Rand Paul declared victory Thursday when his 13-hour filibuster forced Attorney General Eric Holder to answer his question of whether the government can kill by drone an American citizen not engaged in combat on American soil. ("The answer to that question is no," Holder said.) On Fox News, Paul celebrated, literally saying, "Hurray!" John Brennan was confirmed as CIA chief. But Paul's victory is small. His question was quite narrow, a hypothetical about American droning a civilian in Starbucks. But the reason people should be nervous about drones is because of a real thing that is actually happening. Drones ease the expansion of our permanent post-9/11 war into countries that we're not officially at war with. Those countries include Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan.
As MSNBC's Rachel Maddow has explained, the thing that drones use to kill people -- Hellfire missiles -- are not new. (At right is the Air Force unveiling a drone in 1960; at lower left is a drone used in Albania in 1995.) Hellfire missiles are not more deadly when launched by drones than they are when launched by helicopters. What is new is using these war weapons in countries whose governments we are not warring with. We are droning people who aren't shooting at us at the moment we drone them. Paul hinted that he was worried about this. In an interview Thursday with Rush Limbaugh, Paul said the Obama administration's justification for drone strikes holds that "an imminent threat doesn't have to be an immediate threat, and then there are these pictures of people being killed around the world who are not engaged in combat..." But a huge number of Americans support droning people overseas -- 74 percent of the public, according to Fox News, and 80 percent of Republicans. So Paul brought it home again. "I just don't think that standard can be used here at home."
The question of who is an imminent threat -- an enemy combatant -- is an important one. But it's a lessing pressing question at the hypothetical Starbucks in Houston Paul imagine than very real places in North African and the Persian Gulf. The New Yorker's Steve Coll writes that when Obama took office, he dumped George W. Bush's Orwellian "Global War on Terror" for a war against al Qaeda and "associated forces." At this point the core of Al Qaeda could now be as small as less than 100 people hiding in Pakistan. But local groups around the globe have adopted the name, and the White House explains its policies as fighting al Qaeda "franchises." Coll writes:
What’s in a name? Of the several wars that Obama inherited, the war against Al Qaeda is the only one that he has not promised to end. The conflict presents a problem of definition: as long as there are bands of violent Islamic radicals anywhere in the world who find it attractive to call themselves Al Qaeda, a formal state of war may exist between Al Qaeda and America. The Hundred Years War could seem a brief skirmish in comparison.
Paul skillfully got the attention of tweeters and Limbaugh with visions of Obama droning Americans with relatives in the Middle East or "people who like to pay in cash, people who have weatherized ammunition, and more than seven days of food." But even in his post-filibuster victory lap, Paul hinted he had concerns with the larger war on terror. "I think there's some debatable things overseas," he said.
Despite his political skills, you can see Paul struggling to balance what conservative voters want with what the bigger problem with World War Drone. When Paul talked about Anwar al Awlaki, the American killed by drone in Yemen in 2011, he was careful not to sound like a sissy terrorist coddler:
Overseas, my preference with al-Awlaki would be to have a fairly expeditious trial for treason. Not one with multiple appeals. One at the highest court level and then I would do the drone strike after convicting him of treason.
Yes, that makes lots of sense. First a trial in the U.S. criminal justice system that doesn't follow the rules of the U.S. criminal justice system, and then a cool ass-kicking drone. But this is how a Republican senator from Kentucky elected in 2010 has to sell an anti-drone campaign to a guy like Rush Limbaugh. Assert your anti-terrorist bona fides, and then float the idea of drones in the hands of someone even worse than Obama: "I am worried about them doing surveillance without warrants, flying over my farm, watching where I hunt, things like that. Looking at my farmland with the EPA, there's all kinds of potential abuses, but it's not the technology."