KEMPTON: A drone war over semantics

A different kind of war leads to extra-legal strikes

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In an effort that was once ideological and has now deteriorated into semantics, President Obama refuses to use the phrase “global war on terrorism.” While Mr. Obama’s linguistic acrobatics sometimes seem silly or even petty, they have a purpose. Candidate Obama banned the phrase to signal to progressives his visceral condemnation of the tactics George W. Bush had used in the “war” paradigm to justify. He rejected the use of enhanced interrogation, labeled “torture” the indefinite detention of “enemy combatants,” and proscribed trial by military tribunals. Instead, Mr. Obama contended that terrorism was a particularly heinous form of crime and required no deviation from the civilian criminal justice system. With the terrorism-as-crime paradigm, one would seek the legal extradition of terrorists, arrest — not kill — them, hold them for trial in civilian courts, and sentence them to the existing penal system.

Mr. Obama’s May 23 speech to the National Defense University demonstrated his inability to develop an alternative to the war paradigm and to keep his promises to fundamentally alter the tactics. While he again rejected the “global war on terrorism,” he begrudgingly acknowledged that there was indeed a war, albeit it “a different kind of war.” Logically, this was a Rubicon he needed to cross to defend his use of drones to kill American citizens. Hypocritically, he used the war paradigm for the same reason Mr. Bush had — to defend a policy only palatable to the public in a time of war. While Mr. Bush had used the war paradigm to justify enhanced interrogation and the indefinite detention of enemy combatants, Mr. Obama used it to justify the outright killing without legal review.

Having himself employed the war paradigm, Mr. Obama tried to pull it back by calling on Congress to declare victory, thus ending the war. Congress could do this by revoking the 12-year-old Authorization of the Use of Military Force and by allowing the transfer of additional detainees from Guantanamo to their home countries. This request creates new problems for the president, though. First, how can he justify his continued use of drones if the war is now over? He finessed this by setting new standards for using drones against Americans. The logic was flawed, however. If there is no war, then the right to due process shouldn’t be suspended. A tighter presidential review is no substitute.

Second, the president’s narrative contradicts the reality that has become all too familiar. With the vicious attack on American soldiers at Fort Hood back in the news, the bombing at the Boston Marathon, and the recent bloody attacks in London and Paris, Mr. Obama’s declaration of victory defies logic. He may be the most gifted communicator in the Oval Office since Ronald Reagan, but even he cannot sell such an implausible narrative.

Finally — and most importantly — the president has failed to develop a realistic alternative to the war paradigm. Rejecting the tribunal system, Mr. Obama promised to end indefinite detention and to bring the prisoners into the traditional criminal justice system. He also repeatedly promised to close Guantanamo Bay. These promises weren’t kept. Mr. Obama failed not because of a lack of effort, but because of the lack of suitable alternatives. His 2009 trial balloon to move the detainees to the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois failed to gain popular backing and was abandoned. In 2010, the administration dropped its proposal to hold trials for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other Sept. 11 conspirators in New York City when it drew anger from citizens and lawmakers alike. Most recently, his call to transfer Guantanamo Bay detainees to their countries of origin lacks congressional backing. Conservatives oppose it largely because of the high recidivism rate, in excess of 30 percent, among those previously returned. Moreover, those remaining at Guantanamo are the most hardened cases. Even some on the left have concerns with the concept. When the Bush administration used extraordinary rendition to send suspected terrorists, such as Abu Omar, back to their country of origin, torture sometimes resulted.

In sum, after years of ideologically driven effort, Mr. Obama has failed to produce a practical — or politically viable — alternative to the Bush paradigm of the “global war on terrorism.” Instead, the tribunal system goes unused, indefinite detention continues, and suspected terrorists — even American ones — are killed without due process, or even the benefits of interrogation, enhanced or otherwise. Verbal acrobatics aside, suspending the use of the term hasn’t brought an end to the reality.

Daniel R. Kempton is a professor of political science and vice president for academic affairs at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

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