Setting limits on drones

It's about time.

President Barack Obama's announcement today of new limits on drone strikes and his renewed call to close the terrorist detention center at Guantanamo Bay were badly overdue. The United States has lost much credibility overseas with its failure to confront both issues that are so obviously in conflict with fundamental human rights and our founding principles.

How disappointing that — until this week, when Mr. Obama finally declassified the news — the administration couldn't even acknowledge that unmanned aircraft operating in foreign countries have killed four Americans as part of counter-terrorism operations. Only one of those victims, Anwar al-Awlaki, was purposefully targeted, incidentally, but wouldn't it have been reassuring to know exactly what went into Mr. Obama's decision to be his judge, jury and executioner before now?

Guantanamo, of course, is a slightly different issue. Mr. Obama has sought to close the facility before, only to be rebuffed by Congress, which set limits that have made that difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. His choice to lift the moratorium on transferring Guantanamo detainees to Yemen (the country of origin for a large number of them) will likely help in this regard.

It's difficult to dispute that drone attacks are sometimes necessary to fight terrorism and have been effective in that regard. Since 9/11, the nature of warfare has changed, and, as Mr. Obama observed, the alternatives of conventional warfare or waiting for terrorists to attack first often result in far worse outcomes, particularly in terms of civilian casualties.

As much as Republican critics are eager to now portray the president as weak and vacillating on a strategic issue of national defense, the standards that Mr. Obama has adopted seem largely a matter of common sense. Drone strikes should be limited to those associated with al-Qaida and its affiliates and used when a threat is continuing and imminent; no other government response is capable of addressing it; and it's a "near certainty" that civilians will not be killed or injured.

Once the U.S. has withdrawn combat troops from Afghanistan, such a standard would seem logical and strategic. The U.S. can't be constantly in a state of war and deem every country where terrorists might be hiding an active battlefield. That strains any claim we might have of acting only in our own self-defense.

Where Mr. Obama proved somewhat more circumspect was on the subject of transparency and oversight. While acknowledging that drones are no "cure all" for terrorism, he pledged only to have a conversation with Congress about what further oversight might be possible. Alternatives such as judicial review or oversight by an independent board within the executive branch are regarded as problematic.

Make no mistake, this was no chest-thumping, flag-waving declaration of a war on terrorism that gets pulses pounding and stirs emotions. Instead, Mr. Obama faces the far more challenging task of trying to insert some reason and morality into a 21st century conflict that, at the very least, needs to have some limits in its scope.

As the president noted, there are often better ways to confront extremism than through force, yet those alternatives — supporting democracy, addressing chronic poverty and deep-seated sectarian hatreds, improving education and nurturing entrepreneurship, to name just a few — are difficult and complex, and sometimes the U.S. has limited tools with which to work.

But what a mistake it would be for the country to regard itself as in a state of perpetual war. We have never done that, despite facing far greater and more lethal challenges during our history. President Obama pulled a two-centuries-old quotation from James Madison to underscore that point: "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."

There's no question that the U.S. Constitution has taken some hard hits over the past decade. Mr. Obama offered as examples torture and the initial choice (since refuted by the courts) to deny Guantanamo detainees the right to challenge their incarceration. He might have added the use of drones without sufficient oversight or legal protections as another.

It's time the U.S. stood up for its core values. Abandoning them does not make us safer or stronger. It gives ammunition to extremists, limits cooperation from our allies and sends a message that it only takes the efforts of a couple dozen terrorists to cause us to be so frightened that we would lose our way in the world.

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