The Case for Drones

Just in time for President Obama’s big speech Thursday at the National Defense University on counterterrorism policy and strategy, Commentary Magazine has made available early my June cover article, “The Case for Drones.”  (Available free and not behind the subscriber wall.)  It’s a long essay arguing that drones are both effective and ethical, and addressing a number of the objections to each of those propositions.

The article has a particular audience in mind. It is aimed at conservatives and Republican members of Congress especially, to remind them that their sometimes knee-jerk attacks on the “imperial” Obama presidency risks one major piece of national security that the Obama administration has got well and truly right.  There’s no lack of imperial presidency, abuse of power material for conservatives to work with- pick your issue this week – but this particular issue is one where, if conservatives look down the road, they ought to see that any president, Republican or Democrat, will need to have available the national security tools of drone warfare and national security.  It would be a remarkably foolish thing if, by inattention or inappropriate and merely reflexive attacks on the Obama administration’s drone policy, Republicans in Congress wound up permitting drone warfare to be made politically, morally, or legally illegitimate – just as a future Republican president enters office and discovers that, yes, there are terrorist threats best addressed by drones.  Congressional Republicans, in the midst of the many abuse of power hearings, ought nonetheless to be scheduling hearings to invite current and former administration officials to reiterate their legal views on drone warfare, with the express purpose of standing with the President on this tool of national security and its permanent, legal, and legitimate place.

Commentary is a conservative magazine, obviously, and I’m writing there as a conservative for a conservative audience.  The framing above is political.  But there’s a much more neutral, less political way of framing the issue that ought equally to appeal to the broad national security center across both parties: the core elements of US counterterrorism policy, including detention policy and the whole range of what I’ve sometimes called “counterterrorism-on-offense” (including drones), needs to be put on a much firmer and more permanent basis.

Call this “institutional settlement” in counterterrorism strategy.  We need an institutional settlement around counterterrorism – we have a lot of policies that work pretty well, but they rely largely on executive branch discretion.  There are substantive reforms that need to be made in order to institutionalize counterterrorism policies, and they depend upon the two political branches coming together to give them legitimacy.  In my view there is broad agreement in the center as to these policies in substance; what they lack is a political foundation in actual legislation.  (But giving important credit, let’s note that Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) has just offered legislation that would begin to address legislatively the accountability and oversight issues created by the growth of military special operations; on my first read, it looks like a very good start.)

The fault lies both with the administration and with Congress, but one way or another we today owe it to whoever is responsible for national security tomorrow to make sure that there is a stable, functional, institutionally legitimate framework going forward.  It won’t ever satisfy certain constituencies ever – a big chunk of the international community, Obama’s leftwing, or the Pauline wing of the Republican Party, which are simply at odds with the substance – but it is the pretty clear view of the broad center of both voters and this country’s leadership.  That said, precisely the fact that in the political center most everybody’s on board with the substance means that it’s hard to generate energy to give it the process, oversight, and accountability legs it needs to make its legitimacy permanent.  But institutional settlement, stability of the framework over time and administrations of different parties, matters hugely.

Certainly I hope the President’s speech tomorrow reaches out to address the needs of institutional settlement.  And I very much hope that Congress, and Congressional Republicans especially, take up the opportunity to find ways to engage legislatively – legislating as if there might be both Republicans and Democrats in the presidency.

(And thanks to John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, for getting this June article up early in advance of the President’s speech, and for making it available free to non-subscribers.  Plus, for anyone interested, at this moment it looks as though I’ll be part of a roundtable commenting on the speech on To the Point on NPR tomorrow afternoon.)


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