Obama’s Drone Policy was Inevitable — Here’s How to Change It


Predator Drone Launching Hellfire Missile

Rand Paul is not alone in being disturbed at the Obama Administration’s use of drone strikes in the ‘War on Terror’, particularly on United States citizens. Frankly, I agree with him, but I’m far from surprised. In fact, the targeting of US citizens in active support of al-Qaeda has been inevitable since September 14, 2001. It is a direct result of the so-called ‘War on Terror’. When we decided to pursue the conspirators behind the September 11 attacks as a war, rather than treating them as criminals, we welcomed in drone strikes on Americans.

Since independence, there have been Americans who have taken up arms for our enemies. One trigger of the War of 1812 was the forcible enlistment of US citizens into the Royal Navy, but it has happened most notably in 1861 when the citizenry in eleven states rose in arms against the United States, and even during World War II. In none of those cases has the US military had any compunction about killing US citizens in battle. The case of the war against al-Qaeda and its allies throws up an additional complication in the lack of any traditional battlefield or uniformed enemy. Treating the pursuit of al-Qaeda and its allies as a war provides the government with an excuse for suspending civil liberties (see the USA PATRIOT Act), and provides legal cover for the use of military force against known enemies wherever they may be.

Technological developments have led to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, commonly known as drones) in combat by the United States military and Central Intelligence Agency. The advent of the military use of drones accompanied by the emergence of a boundary-less war clearly leads to the military use of drones against all known enemies, anywhere, regardless of citizenship. Though the Posse Comitatus Act (along with the laws restricting the CIA’s area of operations) does preclude the legal use of drone strikes by the military or CIA within the borders of the United States.

The legality of drone warfare is rooted in the treatment of al-Quaeda and its allies as enemies in a war. This is best demonstrated by the support the President has received from John Yoo and Dick Cheney —  not company he would usually boast about. If you oppose the policy, the answer is obvious: stop treating this as a war, and begin treating it as a fight against a criminal conspiracy. Ironically, some media outlets who oppose drone warfare were blasting Obama six months ago for not using the phrase, “war on terror.”

Treating al-Quaeda as a criminal conspiracy also stops acknowledging their claim to a moral position. Their narrative is that they are in a justified war against the West, secularism, Christianity, and immorality. By treating the pursuit of them as a war acknowledges that claim (particularly after the former president’s unfortunate description of it as a ‘crusade‘). Treating it as a criminal conspiracy recognizes that they should be treated as the dirty criminals they are, not the noble warriors they claim to be.

President Obama has made a couple of steps toward treating al-Quaeda as criminals. First, his administration attempted to move Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s trial from Guantanamo Bay to New York City. Now, his administration has decided to try Sulaiman Abu Ghaith in civilian court. These actions have provoked the expected howls of outrage about his supposed weakening of national security, but they are actually essential first steps toward treating these acts as the cowardly crimes they are.

One complication of trying to pursue al-Quaeda as criminals is that the US military has significantly greater resources than any US law enforcement organization (perhaps even all of them combined). It may be necessary to redirect resources (either within the military or from the military to non-military law enforcement) in order to create an effective law enforcement approach to terrorism. Certainly, there are challenges, but they are definitely challenges that we can overcome.


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