Is the fight against al-Qaida chiefly a criminal proceeding, or is it a campaign of war?
If it’s the former, President Barack Obama must stop ordering drone strikes against Americans who’ve fallen in with al-Qaida and its affiliates, and who are working with them abroad.
In fact, he must stop ordering strikes against non-Americans, including al-Qaida leaders – because Hellfire missiles deny them due process, criminal defense teams and trials.
But if armed drones are weapons of a congressionally authorized war against avowed enemies of the United States, the Constitution fully empowers the president to use them. The only questions that remain are matters of practicality, ethics and wisdom.
Count us in the second camp. The nomination of John Brennan as CIA director has been foolishly sidelined in the Senate over this issue.
An individual drone strike can be criticized on various grounds: Was it effective? Did it hurt or help U.S. strategy? Did it create more enemies than it killed? Did it kill a disproportionate number of civilians?
But the president’s constitutional authority to order drone strikes as part of the war against anti-American jihadists is unquestionable. The presidential war-making power is not contingent on avoiding civilian – or American – casualties.
The Civil War was one vast butchery of American citizens presided over by President Abraham Lincoln; Confederate soldiers were not read their rights before they were shot by Union snipers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered indiscriminate, massive bombings of German and Japanese cities, which killed hundreds of thousands of noncombatants.
Some critics of drone strikes, the ACLU among them, have argued that terrorists should not be killed by Predators but instead extradited and tried in the United States.
Extradited? From Waziristan? Somalia? How many terror attacks could jihadi leaders stage while that charade played out, knowing they were beyond the reach of the U.S. military?
The realistic alternative to drone strikes include kidnapping – something many of the same critics condemn – and conventional air strikes.
Bombs and cruise missiles are far less humane than Predators, though, when targeting enemies who deliberately hide themselves among civilians. By all accounts, drones – which can linger in the air until the target is reasonably identified and isolated – have drastically reduced the deaths of innocent bystanders.
We think Obama owes America a forthright explanation of how it targets people for drone strikes. He owes America an explanation of the policy’s legal rationales.
What he doesn’t owe, as commander in chief, is an apology for using a particularly effective weapon against organizations at war with the United States.