There are a number of problems with this administration’s conduct of the War on Terror in general, and with its drone campaign in particular. But the elimination of Anwar Al-Awlaki — an al-Qaeda militant with a demonstrated commitment to the destruction of the United States who happened to have been born in New Mexico — is not one of them.
The release of a Justice Department white paper outlining the administration’s legal case for the targeted killing of American citizens who are in cahoots with al-Qaeda has raised protest from the left, which has leeway to criticize the president now that he has been safely reelected, and unfortunately from some on the right, who find it convenient to locate their inner civil-liberty scolds when the White House is occupied by a Democrat. But there is in fact little novel in the white paper or the principles on which it relies. Due process is not generally required in battlefield situations, and an American citizen engaged in hostilities against the United States, on foreign soil and in concert with a terrorist force, is surely not entitled to counsel and a hearing before being dispatched. If he were, it would paralyze our ability to fight war.
And lest we forget, a war it is. We are met in a congressionally authorized armed conflict with Islamist terrorists, one that both sides acknowledge. But even if we were not so engaged, the president would have not only the authority but the obligation to use whatever force is necessary to quell imminent threats to the United States and her population. If that action results in the killing of Americans who have aligned with those behind that threat, then so be it. It is true that an executive’s power to make unreviewable determinations that some American citizens are to be treated as enemy combatants is subject to abuse. But then, so are all executive powers. The proper constraint on the president’s judgment on such matters is political accountability, not legal action.
The white paper relies heavily on the congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to justify targeted killings of enemy combatants. This is fine as far as it goes. The AUMF was written broadly, but it passed twelve years ago. It could use a tune-up. And it would be appropriate for Congress to lend further political legitimacy to the drone program by explicitly giving its assent.
To be fair, it is true that the Obama administration fetishizes drones and over-relies on them in its prosecution of the War on Terror. This is due in no small measure to its own undermining of the Bush-era institutions and procedures built up to deal with captured enemy combatants. In its distaste for these institutions and procedures, the current administration has increasingly relied on death from above — collateral damage and intelligence collection be damned — as the more palatable alternative. Of course, capture often is not feasible, and in these instances, drone strikes, with their small footprints, serve a valuable purpose.
It is unfortunate that it has taken such wanton and opportunistic role reversals — see the raft of newly pro-drone liberals who once condemned Bush and Cheney as war criminals — to illuminate for some the novel challenges of the ongoing War on Terror. But with these issues again brought to the fore, our elected representatives should move beyond reproving the system, and seek to improve it.