We argued that Mr. Hagel was not the best choice for defense secretary because of his views on the budget and Iran, and because superior candidates were available. We’ve also made the case that the administration’s current strategy of countering al-Qaeda in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia with drone attacks is unsustainable. The architect of that policy is Mr. Brennan, who as the White House’s counterterrorism czar has overseen and personally approved kill lists for drones.
To his credit, Mr. Brennan has reportedly resisted efforts by the Pentagon to expand targeting lists in Yemen and has insisted that attacks center on al-Qaeda activists who pose a direct threat to the United States. The strikes are certainly legal under U.S. and international law, yet the secrecy with which the target lists are drawn up, and the strikes’ frequent execution by the CIA rather than military forces, are problematic — as is the political backlash they have caused in Pakistan.
Mr. Brennan’s prospective move to the CIA offers Congress the opportunity to reconsider and adjust the drone program. A central question is whether drone strikes and other paramilitary action should continue to be a CIA responsibility: As acts of war, they would best be carried out by military forces and subjected to the review and disclosure of other military operations. As important, the process for developing targets should be brought out into the open and authorized by Congress, just like the rules for military detention and interrogation. Mr. Brennan should be pressed to explain the current system and asked why the CIA under his tenure should not be refocused on the job of intelligence collection.
A larger question is whether Mr. Obama’s combination of troop withdrawals, non-interventionism and the heavy use of drones will protect U.S. interests in the roiling Middle East. Mr. Brennan himself has said that drone attacks alone will not end the threat of al-Qaeda; policies that bolster fragile governments like that of Yemen, and prevent the disintegration of others — think Iraq or Pakistan — are also needed. While serving in the Senate, Mr. Kerry has been a proponent of such policies, but in the last year Mr. Obama has appeared to back away from them in favor of “nation-building here at home.”
Presidents are entitled to have their Cabinet picks confirmed if they are qualified, and nothing disqualifying has emerged about these three. But their confirmation hearings offer an opportunity for the Senate to weigh Mr. Obama’s strategy. It’s certainly tempting to think that the United States can withdraw all but a few thousand troops from Afghanistan, stand on the sidelines in Syria, contain Iran with U.N.-approved sanctions, pivot U.S. resources to Asia and ward off any lingering terrorist menace with drones. Whether that is a realistic strategy for Mr. Obama’s second term ought to be the overriding subject of the upcoming hearings.