Jeh Johnson, Drone War, and the Tipping Point

DOD General Counsel Jeh Johnson

by Todd Jackson

The Nov. 30 speech given by Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson at Oxford Union in Britain was meant to head off rising concern with the Obama Administration’s sharply increased use of drone warfare as part of the War on Terror. That worldwide concern was blunted during the long election season, largely because the world wanted Obama to win. Now that the election is over, the world wants something for its Nobel Prize.

Johnson offered a painfully defensive speech. Ostensibly concerned with “The Conflict Against Al Qaeda and its Affiliates: How Will It End?,” Johnson proceeded into long-winded meanderings about how his British host should feel good about themselves, and how while they’re feeling good about themselves they should feel good about us, too. We learn that “the British hospital I visited at Camp Bastion was first-rate and amazing.” We learn how our military has proved its virtuousness by dropping “enhanced interrogation techniques” and the “don’t ask don’t tell” rule.

Concerning the final end to this hostility, Johnson offered

In the current conflict with al Qaeda, I can offer no prediction about when this conflict will end, or whether we are, as Winston Churchill described it, near the “beginning of the end.”

I do believe that on the present course, there will come a tipping point – a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al Qaeda and its affiliates have been killed or captured, and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States, such that al Qaeda as we know it, the organization that our Congress authorized the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed.

This part of the speech, where it could be said that Johnson finally gets to the point of the matter, has raised many questions. Jack Goldsmith at Lawfare notes

Johnson seems to be saying – consistent with Obama administration filings in habeas cases, and what we know about the administration’s legal justification for targeted killings outside Afghanistan – that the AUMF authorizes an armed conflict against a single “group,” al Qaeda and associated forces, and the armed conflict does not end until it ends against that entire group. The references to “associated forces” are thus very important qualifications

The uncertainty of the “associated forces” definition is especially important since Johnson firmly reiterates American military policy that

Our enemy does not include anyone solely in the category of activist, journalist, or propagandist.

Nor does our enemy in this armed conflict include a “lone wolf” who, inspired by al Qaeda’s ideology, self-radicalizes in the basement of his own home, without ever actually becoming part of al Qaeda. Such persons are dangerous, but are a matter for civilian law enforcement, not the military, because they are not part of the enemy force.

These identities are permeable to the point of nonexistence, covering over a crisis in which American forces cannot ever truly know who the enemy is or isn’t. A Major Abdul Hassan or our various shoe/van/underwear bombers seem most clearly both: “associate” and “lone wolf.” American policy cannot seriously draw the line at those men who actually stood in rows and did jumping jacks at a camp paid for by Osama bin Laden.

If it could do so, the drones most certainly can’t. Without any clear idea who we’re fighting, even vague promises about a “tipping point” vanish into smoke.

The drones have other liabilities. It turns out that they’re not very good at accurately discerning between Al Qaedists, “associates,” “lone wolves,” and “people milling around minding their own business.”

There are, of course, plenty of images from the impact site, but we don’t see them on our evening news.









When General Counsel Johnson speaks, it is of our accuracy, and of matters of perfection and imperfection.

Johnson BBC interview excerpt

Certainly, one way to proceed, and a time-honored American approach, would be to become truly perfect. No one except the target killed, ever. We could begin with Mars Curiosity, make it insect-sized, give it mosquito wings and a dose of lethal poison. The boy in the above image got caught up in the blast. When his turn comes, his grandson presumably won’t be so inconvenienced. He’ll sit calmly and peacefully while, beside him, Grandpa keels over face-first in the hummus. We will have become perfect.

The object of drone warfare is not simply to pint-point targeted terrorists, but to target them without the personal involvement of American troops on the ground. It is therefore a form of warfare in which, it is to be presumed, none of our own troops will ever be killed or injured. The absence of US troops on the ground further translates into an absence of media coverage in the US. This makes drone warfare that much more attractive to American Commanders in Chief, whatever their political leaning.

Such a war, it is feared, can be indefinite for the combatant with the drones. It can proceed as though on automatic, outside any particular objective, as long as someone is still making drones. This is the concern Jeh Johnson addressed at Oxford. It is a concern in all the expected places: the BBC, and Europe generally; the Muslim world, included its spokesmen in the Western media and academic establishment; the domestic left. But there is a tide of disaffection on the right as well.

The neoconservative vision was – it is time to say, was – of Muslims remade into responsible small-r republicans running countries where schoolgirls don’t have acid thrown in their faces, and schoolboys aren’t raised chanting while strapped with plastic dynamite belts. All of which was supposed to happen at little cost in blood and treasure; we would train local Muslim armies, whose soldiers would fire on the Al-Qaedists, not us. The neocon vision still retains operative control in the Republican Party, at Fox News, and at National Review. Weekly Standard, well that goes without saying. It holds its own on the radio. However, the Tea Party was never excited about the “New World Order.” The Ron Paul movement, and libertarianism generally, have always been contemptuous of it. So, differently but just as firmly, have Patrick Buchanan and the paleoconservative wing, as well as every right-wing fringe movement whose hits have spiked since the reelection. Together, the Nays represent the most vital parts of the conservative base.

It has not gone unnoticed that those drones have become a feature of American skies as well. Maybe Johnson’s speech should not have concerned with when the drone war will end, but where.

drone attack

Gracefully overhead, they can observe us as we go about our daily business, or if preferred, they can read our heat imprints through our walls. The goal is to make the public more secure.

The drone in the above image is quite obviously armed. Domestic drones currently are not.