“When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
So said Richard Nixon in his interviews with David Frost. Nixon was talking about wiretaps and surreptitious entries to protect lives and safeguard national security in a violent and anarchic war decade. The Nixon haters pronounced themselves morally sickened.
Fast forward to our new century. For, since 9/11, we have heard rather more extravagant claims by American presidents.
Under George W. Bush, it was presidential authority to waterboard, torture, rendition and hold enemy aliens in indefinite detention at Guantanamo.
Under Barack Obama, we don’t have a Nixon “enemies list” of folks who are not to be invited to White House dinners. Rather, we have a “kill list” — a menu from which our constitutional law professor president selects individuals to be executed abroad. Not only in Afghanistan, but Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and who knows where else. And not just foreigners, but Americans, too.
When may Obama order an American killed? According to a Justice Department “white paper,” any “informed high-level official” can decide a target is a ranking operative of al-Qaida who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States,” and if we cannot apprehend him, order him eradicated with a Hellfire missile. As law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell argues: “For a threat to be deemed ‘imminent,’ it is not necessary for a specific attack to be underway. The paper denies Congress and the federal courts a role in authorizing the killings or even reviewing them afterwards.” And they called Nixon the imperial president.
As killing a U.S. citizen is a graver deed than waterboarding a terrorist plotter to get information to save lives, Obama, who bewailed Bush’s detention, rendition and interrogation policies, appears guilty of manifest hypocrisy. But with 3,000 to 4,500 now killed by drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen over 10 years, and an estimated 200 children and other civilians among the “collateral damage,” it is past time for a debate on where we are going in this “war on terror.”
A question raised by Donald Rumsfeld years ago — Are we creating more terrorists than we are killing? — needs re-raising. For if these drone strikes that kill innocent and guilty alike are creating new millions of sympathizers for al-Qaida, and recruiting new thousands of volunteers willing to dedicate their lives to taking revenge against us, we have entered upon a war that may never end.
Al-Qaida in Afghanistan is said to be ravaged and on the run. Yet we read of al-Qaida affiliates cropping up not only in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, but Iraq, Syria, Libya and Mali. How many of these new cells were inspired by past drone strikes to destroy old al-Qaida cells?
The New York Times and the Washington Post have admitted they acceded to White House requests not to publish their discovery that we had established a drone base in Saudi Arabia for attacks in Yemen.
But planting a U.S. drone base on Saudi soil is no small matter. Osama bin Laden gave as a primary cause for his declaration of war on America that we had defiled the sacred soil of Arabia that is home to Mecca and Medina by planting our infidel bases there. After 9/11, at the Saudis’ request, we removed our bases. What will this revelation mean for that royal family? What will it mean for America’s image in the Muslim world? Is any benefit we derive from a drone base just north of Yemen worth enraging much of an Islamic world of 1.5 billion?
In his 1951 address to Congress, Gen. Douglas MacArthur declared: “Once war is forced upon us, there is no other alternative than to apply every available means to bring it to a swift end. War’s very object is victory, not prolonged indecision.”
Congress, the administration and the American people need to ask: Why have we been unable to bring this war on terror to a “swift end”? Why this “prolonged indecision”? Why has the battlefield in the war on terror not narrowed, but expanded from South Asia to the Middle East to North Africa? Is the war on terror to be like the war on crime, eternal, with U.S. soldiers policing the world forever, even as cops police our cities? What is Obama’s plan, the Republicans’ plan for ending or winning this war, whose scope widens with each year?
“No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare,” wrote the author of our Constitution.
As we see the great buildings of our capital enveloped in concrete barriers, as U.S. citizens are forced to submit to intrusive searches before boarding airliners, one wonders: How long before the Republic becomes a garrison state? If we do not end this war, this war will one day bring an end to the freedom for which the Fathers fought.