The next president of the United States needs to answer this question: When, and under what conditions, will the U.S. government stop using drones to bomb suspected terrorists around the world?
The drone program — assuming the media and think-tank coverage of it is basically true, and this piece should not be construed as confirming the existence of the program — is a tactical and technological innovation that has been invaluable in the war against al-Qaeda. Cost-effective, increasingly precise and surgical, it is almost the archetype of sterile, risk-free, push-button warfare, which the U.S. military has dreamed of for a generation.
But bombing by drone is also an act of war that kills people. And wars are supposed to end. They have to have an end. Endless war is unacceptable and dangerous. The U.S. government simply cannot arrogate the right to wage an endless, global war against anyone it deems a threat to national security. The prospect of such a war should trouble anyone who has the least acquaintance with history or political philosophy.
The writer Randolph Bourne warned that “War is the health of the state,”and endless, global war is dangerous for proponents of limited government.
After U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a September drone attack, the ACLU’s deputy legal director rightly said, “It is a mistake to invest the President — any President — with the unreviewable power to kill any American whom he deems to present a threat to the country.”
The point is simple: That power will corrupt those who would wield it.
I do not believe President George W. Bush misused this power or that President Obama has misused it so far. It is clear that drones need to be in the skies for some years yet. But that does not mean we should automatically extend the same trust to every future president.
The best argument for allowing the U.S. government to kill its citizens without charge or trial is that, as was the case during the Civil War, the president is authorized to defend this country against rebellion, which means he may wage war against rebels. Abraham Lincoln killed more Americans than did Bush or Obama — or al-Qaeda — and he was right to do so. He did not deploy the Union Army to arrest the Confederacy but to destroy it. It was his duty to do so.
Similarly, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress authorized the president to use “all necessary and proper force” against the perpetrators of what were rightly deemed acts of war.
But the comparison of the war against terrorism and the Civil War only underscores the difference between them: Eventually, the Civil War ended and the U.S. government stopped trying to kill its own citizens. Upon termination of hostilities, the president’s authority to kill rebels lapsed, and the normal responsibility to respect due process resumed.
Brought forward to today’s situation, that means the president must explain the precise conditions we are working toward that will constitute the end of the war against al-Qaeda and, upon meeting them, will halt the government’s efforts to kill people, including U.S. citizens. The president’s authority to kill should be exceptional, not routine.
Simply put, when is this war over?
The answer cannot be “once we’ve killed them all,” because we will never know whether or when that has been achieved. Using the killing of every active or potential member of al-Qaeda as the metric for victory is simply a recipe for extending the war for as long as the government deems convenient. Nor is the metric “after al-Qaeda surrenders” useful, because there will be no surrender ceremony.
The answer is likely to be murky: when U.S. intelligence no longer judges al-Qaeda to be a clear and present danger to national security. The government should clarify what that looks like and, to the extent possible, define that goal with as many concrete and measurable benchmarks as possible so that there is objectivity and accountability in its assessment. Without such metrics, we are simply trusting that the government will make the right decision and relinquish its war powers of its own accord, by its own judgment, when it deems the time right.
I don’t know the exact answer. But I also don’t get the sense that the Obama administration is even asking the question, and that is most worrisome of all.
The writer served as a National Security Council director for Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009. The views expressed are his own.