There's a conventional wisdom in Washington that there's nothing we can do politically to stop the U.S. government from killing innocent civilians with drone strikes.
But it ain't necessarily so.
Speaking only for myself, I'm willing to stipulate that killing "high value terrorists" who are known to be actively preparing to kill Americans is wildly popular, regardless of whether it is constitutional and legal.
Here's what's not wildly popular: killing innocent civilians.
This is not a liberal vs. conservative issue. This is an American issue. Go to the reddest of Red America. Stand outside a megachurch or military base in the Deep South. Find me twelve Christian Republicans who are willing to sign their names that they want the U.S. government to kill innocent civilians. I bet you can't do it. Killing innocent civilians is un-American.
Consider: after what widely reported news event did even Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum say maybe we ought to get our troops out of Afghanistan? After it was reported that a U.S. soldier massacred Afghan civilians.
The historian Howard Zinn suggested that it's a backhanded compliment to the American people that our government lies to us about what it's doing in other people's countries. Because it suggests that if the American people knew, they would never stand for it.
Thanks to a New York Times report this week, we now know. In an echo of the Colombian military's "false positives" scandal, our government is killing people with drone strikes and then decreeing that "military age men" killed by U.S. drone strikes are automatically "combatants." Born a chicken, raised a chicken, now you're a fish.
Some senior U.S. officials are quite unhappy about this, the Times reports.
The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it "guilt by association" that has led to "deceptive" estimates of civilian casualties.
"It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants," the official said. "They count the corpses and they're not really sure who they are."
So what is producing this conventional wisdom that there's nothing we can do?
A key determinant is what Members of Congress are willing to say and do. If you can't get twelve Members of Congress to say "boo" about something, then the conventional wisdom says it's not an issue.
Well, that just changed. Thirteen Members of Congress are willing to say "boo". Here they are: Dennis Kucinich, John Conyers, Rush Holt, Jesse Jackson, Jr., Maurice Hinchey, Charlie Rangel, Pete Stark, Mike Honda, Raul Grijalva, Bob Filner, Barbara Lee, Jim McGovern, and Lynn Woolsey.
These thirteen Members of Congress - who, one hopes, will soon be joined by others - have signed a letter to the Administration demanding that the Administration come clean with Congress and the American people about its drone strike policy, particularly concerning civilian casualties and so-called "signature strikes" that target unknown people.
This Congressional letter is being supported by the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, Amnesty International, and other groups who don't want the U.S. government to kill innocent civilians.
If ten thousand Americans would write to their Members of Congress, urging them to sign the Kucinich-Conyers letter, we could get forty Members of Congress to sign it. If we could get forty Members of Congress to sign it, the beltway media would report that Members of Congress are complaining about civilian deaths from drone strikes. If we could get the beltway media to report that Members of Congress are complaining about civilian deaths from drone strikes, the conventional wisdom that there's nothing we can do politically about civilian deaths from drone strikes would be dead.
Sometimes mate in five starts with a pawn move.
As Stephen Colbert put it,
"The administration has developed a brilliant system of ensuring that those building engulfing explosions don't kill non-combatants: they just count all military age males in a strike zone as combatants...This isn't just the president executing innocent people around the world by fiat, there is an appeals process. The men are considered terrorists unless 'there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent,' in which case, I assume, there is a legal process that un-kills them."
Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy. Naiman has worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. He has masters degrees in economics and mathematics from the University of Illinois and has studied and worked in the Middle East. You can contact him here.