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Obama’s Drone War: Terror, Transparency and Justice

Posted on the 08 February 2013 by Kzawadzki @kzawadzki

The hot topic this week has shifted largely from immigration reform or gun control to the Obama Administration’s drone warfare policy. A Department of Justice memo states that:

The President has the authority to respond to the imminent threat posed by al-Qa’ida and its associated forces, arising from his constitutional responsibility to protect the country, the inherent right of the United States to national self defense under international law, Congress’s authorization of the use of all necessary and appropriate military force against this enemy, and the existence of an armed conflict with al-Qa’ida under international law. Based on these authorities, the President may use force against al-Qa’ida and its associated forces.

Part of the issue is whether or not the drone strikes should be allowed even if they target U.S. citizens. Like Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed along with two others in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Al-Awlaki was alleged to have masterminded plots to bomb several cargo jets flying in or to the U.S. in 2010. The catch is, al-Awlaki was still an American citizen. Even though he had allegedly dedicated his life by then to killing other Americans and wreaking havoc on U.S. interests.

Here’s the thing… if you have sworn yourself to be an enemy of this country as al-Awlaki did,you set yourself up as a target. I’m pretty convinced that at the time of his assassination, the fact that al-Awlaki still held U.S. citizenship was a mere technicality. He had no love for America. Unless that’s what you call tough love.

You plan, plot and promote destruction and death on the U.S., then you willingly put yourself in the crosshairs of American military reprisal. Tit for tat. Or, rather: you reap what you sow.

I’ll put it in perspective a bit anecdotally: when I was going through the naturalization application, one of the questions they ask is whether or not you’ve advocated for violent overthrow of the government, particularly that of the U.S. Had I ever done so, or willingly joined a terror organization, do you think I would be granted citizenship? No. And my ass would be on a whole bunch of watch lists, if not at the very least deported.

And rightfully so. Why should someone advocating for destruction of this country be afforded the full rights and benefits that come with citizenship? Al-Awlaki got what was coming to him. And if he ever thought that retaining his U.S. citizenship on paper would protect him from retribution, he was an entitled moron.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I think drone strikes should be unconditional and that there should be no judicial overview. I do not think that the head of our country’s executive branch should have carte-blanche to order drone strikes on anyone “just because.” There should be some overview and limitations spelled out clearly, and it should not start and end with the president. There is still something to be said for justice and the judicial process.

Extrajudicial killings are never going to be an easy sell, no matter who’s trying to do so. Nor should they be. While there hasn’t been evidence of abuses of the drone strikes policy, unless we take a close look and review it and come up with accountability and at least some form of judicial review, that slope could turn out slippery, indeed.

That is why I think the administration should engage with the critics of the drone warfare policy. Sit down, explain and discuss and together come up with a comprehensive review of the rules of engagement in this war on terror. Releasing documents to Congress is a step in the right direction. But there also needs to be more public engagement, not just with the lawmakers but with the public at large through press conferences and explainers.

I think part of people’s hang-up is that the drone technology scares people a bit, and deflects from the real issue of killing. I mean, the way I look at it, it just seems like they’re a cheaper version of the laser-guided cruise missiles we used to lob at Afghanistan’s mountains in 2002 when we had good reason to believe Osama bin Laden was hiding out there. They’re just another way of getting things done without involving, or endangering, another person.

Which is why I can’t help but ask critics, “where did you think this war on terror was going to lead and end?” This is just a matter of new technology in that regard, and we’ve been on this path since after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. It’s a path that may not have a finish line, either, because how do you eradicate all terrorism – it’s like playing a game of whack-a-mole. Hit one terrorist and another one might pop up. When we set upon this war on terror, though, we might not necessarily have thought we’d be able to just send a drone bomb at someone. But technology goes on and gives us new tools to use every day.

All that is why Obama needs to kick the presidential public relations machine into high gear now. By all means, get back on the campaign trail. Lawmakers are not the only ones who want answers about the drone strike policy. The public wants it, too. This is a time that some straight-forward discussion of the drone policy, and not evasive maneuvers and silence, would serve the administration well.

  • Explain drone technology, why it’s useful and what it entails. If it has domestic, non-military purposes, point those out, too.
  • Explain in clear terms why killing a terrorist like al-Awlaki was justified even if he was still an American citizen, and differentiate that from targeting citizens who are merely critical of the government. Put to rest fears that the presidency will abuse these powers domestically.
  • And get to work with Congress and judicial experts to determine an appropriate system of checks-and-balances on the use of drones or any other military action when it comes to U.S. passport-holding terror suspects. (And define who and what constitutes a terror threat. It should not be unconditional.)

I don’t think drone warfare should be scrapped. When you’re at war, you use every tool at your disposal short of nukes and mass biochemical weapons. And drones are used to strike specific targets. It’s tragic that there has been collateral damage and civilians are hurt and killed. That’s why we need to ensure that we have as reliable intel as we can before we attack. Make sure we get the guys we want and minimize harm to innocent bystanders. In a war situation, some civilian casualties are unfortunately just part of the reality. If we’re going to continue the war on terror, we need to do what we can to pursue our enemies successfully while minimizing harm to innocents.

All of that is easy to say for me, of course, safely ensconced in my apartment far away from the arenas of the war on terror across the Middle East and North Africa.

But it is what it is.

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