While it may be true that President Obama’s favorite theologian is Reinhold Niebuhr, I wonder if the president has been reading Niebuhr much lately. I ask this because a recently published report jointly conducted by the Standford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic (IHRCRC) and the Global Justice Clinic (GJC) at NYU Law School makes startling claims about the effectiveness and implications of our drone strike policy in Pakistan. Our drone strikes, contrary to the Obama administrations claims, are not surgical and precise, killing or injuring over a thousand civilians and terrorizing the daily lives of thousands more.
Despite the harrowing details of this report and its implications, the Obama administration is reportedly considering new drone strikes in North Africa. We must begin to ask the question how much are we really willing to do “secure our freedom.” An innocent nation, as American mythology purports itself to be, cannot turn a blind eye to the damage done by policies that maim and kill civilians, whether intentional or not.
This is where Reinhold Niebuhr comes in. His Christian Realism denies the possibilities of utopian idealism and refuses to allow us to revel in our comfortable myths about our inherent goodness and innocence. For Niebuhr, Americans must be willing to engage and acknowledge the moral guilt that comes with using our vast power to attend to our global responsibilities.
Niebuhr wrote this in 1952 concerning our global responsibilities in the Cold War, but it is equally applicable now:
Our American nation, involved in its vast responsibilities, must slough off many illusions which were derived both from the experiences and the ideologies of its childhood. Otherwise either we will seek escape from responsibilities which involve unavoidable guilt, or we will be plunged into avoidable guilt by too great confidence in our virtue. (The Irony of American History, p42)
The ironic question before us is not whether we should feel guilty about the unintended consequences of our drone policy, but whether our guilt falls under the category of unavoidable guilt or the category of avoidable guilt born by our own arrogance. At the very least, we ought to have a public discussion about this. Too bad it probably will not come up in the presidential debates.