Written by Phil Guarnieri Friday, 22 February 2013 00:00
We’re hitting them in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen and wherever else we find those committed to waging war on the United States. President Obama has escalated the use of un-manned drones equipped with Hellfire missiles to take out suspected terrorists wherever Jihad is being harvested, even if the targets include American citizens. This is a policy, with a few pertinent reservations, I generally endorse.
I endorse it because any American who takes up arms against his country forfeits his rights of citizenship. I endorse it because the United States is at war with a shadowy enemy taking refuge in lawless territories and hell-bent on mass murdering as many Americans as possible. I endorse it because it has been effective in destabilizing the leadership of Al Qaeda. I endorse it because collateral damage from these high-tech strikes is limited and does not expose American pilots to enemy gunfire.
Some conservatives have turned pale over Obama using his Constitutional war powers to act against American citizens without due process of law. They can’t be serious; do they expect the president to take out a warrant for their arrest? Does anyone believe that they would adopt such a position if George W. Bush had instituted it? The Supreme Court has said on numerous occasions that citizens who declare war upon the United States have no constitutional protections. As commander in chief it is reasonable and prudent that such decisions, with qualifications, rest in the hands of the president who is accountable to the voters and Congress for his decisions.
Nevertheless, one can understand the bitterness that conservatives feel about Obama’s pirouette on national security. When President Bush exerted similar muscle, candidate Obama and his future Attorney General Eric Holder flayed the president alive for trashing the American Constitution while using national security as a pretext. Obama and Holder charged that Guantanamo was an American gulag, lambasted the flagitious use of wiretapping and waterboarding and blatantly accused the Bush White House of war crimes. This brand of moral preening is an even more noxious odor when one recalls that Holder, while a senior partner in his law firm, filed an amicus brief on behalf of Jose Padilla, an American citizen turned al Qaeda operative plotting an act of terror on American soil. By this brief, Holder sought to try Padilla not as an enemy combatant but as a criminal defendant. Now Holder has the chutzpah to send out a Justice Department memo essentially justifying the killing of American citizens overseas with no judicial oversight! Wasn’t this the same guy who accused Bush of being a modern day Torquemada conducting his own personal inquisition?
It seems like a case of old wine in new bottles. True, the Obama Administration has dispensed with waterboarding and replaced it with drone strikes. But is this more humane, more just, more law abiding? The journalist Jonas Goldberg took his own, admittedly, unscientific survey, asking people if they would rather be water boarded by the CIA or incinerated by Hellfire missiles. Thus far, the response is unanimous for waterboarding. So exactly what are these humanists in the Administration thinking? I suppose the answer could only be reality: Al Qaeda is real, immensely dangerous and must be dealt with harshly if American lives are to be spared.
Even more galling than the Administration pretending that there remains a grave moral difference between their policy and that of their predecessor is the mainstream media’s subdued reaction to this highly charged memo. Having voted overwhelmingly for the president, it is hardly a revelation that a double standard is sitting there licking its chops. Oh, there were a few arched eyebrows, pursed lips and some uncomfortable body language, but nothing like the pandemonium of censure that greeted Bush’s controversial measures to fight the war on terror.
But while these contradictions cannot be ignored, political leadership must not nurse grudges. The threats facing our nation and the civilized world are too vast for endless disputation. I understand that every president, in order to govern effectively, has to in some degree overcome principle. This, however, is not a license for the Chief Executive to ignore the Constitution whenever he perceives a mortal threat. Some of the language of the Justice Department’s memo summarizing the legal basis of drone attacks upon American citizens is open to broad interpretation and their definition of “imminent” threats appears, at least to this writer, to be incautiously elastic. Both the wording and the breadth of this Executive missive needs to refined and tightened.
The way to approach contentious issues involving national security is with transparency and scrutiny via congressional committees constituted for the purpose of oversight. This appraisal should also include the Obama Administration annulling counterinsurgency operations in favor of drone attacks. Though these measures can be messy and potentially morally compromising, interrogation can elicit valuable intelligence and, frankly, it’s less likely to offend moderates in the Arab world than missile strikes within their borders. A tactful combination of both should be our first line of defense.
Balancing security and American values is a delicate task. It can never be done perfectly. Both parties must realize this in times of peril. It’s necessary to give the commander in chief cover and latitude to act decisively, but without going so far as to sanction an imperial presidency.