Senator Rand Paul is taking the kind of gutsy move that is almost never seen in today's GOP, which has routinely elevated militarism above common sense. His decision to filibuster John Brennan's nomination to head the CIA is right-on. Brennan is a slippery character who has oiled his way up both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. His answers about his knowledge of CIA torture during the Bush administration were evasive and unconvincing and his nomination should never be approved. Now Paul is calling him out on the administration's secret drone war policy in particular and its contempt for civil liberties in general.
To his credit, Paul is doing it the right way. The Senate has gotten lazy about filibusters, which is to say that Senators aren't required to talk continuously to maintain one. This is a reform that Sen. Harry Reid should have insisted on in his negotiations with the GOP. He didn't. Paul, however, says "I will speak until I can no longer speak." That Americans, he said, could be assassinated by a drone sitting in a cafe in San Francisco is an "abomination." Strong words. But they are also merited. Paul's defense of the constitutional rights of Americans is stirring and admirable.
The kinds of questions that Paul is raising about the drone program have not been aired enough on the floor of the Senate. Who is to say that the drone program won't rebound on America? Will our leaders be targeted by them? Will drones be used in American airspace to kill civilians? Isn't the cost of drones higher than the reward? Are we simply stirring up more enmity in the Muslim world by wantonly killing civilians as well as terrorists?
It's easy to see why the antiseptic drone program appeals to American officials. As Andrew J. Bacevich has argued, Americans have become enamoured of air power and the notion that warfare can be conducted like a video game. The drone program is the quintessence of that ethos. With a push of a button, officials can take out someone that they believe is plotting against America. But the easiness with which they are making these decisions is redolent of former vice Dick Cheney's contempt for democratic procedures. As Maureen Dowd points out in today's New York Times, the hideous Cheney doesn't even maintain the fiction in the new documentary about him called The World According to Dick Cheney that Bush was in charge during the first term. In the Obama White House it's clear that the president, who has constructed a national security team that he tightly controls, is in charge. But the secrecy that surrounds the drone program suggests that the Obama White House may not be all that different from the Bush one when it comes to the war on terrorism.
So far, Obama has pretty much gotten a pass. But the Brennan nomination suggests the extent to which Obama has become entangled in a secretive world that may be better at protecting its own perks and prerogatives than American security. "Where is the Barack Obama of 2007," Rand Paul pointedly asked. He is setting himself up, Paul said, to become "executioner-in-chief." Obama may be undermining the very liberties he purports to be protecting. No one person, Paul noted, should, willy-nilly, have the power to order the death of an American citizen.
Paul's protest will probably prove to be an ineffective one, at least when it comes to blocking Brennan. But he is laying down a marker as an independent-minded conservative who will not simply go along with the claustrophobic party line on national security. "If there were an ounce of courage in this body, I would be joined by many other senators. Are we going to give up our rights to politicians?" For an answer to that question perhaps he need look no further than the cover of the current National Interest, which features a cover story by his fellow Senator James Webb on congressional abdication over foreign affairs.