The Obama administration’s heavy and increasing dependence on drones is nevertheless troubling. As Mitt Romney said in endorsing the drone strikes during the last presidential debate, “we can’t kill our way out of this.” Terrorism can be defeated only by a comprehensive effort to encourage stable and representative governments and economic development in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan — a mission the administration, with its harping about “nation-building here at home,” appears increasingly disinclined to take on. Moreover, drone strikes do stoke popular hostility and therefore make U.S. political and diplomatic goals more difficult to achieve.
Perhaps most troubling, the relative ease of using drones, combined with the Obama administration’s reluctance to detain foreign militants, which would be politically difficult at home, has produced a stark record: Thousands of al-Qaeda suspects killed by drones have been balanced by only one significant capture — a Somali who was held on a U.S. warship for two months before being turned over to the U.S. civilian justice system.
In recent months drone strikes in Pakistan have decreased, partly in response to these negative effects. But The Post’s reporting suggests that the administration is working to institutionalize the system of creating “kill or capture” lists and is contemplating the use of drones in more countries where jihadist forces are active, including Libya and Mali. This raises new legal and political quandaries. The further — in geography, time and organizational connection — that the drone war advances from the original al-Qaeda target in Afghanistan, the less validity it has under the 2001 congressional authorization. While the United States has legal cause to retaliate against the terrorists who attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, most of the world is unlikely to accept an argument that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks justify drone strikes more than a decade later in Northern Africa.
In our view, the continuing fight against al-Qaeda and other Islamic jihadists targeting the United States must be considered a war and conducted as such. Nevertheless, when that war ranges far from conventional battlefields, U.S. interests will be better served by greater disclosure, more political accountability, more checks and balances and more collaboration with allies. Drone strikes should be carried out by military forces rather than by the CIA; as with other military activities, they should be publicly disclosed and subject to congressional review. The process and criteria for adding names to kill lists in non-battlefield zones should be disclosed and authorized by Congress — just like the rules for military detention and interrogation. Before operations begin in a country, the administration should, as with other military operations, consult with Congress and, if possible, seek a vote of authorization. It should seek open agreements with host countries and other allies.
There may be cases where the president must act immediately against an imminent threat to the country, perhaps from an unexpected place. But to institutionalize a secret process of conducting covert drone strikes against militants across the world is contrary to U.S. interests and ultimately unsustainable.