There was much to applaud in President Obama’s landmark speech about counterterrorism on Thursday, which signaled that America’s 12-year “war on terror” must soon come to an end. It was refreshing to hear the president speak openly about drones for the first time. In his long-awaited acknowledgment of the once-secret program, he both offered a vigorous defense of drones — “these strikes have saved lives” — and a pledge to limit their use.
For an administration that is believed to have launched about 300 drone attacks — five times as many as under George W. Bush — it was high time to admit the program’s existence and offer a legal and moral justification for it. Obama did just that, and more.
He explained that drones are often the least destructive way to fight people in remote, dangerous places who are actively conspiring against the United States. Drones are more accurate than bombs lobbed out of planes. They are not as deadly as ground wars. The debate about drones has overshadowed the fact that it is, above all, civilian casualties that should concern us, not what kind of weapon delivers the blow against a legitimate terrorist target.
But the president still needs to be clearer about what constitutes a legitimate target. Obama promised that strikes will be reserved for individuals who pose a continuing imminent threat to Americans, when no other alternative can be found to address the threat. Drones will be a tool of last resort.
These broad principles are reasonable, but how they will be applied makes a difference. The president promised greater restraint and oversight, but he didn’t outline how he would achieve it. Will the drone program be transferred from the CIA to the Pentagon? Will the ostensibly strict guidelines for strikes ever be made public?
For the first time, Obama expressed a willingness to consider a special “drone court” to weigh evidence against targets — a welcome step for those who worry that the president is acting as both judge and executioner. Ultimately, the American people must come up with a system that satisfies our conscience, our Constitution, and our right to self-defense. It was a relief to hear that the White House has briefed Congress on every drone strike, but that is no substitute for due process during peacetime.
This is precisely why the “war on terror” has dragged on so long. The authorization for the use of force in the wake of 9/11 has served as the legal foundation for drones, and so many other expanded powers that would not have been granted outside of war. Now, as the US faces new threats that have nothing to do with the attacks of 2001, Congress and the White House should revisit this piece of legislation to put the country on a different path.
Policy makers are scrambling to figure out how to legally retain just enough of these war powers to allow for limited drone strikes. Whichever approach they take will have implications well beyond America’s borders. As the methods of war evolve, so too must the laws that govern war. Other countries are pursuing drone technology. It is not too late for the United States to lead the world in developing universally accepted rules and standards to which we can eventually hold our adversaries accountable.