In a tumultuous U.S. presidential campaign season, it is easy to conclude that the U.S. is hopelessly polarized between a proto-fascism and a proto-communism. But while there may be some truth to that observation with respect to immigration and economic policy, it is worth noting that the presidential candidates of both parties agree on many issues of foreign policy, even those that are controversial among international lawyers.
For instance, it is worth noting that all of the presidential candidates support the current U.S. program of drone strikes against Al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorists.
From a legal perspective, the U.S. program of lethal drone missile strikes against ISIS and Al Qaeda terrorist targets is controversial. Not only is the domestic legal authority to strike at ISIS targets under the September 11, 2001 authorization for the use of military force questionable, but the international legality of such strikes in countries such as Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, and Libya is uncertain because none of those four countries have explicitly given consent to such strikes. More significantly, legal critics of the drone program have questioned whether its use complies with the proportionality and other requirements of international humanitarian law due to the number of civilian casualties injured or killed in such strikes.
All of these legal criticisms are plausible, but none of the remaining U.S. presidential candidates are seriously troubled by these criticisms. None have pledged, for instance, to seek an additional authorization for the use of force from Congress to clarify the legal authority for such strikes against ISIS. None have suggested they would cut back or eliminate the program in any meaningful way.
Both of the remaining Democratic presidential candidates, for instance, have publicly expressed support for the program as it is currently being implemented. Hillary Clinton, as might be expected from a former Obama administration cabinet member, has endorsed such strikes on both a policy and legal basis. But so has her chief Democratic rival Bernie Sanders:
In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press scheduled for broadcast on Sunday, host Chuck Todd asked the independent senator from Vermont if drones or special forces would play a role in his counter-terror plans.
“All of that and more,” Sanders said.
Asked to clarify, he added: “Look, a drone is a weapon. When it works badly, it is terrible and it is counterproductive. When you blow up a facility or a building which kills women and children, you know what? … It’s terrible.”
Todd asked Sanders: “But you’re comfortable with the idea of using drones if you think you’ve isolated an important terrorist?”
Sanders answered: “Yes.”
Indeed, there has arguably been more criticism of the drone program from the Republican presidential candidates, although that criticism is largely that the program doesn’t go far enough.
Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has not specifically addressed the drone program (surprise, surprise!). But Trump has famously called for counter-terrorism activities worse than torture, including the deliberate killing of terrorists’ families (presumably through drone strikes). Although Trump has partially reversed himself in a recent statement pledging to comply with all U.S. “laws and treaties” relevant to counterterrorism operations, none of this suggests he is going to cut back. (But this is Donald Trump, so who the hell knows!)
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, currently Trump’s main rival, has been primarily concerned with limiting or prohibiting the use of drone strikes against U.S. citizens. Cruz, and has sponsored legislation to prohibit drone strikes on U.S. citizens on U.S. soil (with one exception).
Senator Marco Rubio, currently in third place, has also sponsored legislation to require independent review of drone strikes against U.S. citizens. Governor John Kasich, the last remaining GOP candidate, has proposed shifting drone strikes away from the CIA to the military. This last proposal may be the most significant drone reform proposal on the table from any of the remaining candidates. (Kasich is in fourth place on the Republican side).
So who says Americans can’t agree on anything anymore. The U.S. public, and its leading presidential candidates, want drone strikes to continue. All seem to feel like the current drone program is legal under U.S. and international law. (I should hasten to add that I agree with them on the legal point, although I do think there are many reasonable questions about the program.) In any event, for U.S. presidential candidates, the only question is whether to do more, not less.