It was a long time coming, but President Obama’s address on the fight against terror and, in particular, the nation’s use of drones was a welcome and necessary development.
Drone warfare is here to stay. It has been extraordinarily useful in a new kind of fight, which is more about radical individuals attempting to inflict massive harm than it is about countries bent on domination.
But it has also been insufficiently controlled and, whatever its benefits, not without a downside that threatens the reputation of the United States in other countries. Warfare does that, to be sure, and this fight, along with its asymmetrical nature, was forced on us. Still, it is necessary to instill a greater level of discipline in the use of drones, for reasons that are both constitutional and reputational.
To that end, the president announced new guidelines, allowing drones to attack only targets constituting a “continuing, imminent threat” to the United States. In addition, he said, their use must also be in situations where civilian casualties can be avoided with “near certainty.”
In his address, Obama noted that with al-Qaida on a “path to defeat,” threat levels against the United States have fallen to levels that predate the 2001 terror attacks. Today, the threat is more sporadic than focused, he said, and is mainly posed by weaker arms of al-Qaida, threats to diplomatic outposts, as in Benghazi, and homegrown terrorism, such as occurred at the Boston Marathon.
That change demands new standards for the use of deadly force that can be exceptionally well-targeted, but that has also taken the lives of innocent people. Obama summed up his defense of the use of drones effectively, noting that, “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”
That’s just the kind of acknowledgment the country has needed regarding a weapon that concentrates vast power in the hands of the president. Constitutionally, the president is the commander-in-chief, but drone warfare – the targeted killing of individual suspected enemies – is freighted with moral issues that the nation never before had to consider.
The question is whether – and, if so, how – a president’s wartime duties should be conflated with controls that decrease the possibility of reckless, even criminal, use of a startlingly powerful weapon of war. Obama seems aware of that need even if, in his address, he didn’t commit to it.
Specifically, he indicated that he might be open to the creation of a “drone court” that would evaluate who is targeted and why. But he also noted that such an approach would have its own drawbacks and left it at that.
Obama also signaled a greater role for the Pentagon on the drone program and a lesser one for the CIA, which is an appropriate change, given the main purpose of each agency, warfare versus spying. He also reaffirmed his goal to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and find a site in this country to hold military trials. Said the president: “… this war, like all wars, must end.”
That, finally, is the key point. Obama made clear that the use of drones will continue, and that is appropriate. But terrorism, like crime, never goes away. The nation cannot be on a war footing forever. It needs to continue to be vigilant while acknowledging the diminished threat and the challenge posed to democracy by the fearsome power of drones. This was a good, if belated, start.