It’s a good thing Barack Obama is president. For one reason at least: If he were not in the White House, and a Republican was, you can bet that influential Democrats would be doing their utmost to block or curtail the use of armed drones in the nation’s war on terrorists.
That thought is prompted by this lengthy Washington Post article  which examines the growing use of such unmanned strikes under Obama’s watch. Reporter Greg Miller notes:
Other commanders in chief have presided over wars with far higher casualty counts. But no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals….
Obama was sworn into office in 2009, the nation’s clandestine drone war was confined to a single country, Pakistan, where 44 strikes over five years had left about 400 people dead, according to the New America Foundation. The number of strikes has since soared to nearly 240, and the number of those killed, according to conservative estimates, has more than quadrupled.
While undoubtedly effective, those strikes are increasingly raising questions about extra-judicial killings and the authority under which they are conducted.
As Miller further notes: “The rapid expansion of the drone program has blurred long-standing boundaries between the CIA and the military. Lethal operations are increasingly assembled a la carte, piecing together personnel and equipment in ways that allow the White House to toggle between separate legal authorities that govern the use of lethal force.”
You can bet that those legal concerns would be front and center in media coverage and would be used by Hill Democrats in an attempt to block further strikes — if Obama weren’t president. The fact that a liberal Democratic commander-in-chief is ordering such strikes gives them political and legal insulation that they may not necessarily enjoy in future administrations.
Even from an operational standpoint, however, there is reason to doubt Obama’s heavy emphasis on these strikes. First there is a danger of backlash — that targeted killings may undermine and discredit moderate leaders in places like Pakistan while causing the populace to sympathize with radicals being targeted, much as Nazi bombing during the Battle of Britain simply drove the British people closer to their government. To my mind that is not a big danger at the moment because moderate leaders don’t enjoy any real power in places like Pakistan or Yemen, and because the benefits of strikes in disrupting Al Qaeda operations so far outweigh any public relations costs.
But there is another danger as well — that by choosing to kill so many militants we lose an opportunity to capture and interrogate them and thereby to unravel the networks to which they belong. Miller hints at this problem when he writes: “The escalation of the lethal drone campaign under Obama was driven to an extent by early counterterrorism decisions. Shuttering the CIA’s detention program and halting transfers to Guantanamo Bay left few options beyond drone strikes or detention by often unreliable allies.”
The administration needs to overcome its squeamishness about transfers to Gitmo and to start more effectively utilizing the system of military tribunals which is in place to try captured terrorist suspects. Otherwise there is a real danger of leaning too much on one pillar of counter-terrorism policy — drone strikes. However effective and however justified (and I remain a strong supporter of the program carried out by the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command), it cannot be the be all and end all of our efforts to counter terrorist groups.