On drones and self-defense

Michael Tomasky has a very cogent piece on the subject of drone strikes against US citizens who have gone over to Al Qaeda. I won't rehash it here, save to use it as a starting point; his opening, though, is very telling, and something we forget at the peril of turning a very serious subject into a caricature of Left v. Right.
I’ve always written about politics with part of my brain focused on the question of what I would do if I were in Politician X’s position. This line of thought came so naturally to me that I imagined everyone did this. But I guess everyone doesn’t.

I've now read the DoJ white paper unearthed by Michael Isikoff (nice job! And by the way, who leaked that one, eh?) that justifies the killing of US citizens. You can read it for yourself here. It’s certainly not something that makes the breast swell with pride. But it does make me wonder what I would do in this situation, and I can’t honestly come up with easy answers. While I don’t condone what the Obama administration is doing here, I’m also suspicious of high-horse denunciations, because I think the question of whether an American forfeits his due process rights when he joins an enemy army is a complicated one.
There is a caricature of the Left that its view is that war is always wrong, and force should never be used; in regards to the fight against Al Qaeda, it views the war analogy as fundamentally flawed, and more traditional law enforcement methods should be employed. Meanwhile, the caricature of the Right is that force should always be foremost in our quiver, even if diplomatic efforts haven't been exhausted. John McCain's Cato-like exhortations to "bomb bomb Iran" leap to mind. I have no doubt that a large swathe of the Right would welcome an invasion of nuclear-armed Pakistan to deal with the "terrorist threat".

The fact is, that we are in a different geopolitical era than the one which prevailed during the Cold War. Nation-states, especially the major powers, have become increasingly loath to resort to war against each other to resolve differences. If conflicts do occur, peace initiatives are quickly put about to resolve them. In a world in which capitalism is the dominant economic ideology, war is bad for business. (Preparing for war, however, always brings in the dollars.) Most of the threats facing the major powers come from amorphous non-state actors like Al Qaeda. With this in mind, there has to be a more nuanced view of force. To say that we're not in a war against Al Qaeda is to have one's head stuck in the sand in the most dangerous manner. Al Qaeda certainly considers itself to be in a state of war with the US. To not respond in kind would be a form national suicide. However, to respond with excessive force—invading Pakistan comes to mind—would enhance the instability against which we're fighting.

Considering the changed landscape in which the US operates—there will be no more Iraq-type wars; our future military engagements will be brushfire operations or the operations currently carried out against Al Qaeda—the question is how to best conduct military action so that it causes a minimum of casualties both among US servicemembers and foreign civilians.

I have very little doubt that if it had been a President McCain given intelligence of Osama bin Laden's location, that a bunker buster bomb would have been the preferred choice for dealing with him, not a risky special operations mission. The American public will not tolerate massive land wars after George Bush's fiasco in Iraq and his dereliction of duty in Afghanistan. The public will also not tolerate inflicting massive casualties on innocents. In light of that, drone strikes are the best option in a list of options that in the end all cause death, and have the possibility of killing civilians.

Of course, what has certain pundits and their followers exercised is the White Paper leaked to Michael Isikoff which details the legal justification for killing US citizens who have taken up arms against the state.

I'm not going to cavalierly explain away this facet of the war against Al Qaeda. It is a serious question which needs to be dealt with in a serious manner.

The question is: What does "due process" mean when a US citizen has joined an enemy in planning harm to his former country? Do we have to wait until the bombs have been planted? Do we go and ask Pakistan or Yemen for permission for US law enforcement to arrest these individuals? Do we act as if terrorism is merely another crime, rather than what it has morphed into, which is a perpetual state of war?

I'm not sanguine about the situation in which we find ourselves. Whether we like it or not, we are in an almost perpetual state of war against a non-state actor. Terrorism in the 21st century has evolved into a different beast than the terrorism of the latter 20th century. It is a constant threat, promising to erupt at any moment, rather than the spectacular exception to which we'd grown accustomed from the 1970s through the 1990s. The September 11th attacks were different in quantity and quality. We can argue about the causes for those attacks; but they were attacks of a warlike nature, meant to be merely the opening salvo in a protracted campaign, and not merely attention-grabbing spectacles to bring attention to bear on a particular grievance.

Does the US have a right to defend itself from people in a constant state of preparing attacks against it? Of course it does. And if a US citizen has decided to throw in his or her lot with Al Qaeda and participate in planning and carrying out those attacks? The logic applies that if arrest and prosecution are not feasible, by putting themselves into a theater of war against the United States they have become legitimate targets.

The argument from the Left is that targeting US citizens engaged in violent action against the state without all the trappings of the legal system is the first step in a slippery slope which leads to targeting any political dissident. To me, it's a specious argument. It's the same one the Right makes vis a vis gun control: enacting gun control legislation is the first step in abrogating the Bill of Rights in its entirety. By the time such a future outcome is even conceivable, many steps would have taken place to make the country no longer be what it once was.

This is a serious discussion to have, one to which we've not been treated by the Left. Black and white outcomes are fine for a debating club; the real world is much different. However, while I trust Barack Obama to manage the drone program scrupulously, the war against Al Qaeda will likely outlive his presidency, and certain strictures need to be in place for the next office holder. This is where my conflict comes into play.

Two more quotes from Tomasky are illustrative, both of the slippery slope argument, and that of the loneliness of command:
Therefore, to those slippery slope arguers, I think it can be said that in real life the slope isn't really that slippery. Taking out a handful of Americans who have sworn allegiance to an enemy hardly means the government is going to start targeting domestic political opponents.
And:
Let’s return to this question of imminence, which is the key thing here. David Cole of Georgetown law writes in the Times:
But even if capture is not feasible at the moment, if the suspect is not about to attack us, it is possible that capture will become feasible later. Self defense requires that lethal force be used only as a last resort; the Obama administration’s redefinition of “imminence” permits it to be used as a first resort.
He’s not wrong. But it's the nature of this sordid business that it's impossible to know whether he's right. There's always the possibility of the case where we might find out too late, and a large number of Americans could die. Presidents live with that responsibility every day. If that responsibility were mine, I can't honestly say what I'd do, and I don't think anyone can.
The President swears an oath to protect the US against enemies foreign and domestic. How he does that is where the difficulty of the job comes in. We won't always have Barack Obama in office exercising his judgment. That's why the conversation has to be an ongoing one, debated seriously and vigorously, with the full realization that the world is not, for the most part, made up of bright, clear lines, but of muddled shades.