Let's face it: Drone killings have become the Staples' "Easy Button" of what we used to call foreign policy.
The lesson that the French supposedly learned in Algiers and that America supposedly learned -- big-time -- in Vietnam and then all over again in Iraq was that insurgencies and terrorists are hard to defeat when the hearts and minds of the local population have turned stone cold against you.
But we all know that winning hearts and minds halfway around the world is impossibly hard work: It requires time and money and patience...the kind of things that are in short supply in America in 2012. In Afghanistan, building roads or new schools isn't easy in the face of centuries of virtually non-stop warfare and hatred.
But then there's drones. Surgically removing the bad guys in Afghanistan -- and, what the hey, Pakistan and Yemen, etc., etc. -- while leaving the good guys intact to breathe in the smell of freedom. What could possibly go wrong? Especially when the Obama administration came up with the way of listing civilians who are killed in the drone strikes as terrorists and when the basic details of the program are kept from Congress and the general public...except for the self-serving details that are leaked to the New York Times.
It seems so...easy. Just think if LBJ had had drones in Vietnam or Jimmy Carter during the Iranian hostage crisis, and how different things might have been! Right? Anyway, I thought I'd lost my capacity to be shocked by anything I read about the drone program until I read this (in the New York Times, of course) this morning:
WASHINGTON — Facing the possibility that President Obama might not win a second term, his administration accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials.
The matter may have lost some urgency after Nov. 6. But with more than 300 drone strikes and some 2,500 people killed by the Central Intelligence Agency and the military since Mr. Obama first took office, the administration is still pushing to make the rules formal and resolve internal uncertainty and disagreement about exactly when lethal action is justified.
The attempt to write a formal rule book for targeted killing began last summer after news reports on the drone program, started under President George W. Bush and expanded by Mr. Obama, revealed some details of the president’s role in the shifting procedures for compiling “kill lists” and approving strikes. Though national security officials insist that the process is meticulous and lawful, the president and top aides believe it should be institutionalized, a course of action that seemed particularly urgent when it appeared that Mitt Romney might win the presidency.
“There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. With a continuing debate about the proper limits of drone strikes, Mr. Obama did not want to leave an “amorphous” program to his successor, the official said. The effort, which would have been rushed to completion by January had Mr. Romney won, will now be finished at a more leisurely pace, the official said.
Simply put, what Team Obama is saying here is that killing people with drone strikes (but without judicial reviews or public scrunity) is good and virtuous when Barack Obama is the one with his finger on the "Easy" button, but it might be wrong if anyone else does, especially someone we already don't like, such as Mitt Romney. Or. let me put it even simpler: When it comes to drones, Obama now actually believes his own righteous baloney.
The truth is that Mitt Romney -- as we learned during the debates -- would not have operated the drone-killing program any different from Barack Obama. The flying death robots would be used a lot, and some bad guys would die and some innocent women and children would die -- just as happens today. And another truth is this: This is exactly what some civil libertarians warned -- but not loud enough -- when presidential powers were unconstitutionally expanded under George W. Bush, that a Democratic president would not give these powers back. And the biggest truth is this: That the corrupting power of drone killings -- to make things happen with the push of a button rather than the messy process of dealing with judges and Congress and a free press asking questions -- is all but absolute. Look how it has sucked in President Obama -- lock, stock, and barrel.
Today's New York Times article does a very good job of reminding us of some of the reasons why this is such a bad idea. It quotes author Gregory Johnsen who has found that the drone program has completely backfired in Yemen, strengthening al-Qaeda there instead of destroying it. Also, America -- which once opposed targeted assassinations by other nations, as happened earlier this month by the Israelis in Gaza -- has now lost the moral high ground on this issue.
There is also faint hope in the Times article, that a faction within the Obama administration that wants limits on drone strikes may ultimately rule the day. (That faction includes counter-terrorism czar John O. Brennan who -- significantly for this issue -- could end up running the CIA.)
Let's hope so. Targeted assassinations are the moral issue of Obama's second term. He now has a little extra time...to still do the right thing. But morality deferred is still morality denied.