But the U.S. legal position may not satisfy the rest of the world. No other government has said publicly that it agrees with the U.S. policy or legal rationale for drones. European allies, who vigorously criticized the Bush administration for asserting the unilateral right to use force against terrorists in countries outside Afghanistan, have neither supported nor criticized reported U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Instead, they have largely looked the other way, as they did with the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Human rights advocates, on the other hand, while quiet for several years (perhaps to avoid criticizing the new administration), have grown increasingly uncomfortable with drone attacks. Last year, the U.N. rapporteur for summary executions and extrajudicial killings said that drone strikes may violate international humanitarian and human rights law and could constitute war crimes. U.S. human rights groups, which stirred up international opposition to Bush administration counterterrorism policies, have been quick to condemn the Awlaki killing.
Even if Obama administration officials are satisfied that drone strikes comply with domestic and international law, they would still be wise to try to build a broader international consensus. The administration should provide more information about the strict limits it applies to targeting and about who has been targeted. One of the mistakes the Bush administration made in its first term was adopting novel counterterrorism policies without attempting to explain and secure international support for them.
White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan rightly acknowledged in a recent speech that “the effectiveness of our counterterrorism activities depends on the assistance and cooperation of our allies.” If the Obama administration wants to avoid losing the tacit support (and potentially the operational and intelligence assistance) of its allies for drone strikes and its other counterterrorism policies, it should try to ensure that they understand and agree with the U.S. policy and legal justification. Otherwise, the administration risks having its largely successful drone program become as internationally maligned as Guantanamo.
The writer is a partner at Arnold & Porter LLP and an adjunct senior fellow in international and national security law at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as legal adviser for the State Department from 2005 to 2009 and as legal adviser to the National Security Council from 2001 to 2005.