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Obama’s Collateral Damage



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I’m broadly on the side of John Bolton, Rich Lowry, Andy McCarthy (on NRO), and Max Boot (on the Commentary blog, Contentions) in their support for the Obama administration’s justification for drone attacks designed to kill al-Qaeda leaders, whether or not they are U.S. citizens. Admittedly, one has to grit one’s teeth and mutter this support from the side of one’s mouth. And I sympathize with Pete Wehner’s desire to convict the president of hypocrisy since he has offered no retraction or qualification of his earlier denunciations of the Bush administrations for treatment of al-Qaeda leaders that fell short of maiming them, let alone killing them. But this policy is justified to defend the national security of the United States against a ruthless enemy which would kill every infidel American if it could. And that’s that.  

Well, perhaps not entirely that.

For moral reasons we should always be trying to make drones more precise so that there is less risk to innocent civilians. My belief is that the U.S. military is already doing that from moral and humanitarian motives — and because almost every military action these days has to be approved by the in-house lawyer.

For prudential reasons we should always ask ourselves whether the success of drone attacks in weakening al-Qaeda is not outweighed by any negative impact such attacks (more precisely, those attacks that go awry and kill wedding families, etc.) have on public opinion. Afghan and Pakistani friends have told me that such attacks are actually popular because the Taliban allies of al-Qaeda are hated in areas where they rule. I have recently read the same of al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula. Still, we must keep a watch on this question.

For legal reasons we should always want to hedge around the president’s power (a literally awesome one in this matter) with safeguards against misuse. These cannot be too restrictive — it is the president’s prerogative to wage war as opposed to declaring it — and they must take account of the need to act swiftly in emergencies. What safeguards? Well, I would prefer to hand this question over to Andy McCarthy for judicious resolution. As Burke urged, I’m reluctant to trade on my small capital of legal and constitutional knowledge on this complex topic.

If we should support the president here, however, we should also exact a price — and a very legitimate price at that (by ”we” here, I mean the appropriate congressional leaders of the Republican party, such Democrats as agree, and the broader American conservative movement.) In return for support, we should demand that the president actually defend the policy that his lawyers have outlined — and the Bush policy of which it is logically an extension. 

#more#This is not merely a matter of the president’s making a few remarks justifying his policy to a White House press conference. He must do that, of course, but he and the administration must go a great deal further. He should send his secretary of state to the United Nations to outline a strong, principled, and across-the-board defense of America’s national sovereignty in foreign and defense matters and a legal rejection of those international legal decisions and international legal institutions that pretend to restrain or qualify Washington’s rights. Harold Koh, a former legal multilateralist who is returning to Yale after defending the drone policy from his legal perch in the State Department to the horror of his former colleagues, should be asked by Mr. Obama to present a full legal brief for his policy before (inevitably hostile) audiences at international-law conferences.

Such steps are increasingly necessary. How can those who actually launch the drones be sure that they will not be arrested on vacation and be dragged before some global kangaroo court if their political superiors do not defend their actions robustly? Bodies such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch will bring actions in the courts of U.S. allies to halt their military and diplomatic cooperation with an American government that is in breach of various international treaties (including those the U.S. Senate failed to ratify) and other global regulations. What will happen when those courts rule that their governments cannot work with Washington on intelligence cooperation? The U.S. needs to explain its allies today that it intends to rewrite the international rules — and that it expects their support in an endeavor that will help all democratic powers and threaten all terrorists. Fortunately, the intellectual case for this campaign has already been made by John Bolton, John Fonte, and Andy McCarthy, conservatives all, in books and op-eds that reveal the anti-democratic roots of global governance.

President Obama cannot win these battles if he mounts a nervous and defensive ideological fight. He needs to undermine the  basic structure of “global governance” if he is ultimately to justify a drone policy in which he has personally selected the targets. Most of his favorite foreign-policy experts will be unsympathetic to this approach. Despite himself he will have to turn to conservative ideas, perhaps even conservative advisers, if he to is to prevail.



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