President Obama has been taking flak from both the left and the right about his direct, personal involvement in the targeted killings of people believed to be terrorists intent on attacking the United States. His critics raise interesting questions pertaining to international law and the U.S. Constitution. And at some point, the nation would do well to work out a long-term answer to those points.
For now, though, the rebuttal is simple: What is he supposed to do? In the post-Sept. 11 era, how should the president respond to credible evidence of the existence of anti-American terrorists if not to kill them?
One critic said Obama has become the “executioner-in-chief.” Writing from the left, another warned that the kill list “raises serious war-crimes issues.” A conservative legal analyst said that absent a trial, conviction and appeal, “the president cannot lawfully order the killing of anyone.”
Except, of course, presidents have been doing just that since the founding of the republic. They just do it with the military instead of a gas chamber or a needle. And they tend to do it en mass and call it war or intervention.
The last time the United States declared war was in 1941. Yet almost every president since World War II has made war or at least bombed somebody – rarely with fewer casualties than Obama’s “kill list” has produced.
Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon both personally ordered airstrikes of massive proportions, killing untold thousands of people in Vietnam. Johnson famously picked out the targets himself on occasion.
Much of the controversy surrounding this issue can be attributed to election-year politics. But beyond that there is another factor, a disgust at what seems cold-blooded and somehow dishonorable.
A famous aphorism, usually attributed to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, explains that: “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” Carpet-bombing Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards or conventional airstrikes pounding al-Qaida and the Taliban are seen as acts of war. Ordering the death of a single person, someone known by name and face, has the feel of murder.
But Obama’s targeting of individuals for drone strikes almost certainly kills fewer innocent bystanders than any other method of eliminating them. Conventional bombings or wars kill far more indiscriminately and almost always involve the death of large numbers of civilians.
The “kill list” approach avoids most of that. Obama gets advice from dozens of aides, analysts and intelligence officials about whom to target. Only included are people that the U.S. has good reason to believe are terrorists. No, the process does not rise to the standard of an American courtroom, but it is far more rigorous scrutiny than is typically afforded a potential target on a battlefield.
It also has Obama taking personal responsibility, which is refreshing. In most administrations the only fingerprints would be of some mid-level officer.
Questions about the constitutionality of the “kill list” should at some point be addressed. But until Congress asserts its war powers authority presidents will act on their own. And as long as they do, targeted drone strikes are an effective and relatively humane way to wage war.