Good Reads: a few tips about how to stay off Obama's 'kill list'

This week's best reads include an investigation into how the Obama administration chooses targets for drone attack, a stirring defense of dictator intelligence, and a scientific explanation of optimism.

Courtesy of Lt Col Leslie Pratt/U.S. Air Force/Reuters
Undated image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force shows a MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft, also known as a drone.

Obama’s ‘kill list’

Few weapons have changed the nature of warfare in recent years as much as the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, also known as a drone. Virtually unheard of a decade ago, it has become the weapon of choice for the Obama administration, both for surveillance of suspected terrorists and for their elimination.

The New York Times’ Jo Becker and Scott Shane have written a lengthy investigative piece, backed up with interviews of current and former Obama administration officials, looking into the legality and the many uses of drones and how the Obama administration learned to love the drone. Whether drones make the world safer, of course, depends on your definition of safe. But for now, much of the debate centers on whether drone use is legally or morally defensible.

Fans of this article have pointed out how the White House team decides who is a “legitimate target,” and the article says Obama’s legal team “… in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants….”

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

Foreign policy consensus

For all their controversy in intellectual circles, drones will not be a major campaign issue in the upcoming fall elections. Sure, we’ll hear that one candidate would likely hand the keys to the country over to The Enemy, or that another candidate secretly dreams of kicking off the End Times by bombing a Middle Eastern country. But when it comes to foreign policy or military issues, Americans just aren’t that into them.

Truth be told, America’s ambivalence on foreign policy issues is mirrored in the attitudes of its politicians in Washington. Congress may have difficulty passing budgets from this president, and Mr. Obama may have difficulty ordering breakfast without thunderous criticism – French toast? Really? – but when it comes to foreign policy, there really isn’t much difference between Republicans and Democrats, according to a study by Joshua Busby, Jonathan Monten, and William Inboden in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.

In a survey of Republicans and Democrats who have served in the White House, there was broad agreement over some of the most contentious issues of the past decade, including multilateralism, nuclear nonproliferation, and human rights. The differences came down to just how to carry out these basic principles.

As the authors say, this broad consensus is positive for the US.

…even on areas with significant partisan difference, ideological orientation need not result in acrimony and policy paralysis. Vigorous partisan debate can improve the quality of policy by restraining overreach by each side, injecting new ideas into the debate, and helping the United States drive a better bargain on the international stage.

Dictator’s learning curve

It’s been noted, in this column and elsewhere, that the past two years have not been kind to dictators. Street protests, cellphones, Facebook, Sacha Baron Cohen, and well-armed rebel groups have made the world a much less caring place for the likes of Muammar Qaddafi et al.

But Christian Caryl, in this week’s Foreign Policy magazine, says it’s too early to write off dictators, just because of the missteps of a few. In a review of Will Dobson’s new book, “The Dictator’s Learning Curve,” Mr. Caryl says dictators are not as loopy as they look.

The key message that emerges from Dobson's investigations is that today's autocrats are not idiots. They have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. Putin is not Stalin, and Hu Jintao is not Mao Zedong. In many cases, Dobson writes, modern dictators understand that it's in their interest to observe the appearance of democratic norms even while they're subverting them.

Optimism explained

The late columnist and self-described cynic H. L. Mencken once wrote that an optimist is “simply a pessimist with no job experience.” Scientists have long thought that predisposition to look positively or negatively on the world depended on experience, and could be tied up with the human instinct for survival.

But if your world view is starting to sour – either because of electoral politics, or strained loyalties for an absolutely hopeless baseball team – take a quick look at an interview with Elaine Fox, author of “Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain,” by the New Scientist’s contributor Catherine de Lange. Clearly, optimists and pessimists see the world through different eyes, Ms. Fox says, with the former overlooking negative signals around them and pessimists obsessing about those same signals.

Here’s one trait that could be either powerful or useless, depending on your perspective: Optimists are more persistent.

Lab based research does show that optimistic people are more persistent, [Ms. Fox says in the interview.] In one study, people were rated on their level of pessimism or optimism and then were given anagrams to do, some of which were impossible. People who were optimistic stayed significantly longer trying to do the impossible anagrams - so they didn’t give up - that’s good experimental evidence.

An optimist who doesn’t give up: there’s something to give one hope.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.