WASHINGTON — "If George W. Bush was whacking American citizens on the basis of secret legal memos," writes Dick Polman, "Senate liberals would be conducting hearings."
"If George Bush ... had done this," argues Joe Scarborough, "it would have been stopped."
On the right, this argument is an accusation of hypocrisy. On the left, it is an expression of horror. In reality, it is an indication of continuity.
The Obama administration's defense of drone strikes against al-Qaida and associated groups — including American citizens who are part of those groups — is based on a certain concept of self-defense in an age of terrorism. In this view, a terrorist threat does not become "imminent" when a terrorist boards a plane or straps on a bomb vest. It emerges when terrorists plot, train for and incite attacks. "The Constitution," says Attorney General Eric Holder, "does not require the president to delay action until some theoretical end-stage of planning." The recently leaked Department of Justice memo argues similarly, "The condition that an operational leader present an 'imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future."
The same point was made by President Bush, who talked of remaining "on the offensive" in order to prevent attacks "before they arrive."
This argument was savaged as a dangerous innovation. It was nothing of the sort. "Every sovereign state," said Sen. (and former Secretary of State) Elihu Root in 1914, "[has the right] to protect itself by preventing a condition of affairs in which it will be too late to protect itself." President Franklin Roosevelt made the case with typical vividness: "When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him." At the height of the Cuban missile crisis, President John Kennedy argued that the nature of modern threats required preventive or anticipatory self-defense. "Neither the United States of America nor the world community of nations," he said, "can tolerate deliberate deception and offensive threats on the part of any nation, large or small. We no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation's security to constitute maximum peril. Nuclear weapons are so destructive, and ballistic missiles are so swift, that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in their deployment may well be regarded as a definite threat to peace."
Drone strikes are an innovation in anticipatory self-defense, requiring careful oversight and a high threshold for action. They are also a technology that allows the most discriminate application of force in the history of warfare. The fact that the use of drones protects American troops from risk is a virtue. And the targeting of American citizens who are fighting for the enemy is neither new nor forbidden by the laws of war. There were at least eight American volunteers for the Waffen SS who were killed during World War II. Should their American citizenship have earned them membership in a special, protected category of combatant?
This, of course, is the essence of the matter. If America is in an ongoing war against al-Qaeda and associated groups, then the rules of war apply, Yemen and the Afghanistan/Pakistan border are battlefields, and al-Qaeda operatives are lawful targets. This is the position taken by both the Bush and Obama administrations, consistent with America's inherent right of self-defense and the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. If this war were a myth or a metaphor, then the pursuit of al-Qaeda is a criminal matter, requiring extradition, arrests and due process.
Labeling Obama as "judge, jury and executioner" is his critics' prerogative. But defending the country is not their responsibility. It is easy for those without executive authority to dismiss risks that are prospective. After a terrorist attack on America, the critics would likely be silent, hoping that no one recalled their complacency.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.