In a thoughtful speech at the National Defense University, President Obama outlined his policies to narrow the U.S. approach to fighting terrorists. Will he satisfy his critics? Not likely.
Some will argue that the president's policies unnecessarily endanger Americans. Why? Since his policy to heavily constrain drone operations "beyond the Afghan theater" is more limiting than Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) might allow, dangerous people who could lawfully be targeted may escape.
LOAC is the law that applies when you are at war. So if, as the president says, we are at war with al Qaeda and other terrorists, then LOAC allows attacking them almost anywhere and at any time. Moreover, they need not present an "imminent" threat, nor is there any requirement to attempt to capture them before force is used.
LOAC also does not make a distinction between high-level operatives and low-level foot soldiers, mainly because in combat a foot soldier can kill you just as dead as any senior commander.
However, the president's policy favors what are essentially "law enforcement" rules which, in contrast to LOAC, typically govern the use of force in peacetime. It is these "police-like" processes referenced in the president's speech that require a showing of both an imminent threat and an attempt to capture before force is used.
While there are genuine merits to the president's restraint, there are real trade-offs as well. None of the new polices are any sort of panacea.
For example, limiting the target list to only those terrorists currently posing an "imminent" threat carries risk. Each time that policy causes decision-makers to forgo striking a terrorist, such as one training to attack the U.S. but not yet about to do so, he is allowed to live on to become a potential suicide bomber or other menace to civilians.
When that terrorist transitions from trainee to deployed operative about to strike, it may be too late to put the crosshairs on him.
Also troubling is that by "heavily constraining" the ability to attack terrorists beyond the Afghan theater, the president may inadvertently encourage them to spread themselves to locations beyond that theater to a much greater degree than they already are.
If that happens, terrorists will likely focus on settling in countries with weak governments. This means the U.S. could find itself dealing with a whole new set of nations destabilized by a growing presence of terrorist organizations who perceive themselves as safer in such places because of the new, more "constrained" targeting policy.
And the president's preference for capture presents other difficult challenges. As he himself suggests, no one should assume that doing so will be less costly in terms of human lives.
Why? Capture operations can be very complex and fraught with potential catastrophe. If they require forces to fight their way deep into hostile territory, and then fight their way out again with their captive, not only is the team itself in great risk, but innocent bystanders are as well.
Even with all that effort, we can't count on being able to take the targets alive if they resist. A failed effort could engender more criticism than any drone operation produced, especially if innocent civilians are killed or U.S. troops are sacrificed.
Despite the president's efforts at transparency and restraint, the most persistent critics of the United States' policies since 9/11 will not be satisfied. For some, nothing short of a complete abandonment of the use of force in counterterrorism will satisfy. In a still very dangerous world, that is hardly the right course, and one that no president could follow
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