Who would have thought that the Presidency of Barack Obama would become practically synonymous with the frequent and systematic use in the war on terrorists of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) known as "drones?"
Obama distinguishes himself from George W. Bush, whose sins comprehend two "unfunded" wars and the use of what his critics called "torture" in the interrogation of enemy combatants. Yet the current president's supporters, more than his critics, have grave concerns about the tactic.
Regular readers of this column know that fighting our Islamist enemies with every weapon at our command certainly does not raise my hackles. But Obama's "weapon of choice" is less a mark of boldness than of timidity and equivocation. How so?
Even though Obama made a distinction between our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, calling the first necessary and the second unnecessary, his commitment even to the former is half-hearted at best, as indicated by his imposition of an arbitrary withdrawal deadline of next year. Vice President Joe Biden long ago advised him to fight the low-risk drone war over the ground war.
Besides, drones have enabled Obama to avoid the sticky question of what to do with captured enemy combatants. Dead terrorists obviously won't be imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, which facility he foolishly promised to close down on the grounds that it is affront to American "values." However, the son-in-law of the late Osama bin Laden was recently captured and faces trial for conspiracy.
And it's trials that Obama prefers. When Attorney General Eric Holder sought to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed for conspiracy in 2009, it went nowhere for logistical, monetary and political reasons. But here we go again.
Except for libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who filibustered for 13 hours last week because of the ambiguity of Holder's shaky defense of drones against our enemies, even if they are American citizens and even if they are on American soil, Republicans have no quarrel with drone attacks. But they are rightly concerned with Holder's "policy" rejection of that worst-case scenario rather than one that is grounded in the Constitution.
The President of the United States is the commander-in-chief of our armed forces. No occupant of the office should ever hesitate to repel attacks from or to wage war against our enemies. It is not necessary, therefore, to sidestep constitutional limitations to do the presidential duty. But by treating a decision not to strike Americans on our soil as a "policy" matter, Obama and Holder have stoked the worst fears of libertarians, left and right, and have made the rest of us wonder if this Administration actually respects the Constitution.
The answer to the questions being raised may not be reassuring. After all, this President has not hesitated to make appointments without senatorial approval when the Senate was not in recess; issue executive orders when Congress did not pass bills he favored; denounce justices of the U.S. Supreme Court for upholding the First Amendment; treat the Second Amendment as an annoying obstacle to "gun control"; refuses to enforce immigration laws duly passed by Congress; and commit this nation to combat in Libya without a declaration of war.
It is hard to imagine the President approving the use of drones to kill his domestic opposition, of course; but there's nothing comforting about saying merely that that's not his policy. For the unavoidable implication of such a "policy" is that only his inclination but not the Constitution stands in the way.
Let's not neglect what Obama prefers to neglect and that is the need for solid, actionable intelligence about the men abroad who regard us as the Great Satan who must be destroyed in order to establish the world-wide caliphate. To repeat, dead terrorists tell no tales, but they have been known to tell all sorts of tales in courtrooms where they are afforded the due-process guarantees of the Constitution.
Drones allow Obama to pretend that waging war can be compatible with fussy concern for our enemies' so-called "rights." As long as they are dead, they need neither be interrogated nor tried; and if they are captured alive, they can be tried rather than properly interrogated and the ensuing judicial circus will make us wish they were dead.
We should be more concerned here and now with whether President Obama is defeating our enemies than whether he has designs on us. But it is not unreasonable to be concerned about a "policy" that is more personal than constitutional.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of " Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at email@example.com.