One of the tertiary issues that never got much attention during the presidential campaign was the use of drones to conduct the war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates in places like Pakistan, Yemen, and other loci of Islamist terrorist networks. It didn’t get much attention because Mitt Romney’s position on the use of drones didn’t provide much contrast from Barack Obama, and it seemed clear that the US would have continuity in this one area of policy regardless of who won the election.
That frustrated human-rights activists on the Left, who want the US to seriously curtail these attacks or stop them altogether, but have gained no traction with the Obama administration during his first term in office. Obama has remained determined thus far to keep the drone attack as a tactic open to him as he sees fit, acting as Commander in Chief. That probably wouldn’t get a lot of opposition from Republicans and hawks in both parties.
However, it seems as though Obama does have an objection to anyone else but him having that discretion. The New York Times reported yesterday on a ghastly hypocrisy within the White House, which tried to impose limits on the use of drones, limits that would activate if Obama lost the election:
Facing the possibility that President Obama might not win a second term, his administration accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials.
Great! So they’re going to put these restrictions forward for their own use now, right? Er ….
The matter may have lost some urgency after Nov. 6. But with more than 300 drone strikes and some 2,500 people killed by the Central Intelligence Agency and the military since Mr. Obama first took office, the administration is still pushing to make the rules formal and resolve internal uncertainty and disagreement about exactly when lethal action is justified.
Mr. Obama and his advisers are still debating whether remote-control killing should be a measure of last resort against imminent threats to the United States, or a more flexible tool, available to help allied governments attack their enemies or to prevent militants from controlling territory.
So they still don’t know how they’d like to use the drones, but they were apparently sure that Romney shouldn’t have the leeway to make that decision for himself. That’s quite a double standard — or more accurately, a standard for everyone else and no standard at all for themselves.
Should we restrict the use of drones to a last-resort measure, considering the collateral damage that occurs when drones are deployed? Ironically, Obama may have made that argument himself with his bragging about the Osama bin Laden mission. We successfully brought justice to bin Laden, as Obama likes to put it, without blowing up any surrounding houses. If we can do that with OBL, why not with terrorists lower down the ladder than the founder of al-Qaeda? Thanks to Obama’s rush to impose such limits on Romney, his argument for continued unrestricted use of drones has been even more badly damaged than before.