Even in areas frequently identified with drone warfare, such as the Horn of Africa, Yemen, and Pakistan, non-drone US interference has occurred at varying levels of frequency during the War on Terror. As I have argued before, drones increase operating tempo more than anything else. The risk tolerance that drones supposedly create so far has much less to do with aircraft being unmanned than with the enemies in these conflicts being persistently unable to challenge American air or sea power. Even the ludicrous argument from the Obama administration that Libya was not really a conflict because American soldiers, airmen, and sailors were not at risk was centered on the claim that the enemy had no way of harming the crew of US support aircraft and naval vessels engaged in operations. Not only was the war not initiated or justified primarily on the basis of drone technology, but Libya (a war I opposed) was simply the latest in a long series of wars under which the President mobilized US military forces without prior Congressional approval, dating back to some of the early conflicts with Native Americans, extending through punitive US naval expeditions, the Korean War, Kosovo, among many others). The US Navy has been involved in undeclared, unauthorized interventions for centuries, but unsurprisingly few worry about naval technology dragging us into war.

As uncomfortable as it might make foreign policy commentators (sometimes myself included), the founders always recognized a difference between military operations involving sustained use of land forces and those involving a primarily maritime or over-the-horizon force. This distinction is quite evident in the American Constitution, which as any sea power booster will tell you, stipulates that while an army should only be raised temporarily, Congress must provide and maintain a navy. This distinction has carried throughout American history (Even in the case of the Posse Comitatus Act, only the US Army and Air Force are specifically excluded from intervening in domestic affairs. The United States Navy and Marine Corps are actually only excluded under an internal Department of Defense directive). The American imperative to keep sea lanes flowing freely and protect the sovereign rights of American vessels and citizens overseas has been a much stronger push for American military involvement than drones have been or ever will be.

As I have argued in an earlier post, the number of American wars which we have been in significant part drawn into due to our conception of maritime rights include, and is not limited to, the Quasi-War with France, the Barbary Wars, the War of 1812, very nearly a war with the United Kingdom during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the Tanker War and quite possibly in the future, a war over the Straits of Hormuz with Iran and a war with China over the South China Sea. By any reasonable reckoning, American navalism is a far more politically subversive impetus for belligerence than drone power is now, and I wager, will ever be. American notions of protecting freedom of commerce, freedom of the seas, protecting the “global commons” and preventing anti-access/area denial threats all stem from the effect of naval technology on global and domestic politics. Yet outside of the writings of disgruntled Germans, Frenchmen, and Spaniards, one struggles in vain to see even a fraction of the outcry against a technology and associated legal system which has plunged the United States into far more, and far deadlier wars than drones or even aircraft generally. Novelty, not the actual propensity for bellicosity, seems to guide criticism of US technology in its role in initiating wars.

Singer egregiously sanctifies not just the founders, but also the divisive, manipulative, and often undemocratic process by which Franklin Delano Roosevelt, unintentionally or not, sent the United States on a geopolitical collision course with the Axis Powers during World War II. American entry into World War II only seems like a fair and democratic process retroactively because of the Pearl Habor attacks, when in reality everything leading up to those attacks was deeply controversial and hardly a straightforward model of accountability.

Singer laments:

We don’t have a draft anymore; less than 0.5 percent of Americans over 18 serve in the active-duty military. We do not declare war anymore; the last time Congress actually did so was in 1942 — against Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. We don’t buy war bonds or pay war taxes anymore. During World War II, 85 million Americans purchased war bonds that brought the government $185 billion; in the last decade, we bought none and instead gave the richest 5 percent of Americans a tax break.

This is a romantic but ultimately simplistic view of how American wars during the first half of the twentieth century were waged. The 1940 Selective Service Act was fiercely controversial and passed by a single vote in the House, and mainly with the stipulations that conscripted troops would have limited terms of service and would not be deployed outside of the Western Hemisphere (both so-called isolationists and internationalists supported the draft, but different reasons – the isolationists wanted a deterrent to protect the Western Hemisphere, while the internationalists expected the United States would inevitably join the war and were unwilling to wait for a declaration to begin preparation). Far from uniting the country’s political opinions, there were, as in all other cases of American drafts, strong movements for desertion and significant political dissent.

Aside from the draft, Roosevelt’s use of sanctions, arms deals, and the protection of commerce all antagonized and put the US on a drift to involvement in the conflict and were the subject of fierce political debates. Ultimately, it took a major surprise attack on Pearl Harbor to wipe away the resentment. The America First Committee’s disbanding statement made the sentiment clear:

Our principles were right. Had they been followed, war could have been avoided. No good purpose can now be served by considering what might have been, had our objectives been attained. We are at war. Today, though there may be many important subsidiary considerations, the primary objective is not difficult to state. It can be completely defined in one word: Victory.

America’s entry into World War II and its subsequent declaration of war was not a matter of reasoned debate resulting in some grand national consensus. It was a matter of Roosevelt straining to indirectly support the Allied powers against the Axis, to the fierce resistance of neutralist and even pro-Axis elements of the US body politic, resulting in growing distrust and division about the way forward which only the external act of Japanese aggression was able to resolve. Even then, Congressional control over the waging of war was fairly meaningless once World War II began, and FDR’s control of the decision-making process was incredibly centralized and by no means significantly accountable to the public.

Once we move away from that golden example of World War II, the historical realities become even more uncomfortable. World War I was an even more controversial conflict, and the draft, far from uniting the country and encouraging responsible debate, merely provided the impetus for curtailment of civil liberties and mobilized much of the residual American radical left. As for the Civil War, the calamitous draft riots which swept the country and the incredibly divisive political effects of Lincoln’s prosecution of the war all belie the notion of some grand, accountable process (need we also note that Lincoln first earned his political fame pushing the spot resolutions which questioned the casus belli against Mexico – a war of conquest which received a Singer-approved Congressional stamp?). One can say that the draft perhaps forces a greater degree of political negotiation and deal-cutting between elites during the undertaking of a war, but it is wholly unconvincing to argue that the draft itself was a significant constraint on American belligerence (only on the potential scale of American belligerence).

Today, Joshua Foust is correct to note that the War on Terror itself is the true issue that most alarmist commentary about drones really ought to be addressing. But it is not just the alarmism about the technology which has strong historical precedents, but much of the legal mechanisms which authorize the use of covert and overt military assets in an overseas war. The tradition of undeclared wars against belligerent irregular foes across poorly defined regions is something very familiar to the Founding Fathers. If anything, the covert measures Foust notes are actually products of America’s popular rejection of the “total war” model of warfare that Singer anachronistically praises. The all-volunteer force, private contractors, and sea-deployed small units conducting raids into sovereign countries are products of the US body politic’s rejection of the heavy costs of mass mobilization, but continued interest in responding to actual or perceived threats and slights to broadly conceived notions of America’s international rights – in many respects, it is a return to the Barbary-style of warfare (the tradition of which is reflected in the “Small Wars” era of USMC operations in the early 20th century), where irregular threats did not merit a formal declaration of war and were dealt with without conscription or mass mobilization of the army. There are all sorts of objections we can muster to the War on Terror, but the notion that it is eroding a historical US refusal to engage in undeclared wars or to enter wars without the full consent of the Congress and populace is misleading and unproductive. But a shift to a maritime-centric force, with a robust special operations capability, which seems increasingly codified in the Pentagon’s future plans, is more representative of the actual disconnect in American warmaking. It’s not that drones allow the United States government to begin and prosecute wars in ways it never did before, they merely increase the tempo of operations that already were occurring. The real legal explanation for undeclared American wars lies in the distinction between declaring wars and making war, and the similarly longstanding one between wars conducted through the mass mobilization of armies and those conducted with a Constitutionally approved naval force and its associated components. Focusing on drones plays into traditional outrage against novel technologies and obscures the breadth and historical depth of the debate at hand.

Addendum: Also, funny that people should automatically historically associate Congress with openness and accountability, particularly in the days of the founders. There were frequent closed meetings of both the House of Representatives and the Senate during the founders’ time. All Senate sessions were secret until 1794 and executive sessions were secret until 1929. As for the House, there were frequent secret sessions until 1812. Let’s not give the founders too much credit.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2012 1:18 pm

    Skimming through this, I see you refer to a US-China war over the South China Sea as a future possibility. I view a future US-China war as extremely unlikely (though not of course impossible), for reasons set out in my review of Goldstein’s book.


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