Pete Wehner makes a fair point in dinging President Obama for hypocrisy because Obama once expressed outrage over the Bush administration’s use of torture (euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques”) while now defending the legality of his own policy of ordering the targeted killing of al-Qaeda members even if they’re U.S. citizens. There is no judicial review in either policy–and the latter results in death rather than discomfort.

But I’d much rather that the president be hypocritical than wrong on the issue of targeted killings. In this case I think he deserves applause for taking the right stance in spite of the criticism from some of his own supporters in the “human rights” lobby. (I use quote marks because groups like Amnesty International seldom if ever recognize that actions taken by Western states to defend themselves against terrorist attacks are a defense of the basic right to live without fear of assault.)

Drone strikes are by no means risk free, the biggest risk being that by killing innocent civilians they will cause a backlash and thereby create more enemies for the U.S. than they eliminate. There is no doubt that some of these strikes have killed the wrong people–as the New York Times account highlights in one incident in Yemen. There is also little doubt, moreover, that drone strikes are no substitute for a comprehensive counterinsurgency and state-building policy designed to permanently safeguard vulnerable countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Mali from the incursions of radical jihadists. But drone strikes have been effective in disrupting al-Qaeda operations and they have been conducted with less collateral damage and more precision than in the past.

It is hard to assess what impact they have had on public opinion in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan, but there is at least as much evidence that these strikes are applauded by locals who are terrorized by al-Qaeda thugs as there is evidence that the strikes are reviled for killing fellow clansmen. As the Times notes: “Although most Yemenis are reluctant to admit it publicly, there does appear to be widespread support for the American drone strikes that hit substantial Qaeda figures like Mr. Shihri, a Saudi and the affiliate’s deputy leader, who died in January of wounds received in a drone strike late last year.”

Given the need to continue these drone strikes, it would be silly and self-destructive to grant certain al-Qaeda figures immunity just because they happen to have American citizenship. In past wars such as the U.S. Civil War and World War II the U.S. military never hesitated to kill or capture enemy combatants simply because they happened to hold American citizenship. Why should today be any different?

Obviously the U.S. government is not going to engage in targeted killings on our home soil, and there is no need to do so–al-Qaeda operatives in the U.S. can always be arrested. That’s not the case in Pakistan or Yemen, where the alternative is typically either to let them go or kill them in a drone strike. The Justice Department memo leaked to NBC News, which justifies such attacks, seems to me a model of careful legal reasoning which preserves the commander-in-chief’s authority to wage war on our enemies without trampling on civil liberties at home.

“This is a chilling document,” says an ACLU lawyer (predictably). No, it’s not. It’s an encouraging document. It shows that, however committed Obama may be to a policy of retrenchment abroad and to dangerous cuts in defense spending, he is still willing to doing what it takes to defend us from al-Qaeda and its ilk.

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