Much is being made of the newly leaked Justice Department memo authorizing the killing by armed drones of American citizens with suspected ties to al Qaeda. In the hopes of quelling passions, which are running high on both sides of the political spectrum, the president’s envoy, Jay Carney, went out in front of the cameras on Tuesday to declare that the drone program is “legal, ethical, and wise.”
The controversy is nevertheless proving to be a flashpoint in the confirmation hearings today of John Brennan, the man Obama has nominated for the post of CIA director.
Some commentators have seized on the argument that the president’s position, in light of his marked distaste for enhanced interrogation techniques, appears hypocritical. Indeed it is ironic that Obama opposes simulating drowning to extract information from an enemy combatant but not to blowing the same combatant to kingdom come. And while government officials argue that “collateral damage” from “surgical strikes” has been reduced to zero, try telling that what’s left of the poor slob who happened to be standing two feet away from the intended target when the bomb hit.
Perhaps the kindest indictment of the president’s seemingly two-faced position on how best to prosecute the war on terror was delivered by NPR’s Mara Liasson on Wednesday. Appearing as an “all-star panelist” on FOX News Channel’s “Special Report with Bret Baier,” Liasson surmised that Obama may simply have underestimated the problems that go with being commander in chief. In other words, Obama wasn’t being hypocritical when as president he stepped up the military’s used of armed drones — just naïve.
Nevertheless, there is some validity to Carney’s statement, albeit not the part about the use of drones being “legal.” The question of legality is framed memorably in the title of a blog post by The Daily Caller’s Jim Treacher, who asks, “Is it okay to pour water on a terrorist’s face if it’s dropped from an unmanned drone?” (For a more detailed answer from a disinterested observer, see also the ACLU’s reaction to the Justice Department memo).
But the question of whether the approach is wise deserves more serious consideration. Since it is obviously preferable to capture, rather than kill, an enemy combatant, the answer on one reading is no. All things being equal, however, a dead terrorist is better than no terrorist.
As Treacher put it:
For what it’s worth, I’m okay with both waterboarding and taking out terrorists with drone strikes, no matter where they were born. But then, I’m not the one who thinks it all depends on whether or not Bush did it.
When liberals are ready to have a serious adult conversation about what’s right and best for protecting the nation’s citizens and treasure from harm, the rest of us will be waiting.
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