President Obama’s Hypocritical New Drone Assassination Rules

Someday a Republican president will have the power to assassinate American citizens. And that's President Obama's fault.

Now that President Obama’s re-election is safely in the bag, is it OK for grumpy liberals to start criticizing him again? It is? OK then!

Because this story in Sunday’s New York Times is infuriating:

Facing the possibility that President Obama might not win a second term, his administration accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials.

The matter may have lost some urgency after Nov. 6. But with more than 300 drone strikes and some 2,500 people killed by the Central Intelligence Agency and the military since Mr. Obama first took office, the administration is still pushing to make the rules formal and resolve internal uncertainty and disagreement about exactly when lethal action is justified.

How arrogant.

Understand what this means: President Obama has spent the last four years basically trusting his gut about who lives and who dies in drone attacks—including American citizens—and asking us to do the same. His administration has offered no evidence at all that there’s any kind of due process involved in making sure that the people who die by remote control are actually guilty of making war on America, instead offering anonymous guarantees that the president really, really, really takes this stuff seriously.

It’s never been good enough, and one of the best counterarguments against the Obama Administration’s cavalier approach to the matter was this question: Would you trust a Republican with such unlimited power?

The answer: No. With the threat of a Mitt Romney victory looming over the White House, Democratic officials suddenly decided that there needed to be rules and accountability to provide some insurance a president doesn’t use the power of assassination too lightly or unwisely.

What the Obama Administration doesn’t realize it’s too late. The cat is out of the bag. Someday, a Republican president will assert an unlimited right to conduct drone-led assassination campaigns—and they’ll cite President Obama himself as the reason they can do so.

Don’t believe me? Ask Stephen F. Knott. He’s a professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College, and the author of a recent book, Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics. I don’t buy the entirety of Knott’s (revisionist) argument that Bush gets a bum wrap from historians and critics, but he does document that many presidents at war—going back to Lincoln, and including both Woodrow Wilson and FDR—set precedents that Bush cited in support of his efforts to open up prisons like Guantanamo and set up military commissions to try suspected terrorists. If Bush was bad, Knott argues, he wasn’t groundbreakingly bad: Other presidents, including Democrats, got there first.

Here’s what this means for Obama: In the aftermath of presidential abuses of previous decades, Congress passed anti-torture treaties and anti-wiretapping laws. When the War on Terror arrived, though, President Bush brushed them aside like so much confetti—arguing (sometimes secretly, admittedly) that the precedents set by presidents before him offered a plausible reason to do so.

Which means that the Obama Administration’s late-arriving rules for drone strikes are too late. Someday there will be a Republican president again. Democrats won’t win forever. And those future presidents aren’t going to consider themselves bound by the rule book President Obama leaves behind; they’ll look at how he acted, instead.

And how has the president acted? Like a man with too much regard for his own judgement and too little respect for any process that might restrain his ability to kill America’s enemies.

So it’s too late for a rule book, Mr. President. The genie is already out of the bottle. And it’s your fault.