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The Silence of the Drones

By Fouad Ajami
February 10, 2013 11:00 AM EST

In times of war, the law is not silent. War is not a moral wilderness: At the Second Lateran Council in 1139, the use of the crossbow was banned among European knights. Throughout history, there have been codes that even the hell of war could not override.

I own up to being conflicted about the use of drone strikes. Those 19 young Arabs who struck the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, shredded the old notions and rules of war, erased the line between combatants and noncombatants, brought soot and ruin onto American soil. Our country had to be made ready for this new kind of war.

We waged big military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the terrorists waged a twilight war of their own, bereft of scruples and limits. There would be no treaty of surrender we could enforce, no capital city to be subdued. Chased from Afghanistan, they turned up in Yemen and Somalia. They were soldiers of the catacombs, and they thrived in ungoverned spaces.

Targeted killing was the response of a great military power to the frustrations of this “asymmetrical” war. We didn’t know that larger world of Islam from which this war arose. We were sandbagged by regimes and rulers that feigned friendship with us as they winked at the terror that came our way.

What was one to make of the New Mexico-born radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki inciting his devotees to a holy war -- all in good Americanese? He wore no uniform, slipped into the badlands of his ancestral Yemen and mastered the new means of communication.

Awlaki’s Fate

In the strict legalism of things he was an American citizen, but he bore this country a deadly animus. No tears need be shed for him. The strike that killed him, in Yemen in September 2011, was a deed of just retribution. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney’s defense of the drone strikes as legal, ethical and wise can stand in the case of Awlaki. The executive had been granted broad powers under the Authorization for Use of Military Force in the aftermath of Sept. 11, and two presidents were given the leeway to prosecute this war on terrorism.

In truth, the public didn’t want to look too closely into the doings of our government. We left it to our intelligence agencies and our military to keep us safe. But there came a time -- after the doings of the night shift at Abu Ghraib became public -- when the writ granted our officials was withdrawn. Liberals declared an all-out ideological war against the administration of George W. Bush.

The horror, the horror: The renditions and the enhanced interrogation techniques and, yes, the 50 or so drone strikes used during the Bush years became, to the liberals, a matter of national shame. A rising politician in the Democratic Party, a former teacher of constitutional law at the University of Chicago at that, rode this sense of outrage to the pinnacle of political power. He posed as a moralist.

Barack Obama was certain that rendition and waterboarding and the prison at Guantanamo Bay were recruiting tools of the jihadis. We had sullied America’s reputation in lands beyond, and he would heal the damage. Our practices had run afoul of time-tested traditions and institutions, and in his stewardship, he promised, our values would again be a compass for our deeds abroad.

In hindsight, the great reckoning for Obama came at the end of the first year of his presidency. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young Nigerian, a disciple of Awlaki, came close to bringing down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. It was farewell to Kumbaya foreign policy: The world was a menacing place.

Against the background of the stirring Obama oratory, and the euphoric claim that the president’s personal biography was a bridge to the world of Islam, the young Nigerian could have snuffed out the promise of the Obama presidency. From that close call, the president emerged a determined leader in the war on terrorism.

Stealth War

He had his trusted aide, John Brennan, in a windowless office in the White House, and Brennan knew the world of intelligence and terrorism. He knew the Arabian Peninsula, as he had served as an intelligence officer in Saudi Arabia -- a country where secrets and things unacknowledged are the coin of the realm.

Together the president and the spook oversaw a stealth war, and the president became his own targeting officer. (Obama going over kill lists recalls President Lyndon Johnson’s poring over the map of Khe Sanh in search of bombing targets in Vietnam; the marked difference is the anguish of LBJ, and by the telling, the serene confidence of Obama that this is a war of necessity and a just campaign.)

The drone strikes were the choice of a president who had given up on winning “hearts and minds” in the North-West Frontier of Pakistan. Secure in the knowledge that he can’t be outflanked from the right by the Republicans, Obama served up a policy that was economical -- and remote. Congress didn’t intrude, and save for the purists at the American Civil Liberties Union, there was no powerful intellectual lobby calling for accountability.

The passion had drained out of the progressives who had hounded Bush, Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby. Brennan had to step aside once when he was put up to head the Central Intelligence Agency, as a man tainted with the Bush legacy. His confirmation is certain this time around.

There remains the discrepancy between an extensive campaign of drones and a passive foreign policy that maintains -- the president’s very words -- that an era of war is ending. Forgive those Syrians left at the mercy of their dictator’s cruel war: It is hard to explain to them why those drones don’t somehow find their way to Bashar al-Assad’s bunker. We do anti- terrorism. Wars of rescue are not an American specialty nowadays.

(Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of “The Syrian Rebellion.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Fouad Ajami at mjring@stanford.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.

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