Politically Correct Killing?

Obama needs to clarify his anti-terrorism policy.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

By all accounts, President Obama has vastly increased the number of Predator drone strikes during his 13 months in office and expanded the theater of missile operations by thousands of square miles. Indeed, since inauguration day, 2009, Predator and Reaper drone attacks may have killed over 500 suspected terrorists in Waziristan and Pakistan.

In January of this year alone, the United States conducted ten strikes, and may have killed some 70 suspected al Qaeda or Taliban terrorists — along with additional unknown others in their vicinity. When we killed Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, last summer, eleven others were blown up with him, among them his wife and father-in-law — and, earlier, dozens of others were killed in strikes that failed to target him. In the first two months of 2010, the Obama administration conducted almost half the number of strikes that were conducted in all of 2008, the last full year of the Bush administration.

Why has Obama expanded a killing program that seemingly is at odds with his own past statements (“We’ve got to get the job done there, and that requires us to have enough troops so that we’re not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there”) — as well as with his general efforts to envision the war on terror as more a criminal-justice operation where terrorists are tried in civilian courts and given their Miranda rights?

First, drone aircraft reflect our technological superiority and sensitivity about suffering casualties — and give the U.S. enormous advantages in an asymmetrical war that often favors the enemy. Drones are far cheaper than conventional attack planes, and if they are downed, they cost no American lives.

Second, because of improved technology in the Predator program, a substantial increase in the number of our drones, and increased cooperation from the Pakistani government, the United States is now able to target far more suspected terrorists — and kill them — than ever before.

Third, killing suspected terrorists is far easier than capturing and detaining them. Apparently the Obama administration has concluded that dead men need no cells in Guantanamo, no interrogations, no Miranda rights, no sympathetic ACLU lawyers, and no trials in New York.

Fourth, the Obama administration apparently has been won over to the Bush notion that the number of terrorists is finite. Just as the Bush administration believed that the killing of top al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq — Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for one — weakened the insurgency, so too the Obama administration now believes that key individuals are unique, and that their lost terrorist expertise is not automatically replaced.

Fifth, the Obama administration apparently understands that there will be few political attacks from the Left on the Predator targeted-killing policy of the sort once voiced by candidate Obama. Obama understands that most of the loud leftwing criticism of the Bush anti-terrorism policy was less principled than political in nature, part of a larger effort to discredit the administration in general. Thus, the Constitution-shredding Bush-Cheney protocols of yesteryear — renditions, military tribunals, intercepts, wiretaps, troops in Iraq, Guantanamo — are apparently no longer subversive, but instead are considered useful tools in maintaining U.S. security.

Note that the characterization of the attacks as “assassinations” is not hyperbole; it is a more descriptive term than “bombings.” We are not always focusing on generic terrorist training camps and compounds to eliminate anonymous killers, but often targeting specific individuals whose names and profiles we know — just as, say, the 1943 American P-38 fighter-squadron assassination of Admiral Yamamoto in the Pacific (“Operation Vengeance”) was different in character from the usual fighter and bomber missions against unknown Japanese.

So plenty of issues are raised by the Obama administration’s escalation of targeted assassinations that heretofore have not been fully voiced.

(1) The most obvious is the contradiction not just between the rhetoric of candidate Obama and President Obama (that is now old hat, as we have seen with renditions, tribunals, Guantanamo, etc.), but between Obama’s refashioning of the war on terror itself and the new greater reliance on targeted airborne assassinations. Investigations of Bush-administration officials who approved the waterboarding of three known terrorist masterminds responsible for thousands of American deaths seem incompatible with the more lethal tactics of executing suspected terrorists (and their families) in Pakistan and Waziristan. One difference, of course, as noted above, is that terrorists we execute are not technically in our custody. True, but in today’s sophisticated technological world, once the televised image of someone in Waziristan is beamed into Nevada, the soldier with his hand on the firing button seems to have more jurisdiction over a suspected terrorist than a jailer does over a known one in Guantanamo.

(2) I think the Obama administration will have to cease the commonplace U.S. criticism of targeted assassinations abroad, such as the objections we used to make to the Israelis’ missile attacks on Hamas officials. When one removes the word “war” from “war on terror,” and begins Mirandizing would-be mass murderers such as the Christmas Day bomber, then conflict devolves into the realm of espionage and criminal justice. Thus the line between a team of Israeli agents executing a known Hamas kingpin in Dubai and a squadron of Predators taking out dozens of suspected terrorists in Pakistan seems somewhat blurred. Was the conflict in Gaza and its aftermath any less a “war” than our own efforts in Afghanistan? More to the point, in the context of Obama’s voicing sharp criticism of the previous administration, promising Mr. Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights, and planning to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York, his administration’s assassination plans strike a false note. One expects Texans in loudly announced “wars on terror,” not Nobel peace laureates in “overseas contingency operations,” to order the summary execution of suspects — and anyone unlucky enough to be nearby when the Hellfire missile hits.

(3) Once the Obama administration played to the media by announcing preliminary investigations of Bush-era CIA personnel and lawyers for the waterboarding of three terrorists, a dangerous precedent was established. One of the reasons the administration has not clarified its expanded Predator policy may well be that no liberal jurist now serving in the Justice Department wants his own imprint on a policy that, according to Obama’s past accusations, would be considered suspect in nature and its advocates perhaps criminally culpable at some future date. (Indeed, according to the current protocols of liberal jurisprudence, some current Department of Justice grandee might in a few years find a summons delivered to his Ivy League dean’s office, charging him with authorship of an “illegal” policy of targeted killing.)

I wholeheartedly support the president’s expanded use of Predators against suspected terrorists in Pakistan and its environs — if we agree that we are in a global war on radical Islamic terrorism, and are also consistent in seeing our adversaries as non-uniformed enemy combatants not subject to the normal rules of war. But the expansion of targeted assassinations does not square with the administration’s past rhetoric and its present interest in seeing anti-terrorism as more akin to criminal justice than war.

In short, we need an examination of our entire policy from an administration that has expanded a controversial wartime tactic without the sort of legal clarifications it once insisted were essential in operations professed not to be exactly war.

©2010 Victor Davis Hanson

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