President Obama made a startling but little noted request in his State of the Union speech. While addressing national security issues, he directly challenged the congress to “rein me in.” He referred to the use of drone warfare. He commented that we are in uncharted territory. (I was reminded of the lipstick on the bathroom mirror, “Stop me before I kill again.”). Not one given to mea culpa, his plea was couched in a rational bit of analysis. The nature of warfare has changed. Our existing policies no longer serve the new environment. Implied was the responsibility of Congress to create a legal framework for 21st Century warfare.
There is no question that the Congress has long since abdicated its war declaring responsibility as laid out in the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 8). Congress hasn’t declared war since World War II. Nor has any president since Franklin Roosevelt asked them to do so.
President Obama’s plea is heartening in that it indicates discomfort with what he has been doing. In a recent column, “Protecting our Children,” I expressed consternation at his apparent hypocrisy, on the one hand declaring we must protect our children, while on the other hand ordering drone strikes that kill other people’s children. At the same time, I recognized the complexity of the situation.
The president is indeed caught in a web of complexity. A flood of hard questions rise out of it. Basic is our engagement in a “war on terror.” Early in his first term, he said his administration was putting that label out to pasture. But just this past week, he declared that Republican stalling on confirmation of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense was reprehensible “in a time of war.”
The war on terror is so imbedded in our national psyche and policy it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference what we call it; it still dominates our choices. And it spills over into every aspect of our national life. Spying on our own citizens through electronic surveillance in the name of national security becomes just part of our way of life. In the name of national security, we surrender our civil liberties (see “Patriot Act”). We arrest and detain even our own citizens without trial, as “prisoners of war.” Remember Jose Padilla?
Wars have historically been undertaken in response to an enemy attack. The attack on Afghanistan was justified thus, although the congressional authorization declared Al Qaeda to be the target, not Afghanistan itself. Declaring Al Qaeda to be the enemy has been pointed to as justification for attacking alleged Al Qaeda operations wherever they are found without reference to national borders.
But in our present situation, we are seeking out those who, we believe, intend to attack us, who are plotting attacks. Are these attacks acts of war, or are they targeted assassinations? Is “the war on terror” now being run by the CIA? The methodology, especially the fact that the drones are under CIA command, certainly appears that way. The Obama administration claims its killing of alleged Al Qaeda operatives is authorized by the War Powers Act.
So are we at war or not? If we are, and Al Qaeda is our enemy, we are doomed to an endless state of war. We fight an elusive enemy whose location and identity is diffuse and which shows no signs of being defeated. We’ve been there before. Remember Viet Nam? We’re there now in Afghanistan as we attempt to defeat the Taliban. In Viet Nam, we eventually beat an ignominious retreat with our tail between our legs. We’re covering our abandonment of the Afghanistan war with presidential declarations of success, but claiming no victory.
There is something more ominous than perpetual war. That is a perpetual state of high alert to perceived yet ephemeral threats of terrorism. It is so dangerous because it creates fear and paranoia. The fear becomes intolerable. To allay it, we give more and more power over our lives to those who would be our protectors—the FBI, the CIA, the police, the military—all agents who operate in secrecy—until they strike. Is our fear relieved? No, and now we add to it fear of loss of our civil liberties. Paranoia ensues. Remember Senator Joe McCarthy?
But what if the threat is real? Doesn’t it make eminently good sense to seek out and eliminate terrorist threats before they are carried out? It makes no sense, if we can accomplish that, to wait to be attacked. Where does all this leave us? In a muddle, at cross purposes with ourselves. It’s not hard to see why President Obama wants Congress to share the angst and take up these questions. Do you find referring a problem to Congress reassuring? God help us.