What Christians Should Know About President Obama's Counterterrorism Strategy
The Story: Last Thursday at the National Defense University, President Obama outlined his near-to-medium-term vision for the United States' approach to counterterrorism. Highlighting the need to orchestrate "all elements of national power" for a sustainable counterterrorism strategy which accords with the United States' values and reflects the nation's "resilient spirit," the president's speech was branded by some as having "[broken] new ground" and by others as "portendi[ng] few concrete changes." The president devoted a large portion of the address to drone operations - their past effectiveness, continued relevance, their use in accordance with just war theory, and the need for accountability and constraints - but also discussed detainee transfer policy, the future of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), and the importance of addressing underlying conditions that lead to violent extremism.
The Background: While some might wish to peg the speech to recent events, it is important to note that much of it had already been previewed to the public over the course of 2012 by Jeh Charles Johnson, General Counsel for the Department of Defense (Yale Law School, and Oxford Union), Attorney General Eric Holder (Northwestern School of Law), and then-Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, and now-CIA Director, John Brennan (Wilson Center). Two of the key takeaways from Thursday's speech included:
1. Since 9/11, the ad bellum, legal justification for counterterrorism operations overseas has centered on both Article II of the Constitution ("national self-defense") and the AUMF, by which Congress authorized the use of force against the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and any "associated forces" which "planned, aided, abetted and harbored 9/11 terrorists." Using both authorities, the United States has argued that it is involved in "non-international armed conflict" with the parties outlined in the AUMF.
The successful attrition of the Al Qaeda "core" through U.S. military action and the growth in more loosely-affiliated (and/or questionably associated) Al Qaeda entities therefore directly affects how, or whether, the AUMF continues to serve in its ad bellum capacity. As Al Qaeda "core" becomes less and less relevant, and as the associations between Al Qaeda and other groups enters more murky territory, the debate becomes whether the AUMF should be renewed, revised, or repealed (which also was the subject of a recent hearing on Capitol Hill).
2. Combined with the release of Attorney General Holder's letter to Senator Patrick Leahy on the Awlaki matter and Presidential Policy Guidance on the use of force in extraterritorial counterterrorism operations which fall outside "zones of active hostilities," the president's speech summarized the use of lethal force (which includes drone use) as a form of last resort, meant to prevent or neutralize attacks against U.S. persons, allowed only if capture was not feasible and/or lawful, and done with right intent (e.g., not as punishment or out of convenience).
When it comes to lethal force (using drones or other instruments) outside of "zones of active hostilities," the United States will only do so if the target is legally legitimate and constitutes a "continuing and imminent" threat to U.S. persons. Moreover, it is also required that there be "near-certainty" that the target is actually at the targeted location and non-combatants will not be killed or harmed by the military action. Finally, before initiating lethal action, assessments must be made as to whether capture of the target is feasible, existing government structures in the targeted area are unable or unwilling to handle the issue, and that "no reasonable alternatives exist."
Why It Matters: In his 2012 book, Between Babel and Beast, theologian Peter Leithart registered serious concerns about American foreign policy entering a more "Babelic," or worse, "beastly" phase. Using Genesis 11 as his springboard, Leithart describes Babelic empires as coercive, religious, and political homogenizers who try to maximize security and stave off irrelevance and obscurity. He argues they embody over-realized eschatologies, believing they represent, on earth, the sole political telos. Bestial empires take another, darker step. They are not just intolerant of difference; they harass and martyr the people of God.
Whether or not this new public transparency goes too far in eroding operational flexibility or provokes our enemies to become even more "beastly" (from a Just War perspective), the United States is perhaps less likely to wander down Babelic or "beastly" paths if we, as a country, are publicly debating lethal action targeting criteria or the possible need for new ad bellum (i.e., criteria that are to be consulted before engaging in war) statutory arrangements.
Keeping in mind the need to protect sources, methods and plans (e.g., intelligence, law enforcement, military), there is a level of acceptable transparency which is vital if we, as evangelicals, are to evaluate U.S. policy using just war theory as a plumb line.
For Additional Reading: For Christians interested in current counterterrorism affairs, I can't recommend Lawfare highly enough (including a recent post, with videos, of an Oxford Union debate on drone warfare). The folks at Lawfare are on the cutting-edge when it comes to thinking about a post-AUMF landscape, and are in the midst of releasing an online book on the Obama administration's national security framework. For the relationship of Al Qaeda "core" to other, regional groups, see Letters from Abbotabad, a book by West Point's Countering Terrorism Center based on captured documents from the Bin Laden raid. Finally, for those who want a book-length treatment on the ethics of drone warfare, Bradley Strawser's Killing By Remote Control: The Ethics of an Unmanned Military, is scheduled for publication at this end of this week.