It is their minds, eyes and hands that direct the increasing number of pilotless, soldierless airborne drone attacks deep inside isolated terrorist pockets deep inside Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere — targeting suspected terrorist leaders believed to be plotting our mass murder.
These war combatants guide lethally armed drones with a video-game pinpoint precision that makes war, from their end of it, seem antiseptic and almost surreal. But at the other end, we know there will inevitably be civilians — innocents — whose misfortune was that terrorist leaders chose to hide in their midst. Their reality is that the terrorists’ war became their hell.
(To which, we can and must respond, that must be exactly what it felt like for the 3,000 innocents on 9/11 when death by terrorism came hurtling out of the sky.)
So this is where we are today — caught up in an era of drone warfare that we know is highly controversial, yet, we also know, is here to stay. And we know that our safety depends upon their intelligence and accuracy being spot-on. As it apparently was Monday, when a drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal areas of North Waziristan reportedly killed al-Qaida’s No. 2 commander, Abu Yahya al-Libi. Pakistani officials said at least 15 persons died in the attack.
All of the above is why President Barack Obama has made it his solemn duty to review all the intelligence and personally order every drone strike. He could have delegated (see also: ducked) this ultimate responsibility. After all, there can be no certainty that the intelligence is flawless. And innocents surely will be killed in the strike. But this president decided it was the duty of the commander in chief and no one else. For that, all Americans — even opponents and critics — owe him respect.
Because controversies over U.S. drone policies will reverberate throughout this election year, we need to know the questions and where we stand:
One: Should a president be able to order what amounts to assassinations of individuals, including American citizens, who may be working with terrorist groups, far from any traditional war zone? The New York Times editorial board said “no” the other day. But when you got past the editorial headline, its final position was that Obama should publish his guidelines for targeting individuals for drone attacks and allow an outside court to review evidence against Americans on that list. That seems reasonable to me, because I can visualize what could happen if an unreasonable president made those decisions alone. After all, an enraged President Richard Nixon several times ordered his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman to have the Brookings Institution, a moderately liberal Washington think tank, firebombed! Still, a checks-and-balances system cannot be unwieldy and must produce decisions with reasonable rapidity.
Two: Do drone strikes create animosity among populations in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere? Yes — news reports show that drone attacks have been followed by increased expressions of support for terrorist groups.
But that doesn’t mean the U.S. should halt all drone strikes. It mainly means that Washington must work vigorously on public diplomacy campaigns — to spread the message of American support for the countries and their citizens and Western aid for all efforts to ensure that terrorists will not have safe havens in these lands.
Three: Will there come a day when terrorist enemies of America and the West have drone technology and capability? Probably, but experts say it isn’t imminent. The controversy recently surfaced when the Obama administration agreed to arm Italy’s Reaper surveillance drones with Hellfire missiles and precision-guided bombs. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), cautioned that it could lead to the proliferation of this weaponry. She said the technology shouldn’t be shared. I agree.
We need to do all we can to ensure that today’s warfare reality doesn’t become tomorrow’s warfare nightmare.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.