Like the V2 rockets which the Germans used in World War II, and whose apocalyptic effect Thomas Pynchon evokes in Gravity’s Rainbow, drones have gained a powerful grip on the public imagination. The rage and dread they cause, at least in the places where they are used, has more to do with their remote, silent, super-high-tech lethality than with their actual effect. And it doesn’t matter if that hatred is justified or not; the argument can’t be waged on the merits. Obama’s speech seems to signify an acceptance of this elemental fact (though of course some of the other decisions he announced, including shifting responsibility for drones from the CIA to the military, has more to do with domestic criticism about the program’s lack of transparency).

Obama knows that the war on terror requires that the United States kill or capture a very small number of implacable enemies, and change the minds and the lives of tens of millions of others. Indeed, in his speech he acknowledged that “in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.” Even former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once worried that the United States was making enemies faster than it was killing them. But the short-term urgency of killing bad guys inevitably eclipses the long-term goal of changing the conditions which produce terrorism. So even a figure as conscientious as Obama slides down the slippery slope from approving the rare drone strike against “high-value targets” to approving the less discriminating “signature strike” against unidentified individuals engaged in a pattern of threatening activity. Both ending that practice and closing Guantanamo, which Obama also vowed in his speech to take steps to do, constitute an implicit recognition that the time has come to restore that balance…

Drones thus illustrate the conundrum of modern diplomacy. They are indispensable weapons whose eerie effectiveness infuriates people, and thus harms U.S. national interests. President Obama has found that he can’t live with them and can’t live without them. Now he has tried to split the difference. I applaud the decision; but we are not remotely finished with the debate.