The Obama administration’s use of drones to kill suspected terrorists became a heated political issue this past week. This tactic’s foray into public discourse was a bit of a surprise, considering that 83 percent of Americans approve of the strategy. But NBC News leaked a Justice Department memo detailing the administration’s justification for drone strikes, and John Brennan — President Obama’s nominee to head the CIA — faced his confirmation hearings Thursday. (As an aside, it’s a little strange that when Obama nominated Brennan and Chuck Hagel to lead his foreign policy team, the nominee who hadn’t advocated for torture stood as the controversial figure.)
The memo is quite disturbing. It explicitly says that the president can order the killing of U.S. citizens who are believed to be “senior operation leaders” of al-Qaeda or members of one of their “associated forces.” The memo also says that the killing can still occur if no evidence suggests that the suspected terrorists are plotting U.S. attacks.
Obama, a former constitutional law professor, surely knows that the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that, “…nor [shall any person] be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.” The memo underscores how Obama’s foreign policy has somewhat resembled that of his predecessor. Some critics would argue that like George W. Bush, Obama has sacrificed the country’s core constitutional values for security in the war on terror (I know the administration isn’t using that phrase anymore, but it’s merely an issue of semantics).
It is worth thinking about this issue not as black-and-white, however. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism asserts that drone strikes have killed at least 556 innocent civilians. Even for suspected terrorists, the idea of ordering the killing of U.S. citizens without trial would undoubtedly jostle America’s sense of moral authority. What if another country deemed a U.S. citizen to pose an imminent threat? Could that country send an unmanned drone to kill someone on U.S. soil?
However, drone strikes would certainly appear to have fewer civilian casualties than any alternatives — sending troops into countries, dropping bombs, etc. The United States doesn’t have any good options here. And soldiers in the Confederacy during the Civil War were Americans. Because they joined the enemy in a time of war, they were not immune from attack.
The New York Times’ Ross Douthat said Obama’s low footprint foreign policy resonates with a country “that’s tired of war but still remembers 9/11 vividly.” Perhaps that’s why 83 percent of Americans approve of the policy. But it is still valuable to weigh both sides of the arguments in this complex moral quandary.