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The Times Was Right to Worry About Obama’s Drone Program

Lee Phillips
March 30th, 2017

Back in the spring of 2012 I recommended an editorial in the New York Times that I thought made several important points about then-President Obama’s program of targeted assassination, a major part of the War on Terror. One of their items of concern was that Mr. Obama was relying on his own personal judgement, and that of a small number of advisors, as the source of authority about who was eligible for death by drone. When the Times’ editors said that

The precedents now being set will be carried on by successors who may have far lower standards. Without written guidelines, they can be freely reinterpreted

they could surely not have imagined how desperately on the mark their admonitions would shortly become.

Many on the former president’s side of the political divide were inclined to give him a pass for several of his practices and policies; policies that, had they been part of a Republican administration, they would, without question, have opposed.

Mr. Obama’s allies were quick to forgive him his indulgence in drone warfare, which he not only adopted from the previous administration but ramped up significantly. The previous president may have been correct to believe, that, under his careful stewardship, the drone program was the most humane way to prosecute the endless war against our terrorist enemies; humane in that it minimizes both American military casualties and, despite the unavoidable occurrence of collateral damage, is less wasteful of innocent foreign life than the alternatives.

The problem with this kind of moral calculus is that the program would some day no longer be under his guidance. Indeed, it is now run by a man who has said that he thinks it a fine idea to deliberately target the civilian families of terrorists. Drone missions require the approval of the president, and proceed under his personal authority. Mr. Obama seems the kind of man who would take this awesome responsibility seriously; who would weigh the likelihood of exploding bystanders against the probable future death caused by a terrorist who is allowed to live. Mr. Trump seems to be a different kind of man.

Both the Left and the Right (with some dissension) were willing to cede, perhaps uneasily, the authority to conduct assassination warfare to the president. Implicit in this allowance was the largely unconscious assumption that our ponderous political institutions and customs, imperfect and corrupted as they are, still acted as a kind of crude filter, excluding outright moral imbeciles from our highest office. This assumption has now been shown to be mistaken. And so, to have allowed this power to remain unchecked, lulled, perhaps, by eight years of restrained, responsible, and thoughtful leadership, is now revealed to have been a grave mistake.

Mr. Obama himself, wary of a less scrupulous future president, could have at least proposed checks upon presidential power, and submitted himself to their strictures. But he chose not to. The drone armada is now under the absolute control of one man, accountable to no one; a man who, by his own words, is eager to slaughter the innocent, woman and man, adult and child.

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