The problem the White House faces is its stubborn insistence that its non-war is being fought with precision. Earnest used that very word repeatedly. But it’s hard to take the claim seriously in light of calculations, like those published in the Guardian last November, that U.S. efforts to kill just 41 leaders of al-Qaeda and other groups caused some 1,147 civilian casualties. Even if we discount that number by half, the tradeoff involved is profoundly troubling.
The sort of war the administration is waging requires extraordinarily accurate intelligence. Earnest said in his briefing that a strike is not permitted unless there is “a near certainty” that no civilians will be harmed. In wartime that standard would be impossible to meet. Claiming that a war isn’t a war doesn’t make meeting the standard any easier.
I am not suggesting that calling the War on Terror a war would make civilian casualties any more justified. But it might force the administration to concede that we simply lack the intelligence resources to establish a guarantee against killing noncombatants. And once the administration admits the inevitability of significant numbers of civilian deaths, we might be able to engage in serious public conversation about the morality of the drone war.