The Commercial Appeal

Proactive defense has own rule of civility


WASHINGTON — “If George W. Bush was whacking American citizens on the basis of secret legal memos,” writes columnist Dick Polman, “Senate liberals would be conducting hearings.”

“If George Bush ... had done this,” argues Joe Scarboroug­h of MSNBC, “it would have been stopped.”

On the right, this argument is an accusation of hypocrisy. On the left, it is an expression of horror. In reality, it is an indication of continuity.

The Obama administra­tion’s defense of drone strikes against al- Qaida and associated groups — including American citizens who are part of those groups — is based on a certain concept of selfdefens­e in an age of terrorism. In this view, a terrorist threat does not become “imminent” when a terrorist boards a plane or straps on a bomb vest. It emerges when terrorists plot, train for and incite attacks. “The Constituti­on,” says Atty. Gen. Eric Holder, “does not require the president to delay action until some theoretica­l end-stage of planning.” The recently leaked Department of Justice memo argues similarly, “The condition that an operationa­l leader presents an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U. S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

The same point was made by President Bush, who talked of remaining “on the offensive” in order to prevent attacks “before they arrive.” The National Security Strategy of 2006 put it this way: “If necessary, however, under long-standing principles of self-defense, we do not rule out the use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertaint­y remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. When the consequenc­es of an attack with WMD are potentiall­y so devastatin­g, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materializ­e.”

This argument was savaged as a dangerous innovation. It was nothing of the sort. “Every sovereign state,” said Sen. (and former secretary of state) Elihu Root in 1914, “... has the right ... to protect itself by preventing a condition of affairs in which it will be too late to protect itself.” President Franklin Roosevelt made the case with typical vividness: “When you see a rattlesnak­e poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him.” At the height of the Cuban missile crisis, President John Kennedy argued that the nature of modern threats required preventive or anticipato­ry self-defense. “Neither the United States of America nor the world community of nations,” he said, “can tolerate deliberate deception and offensive threats on the part of any nation, large or small. We no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation’s security to constitute maximum peril. Nuclear weapons are so destructiv­e, and ballistic missiles are so swift, that any substantia­lly increased possibilit­y of their use or any sudden change in their deployment may well be regarded as a definite threat to peace.”

Drone strikes are an innovation in anticipato­ry self- defense, requiring careful oversight and a high threshold for action. They are also a technology that allows the most discrimina­te applicatio­n of force in the history of warfare. The fact that the use of drones protects American troops from risk is a virtue. And the targeting of American citizens who are fighting for the enemy is neither new nor forbidden by the laws of war. There were at least eight American volunteers for the Waffen SS who were killed during World War II. Should their American citizenshi­p have earned them membership in a special, protected category of combatant?

This, of course, is the essence of the matter. If America is in an ongoing war against al-Qaida and associated groups, then the rules of war apply, Yemen and the Afghanista­n/Pakistan border are battlefiel­ds, and al- Qaida operatives are lawful targets. This is the position taken by both the Bush and Obama administra­tions, consistent with America’s inherent right of self-defense and the 2001 Authorizat­ion for the Use of Military Force. If this war were a myth or a metaphor, then the pursuit of al-Qaida is a criminal matter, requiring extraditio­n, arrests and due process.

Labeling President Barack Obama as “judge, jury and executione­r” is his critics’ prerogativ­e. But defending the country is not their responsibi­lity. It is easy for those without executive authority to dismiss risks that are prospectiv­e. After a terrorist attack on America, the critics would likely be silent, hoping that no one recalled their complacenc­y. Contact Michael Gerson of the Washington Post Writers Group at michaelger­son@washpost. com.

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