Opinion: Paul filibuster was act of political genius

March 16, 2013


— In choice of both topic and foil, Rand Paul’s now legendary Senate filibuster was a stroke of political genius. The topic was, ostensibly, very narrow: Does the president have the constitutional authority to put a drone-launched Hellfire missile through your kitchen — you, a good citizen of Topeka to whom POTUS might have taken a dislike — while you’re cooking up a pot roast?

The constituency of those who could not give this question a straight answer is exceedingly small. Unfortunately, among them is Attorney General Eric Holder. Enter the foil. He told a Senate hearing that such an execution would not be “appropriate.”

Appropriate being a bureaucratic word meaning nothing, Holder’s answer was a PR disaster. The correct response, of course, is: Absent an active civil war on U.S. soil (of the kind not seen in 150 years) or a jihadist invasion from Saskatchewan led by the Topeka pot roaster, the answer is no.

The hypothetical being inconceivable, Paul’s performance was both theatrically brilliant and substantively irrelevant. As for the principle at stake, Holder’s opinion carries no weight in any case. He is hardly a great attorney general whose words will ring through history. Nor would anything any attorney general says be binding on the next president, or for that matter on any Congress or court. 

The vexing and pressing issue is the use of drones abroad. The filibuster pretended not to be about that. Which is testimony to Paul’s political adroitness. It was not until two days later that he showed his hand, writing in The Washington Post, “No American should be killed by a drone without first being charged with a crime.” Note the absence of the restrictive clause: “on American soil.”

Now we’re talking about a larger, more controversial issue: the killing by drone in Yemen of al-Qaida operative Anwar al-Awlaki. Outside American soil, the Constitution does not rule, no matter how much Paul would like it to. Yet Paul’s unease applies to non-American drone targets as well. His quarrel is with the very notion of the war on terror, though he is normally too smart to say that openly and unequivocally. Unlike his father, who implied that 9/11 was payback for our sins, Paul the Younger more gingerly expresses general skepticism about not just the efficacy but the legality of the entire war.

That skepticism is finding an audience as the war grinds into its 12th year, as our hapless attorney general vainly tries to define its terms and as the administration conducts a major drone war with defiant secrecy. Nor is this some minor adjunct to battle — an estimated 4,700 have been killed by drone.

George W. Bush was excoriated for waterboarding exactly three terrorists, all of whom are now enjoying an extensive retirement on a sunny Caribbean island (though strolls beyond Gitmo’s gates are prohibited). Whereas President Obama, with thousands of kills to his name, evokes little protest from yesterday’s touch-not-a-hair-on-their-head zealots. Of whom, of course, Sen. Obama was a leading propagandist.

Such hypocrisy is the homage Democrats pay to Republicans when the former take office, confront national security reality, feel the weight of their duty to protect the nation — and end up doing almost everything they had denounced their predecessors for doing. The beauty of such hypocrisy, however, is that the rotation of power creates a natural bipartisan consensus on the proper conduct of this war.

Which creates a unique opportunity to finally codify the rules. The war’s constitutional charter, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) has proved quite serviceable. But the commander-in-chief’s authority is so broad — it leaves the limits of his power to be determined, often in secret memos, by the administration’s own in-house lawyers — that it has spawned suspicion, fear and now filibuster.

It is time to rethink. That means not repealing the original AUMF but, using the lessons of the last 12 years, rewriting it with particular attention to a new code governing drone warfare and the question of where, when and against whom it should be permitted.

Necessity having led the Bush and Obama administrations to the use of near-identical weapons and tactics, a national consensus has been forged. Let’s make it open. All we need now is a president willing to lead and a Congress willing to take responsibility for the conduct of a war that, however much Paul and his acolytes may wish it away, will long be with us.

— Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


ThePilgrim 5 years, 1 month ago

Genius. This is what we expect Congress to do - have a debate. Ask the tough questions. Rand Paul asked questions about the scope of this war, extent of Pres power, can drones be used over here. While some of it was theater, and very entertaining and relevant, these were all good questions. Even his question on "who does the US gov't see as a domestic terrorist?" Answer - most of his constituents. Law enforcement is using drones now. Fed agencies are using drones now. Strapping a bomb or missile on there is no problem. We are already there.I agree that let's put a stop to it.

ThePilgrim 5 years, 1 month ago

As said before, simply genius filibuster. Rand Paul adroitly stated liberty and freedom, even doing equal time quoting by adding quotes from both right and left-leaning bloggers and publications. The only chink in the armor of his argument - if we have a God-given right to freedom then doesn't the person in Afghanistan and Pakistan have the same right? If we have a right to not have a drone blow us up sitting at a table on the sidewalk outside the Bourgeois Pig in Lawrence because we happen to be sitting next to a bad guy at the next table - doesn't the innocent person at the cafe in Pakistan have the same right?

jafs 5 years, 1 month ago

If the right is "God given", then yes, that person should also have that right.

5 years, 1 month ago

"doesn't the person in Afghanistan and Pakistan have the same right?"

Of course they do. That's why we euphemize them as "collateral damage" or redefine everyone nearby as combatants.

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 1 month ago

The only thing "brilliant" about Paul's filibuster was his genius use of politics to lead the sheeple. A year ago, he was screaming we needed drones. Now, drones are a "bad thing" ™. Isn't it cute how the results of one election can send some people into such a spin that they do a full 180? Isn't it even cuter that Charlie is almost weeing himself over it?

5 years, 1 month ago

"A year ago, he was screaming we needed drones..."

No, he wasn't:

June 12, 2012 - Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced legislation on Tuesday that would prohibit law enforcement agencies from using unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct surveillance without a warrant... http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/06/12/rand-paul-proposes-bill-to-prevent-warrantless-drone-surveillance/

That's hardly screaming that we need drones. If you're going to make up something, at least try to make it a little bit believable.

ThePilgrim 5 years, 1 month ago

And Twelve years into the war - who are our enemies? Can the President extend the war into other theaters and keep it ongoing? If it is truly a "war on terror" and radical Islam then that would be logical, although I would expect Congress to grant him some more authority on that point. If this war is about Iraq and Afghanistan and 9/11 then the answer would be "no". Our warmongering, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prez is choosing winners and losers. Morsi and the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt. The anti-Gadafi rebels in Libya. And, most shocking, the al Qaeda-leaning Sunni rebels in Syria. If he wants to take action (or someone who doesn't like someone else wants him to take action) - just portray the rebels as innocent protesters that are being attacked by dictators. "Pay no attention to those rebel weapons and tanks on the outskirts of the city" (Libya).

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 1 month ago

Hmmm maybe we should start with the Arkansas legislature. Their passage of a 12 week anti-abortion law (on a veto override, no less) is in clear defiance of Roe and thus, the Constitution. And how about the bill up before the Kansas legislature stating that the state doesn't HAVE to follow Federal gun control laws (that is, if they pass Second Amendment challenge)? Isn't that in clear defiance of the Supremacy Clause? And then there's the KS legislature's own 70 page anti-abortion bill, section after section of which is in Constitutional defiance.
Maybe you should think about cleaning a little house first, before making that kind of statement.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 1 month ago

It takes more than just your disagreement with a ruling to make it "unconstitutional."

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 1 month ago

Well you know what, Gotland? I don't like the "Citizen's United" decision and think it was passed by a "dictatorial court". Tough beans to both of us, huh?

Maddy Griffin 5 years, 1 month ago

How about if they give up on all the DRAMA, and start creating the jobs they ran on.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 1 month ago

Here's what a constitutional scholar, and someone who can actually think logically rather than merely spout neocon ideology, has to say about Krauthammer's latest train wreck of a column.


5 years, 1 month ago

Greenwald is exactly correct except in one instance - Krauthammer is enough of a weasel word master to take a demonstrably true statement - "outside American soil, the Constitution does not rule" - and tell a lie with it.

Outside the US, the Constitution does not rule. Britain has a system of justice that rules in Britain, Bahrain has its own government and courts... The Constitution rules in the United States and there alone. The fact is inarguable, and Krauthammer states it as he does because it is, on its face, true.

But what Krauthammer ignores is that the Constitution may not rule in Bahrain, but it always rules the United States government no matter where its actions take place, even in Bahrain. The United States government has no authority, anywhere, that it does not get from the Constitution. So while Brits and Sudanese and Chileans don't have to concern themselves with the Constitution, the American government is always and everywhere bound by it.

Ignoring that fact is very convenient if you have a list of people you want dead, and Krauthammer is also correct that both parties have decided that they like that power, only complaining about it when the other party has it. That is the real concern that Paul addressed and the reason "leaders" (I will never apply that word to McCain without quotes) in both parties are so eager to discredit him

jafs 5 years, 1 month ago

Interesting analysis.

But, what of American citizens who have demonstrably joined forces with those who are at war with the US? Should they be treated as American citizens with all of the accompanying rights and protections, or as enemy soldiers, without those?

Joining forces with Al-Quaeda is a bit different from exercising one's right of free speech.

5 years, 1 month ago

Well, what does the constitution say? By saying the Constitution doesn't matter, Krauthammer is admitting that the government has no Constitutional authority to kill American citizens just because it deems them enemies. I'm of the opinion that the Constitution (and only the Constitution) grants the government authority to do anything, so if there is no Constitutional authority, they can't do it.

Either the government is limited by the Constitution in such cases, in all cases, or it is not, in which case it can kill anyone it wants, anywhere it wants, for any reason it deems sufficient. Americans need to decide which sort of government they prefer.

jafs 5 years, 1 month ago

I don't know that the Constitution says anything about American citizens who have joined with forces at war with the US. Generally, when folks are at war with us, we don't grant them constitutional protections, but treat them as enemy soldiers.

Were all of the forces in the civil war granted constitutional protections, or were they at war with one another, and treated as soldiers? Should all of the "rebel" forces have been given "due process", tried and convicted in a court of law, before anything was done to them? If so, I imagine they would have won the war, since they operated without any such constraints.

Seems to me it's rather a grey area, not at all black and white as you suggest. Being an American citizen entitles one to certain protections, while being a soldier in war against us doesn't. The combination makes it difficult to figure out which should apply.

jayhawklawrence 5 years, 1 month ago

I seem to recall that Republicans once called Palin a genius and later on Rick Perry.

Apparently, the qualifications call for a big mouth, a big ego and a peanut sized brain.

Thomas Bryce Jr. 5 years, 1 month ago

Geniuses Only Please. And you thought it Just meant Grand Old Party, Huh?

yourworstnightmare 5 years, 1 month ago

I would like to see all GOP filibusters follow Ayn Paul's principled and genius example.

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