As I write this, President Obama is delivering what the White House billed as a major speech in which he sought to recalibrate and redefine US counterterrorism strategy. One of the debates Obama sought to resolve was the question regarding US drone policy.
Make no mistake: the reason why the United States and others use drones and engage in targeted assassination is that such a strategy saves lives. Drones can reach where the US military cannot, absent a dispatch of hundreds if not thousands of troops. Countries that complain about drone strikes violating their sovereignty have simple recourse: stop sheltering terrorists.
Among civil libertarians, drone policy is front and center, especially given acknowledgement that US predator strikes have killed four US citizens. Behind-the-scenes, there has been a debate about who should direct drone strikes—and who must sign off on them. Civil libertarians have been seeking to have that power in the hands of the president, rather than directed by the CIA or Pentagon.
Alas, what sounds good in theory is a horrible idea in reality. Against the backdrop of Washington scandals, the most important news that didn’t hit the headlines last week was the successful launch of the X-47B from a US aircraft carrier. The test was a sign of what the military will look like in the coming decades, a future in which unmanned vehicles are the backbone of US airpower.
A system in which the White House approves missions might sound good today, but might be unworkable in just a few years when, in effect, the president might have to approve dozens of missions daily. In effect, that would mean targets of opportunity would get a free pass since—as Benghazi appears to show—the president might very well be asleep at the switch.
Nor should the president impose rigorous analysis regarding efforts to avoid collateral damage. Not only would this slow down operations to the point of ineffectiveness, but they would also invite terrorists to take shelter among civilians. Indeed, the greatest challenge we will face in the coming decades is not in the mountains along the Af/Pak border, but rather in the dense urban jungle of Pakistan’s southern Punjab.
The war on terrorism requires a number of things: Tying the military’s hands should not be one of them.