Good news from the Voldemort Affair (the unpleasantness formerly known as the Global War on Terror, these days it appears to be some kind of contretemps with Those Who Must Not Be Named). President Obama’s order to kill or capture Anwar al-Awlaki, one of Al Qaeda’s chief propagandists, has finally been carried out. The NYT reports:
A missile fired from an American drone aircraft in Yemen on Friday killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric who was a leading figure in Al Qaeda’s affiliate there, according to an official in Washington.
Many of the details of the strike were unclear, but the official said that the drone fired a Hellfire missile and killed Mr. Awlaki, whom the United States had been hunting in Yemen for more than two years.
Over at Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald greeted this news by calling President Obama an assassin. After all, Mr. Al-Awlaki was a US citizen and was never convicted in a court of law of those offenses for which the alleged terrorist was allegedly killed. According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, also joining Mr. Greenwald in the assassin-identification business was Texas Congressman Ron Paul:
“No, I don’t think that’s a good way to deal with our problems,” Paul said in a videotape of the questioning by reporters. Awlaki “was never tried or charged for any crimes. No one knows if he killed anybody. We know he might have been associated with the ‘underwear bomber.’ But if the American people accept this blindly and casually that we now have an accepted practice of the president assassinating people who he thinks are bad guys. I think it’s sad.”
Part of me is glad to see Mssrs. Greenwald and Paul engaging so cordially in this rare moment of bipartisan harmony. And it is always good to see ideas in Special Providence confirmed in real life; in that book on the American foreign policy tradition I wrote that Jeffersonians on the right and the left often unite in their condemnation of what they see as executive excess. I used Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan in the book as I recall; now I can update those examples.
But I fear I am one of the mindless hordes Mr. Greenwald invokes when he, like Paul, mourns that so many Americans will think the death of Al-Awlaki is good news.
What’s most amazing is that its citizens will not merely refrain from objecting, but will stand and cheer the U.S. Government’s new power to assassinate their fellow citizens, far from any battlefield, literally without a shred of due process from the U.S. Government. Many will celebrate the strong, decisive, Tough President’s ability to eradicate the life of Anwar al-Awlaki — including many who just so righteously condemned those Republican audience members as so terribly barbaric and crass for cheering Governor Perry’s execution of scores of serial murderers and rapists — criminals who were at least given a trial and appeals and the other trappings of due process before being killed.
Again I note with praise and thanks Mr. Greenwald’s sense of fair play as he steps in to make a favorable contrast between GOP debate audiences and the liberal editorialists who praised President Obama’s drone campaign — and reminds us that whatever faults it may have Texas does have a judicial system in which accused criminals have rights. Much more of this from the often acerbic Mr. Greenwald and historians will begin to describe our times as an “era of good feelings” in which bipartisan civility reigned supreme.
But having said all this, and wanting to emphasize that both in Special Providence and elsewhere I argue that the Jeffersonian critiques from Ron Paul, Glenn Greenwald and others of executive excess in foreign affairs stand in a long and completely legitimate tradition of American foreign policy, it nevertheless seems to me that they are wrong in this case.
Perhaps this is just further proof of how mindless I am, but it does seem to me that Al-Awlaki and his buds are at war with the people of the United States and that in war, people not only die: it is sometimes your duty to kill them. That the Al-Qaeda groupies are levying war against the United States without benefit of a government does not make them less legitimate targets for missiles, bullets and any other instruments of execution we may have lying around: the irresponsibility, the contempt for all legal norms, the chaotic and anarchic nature of the danger they pose and the sheer wickedness of waging private war make them even more legitimate targets with even fewer rights than combatants fighting under legal governments that observe the laws of war.
Mr. Al-Awlaki chose to make himself what used to be called an outlaw; a person at war with society who is no longer protected by the laws he seeks to destroy. He was not a criminal who has broken some particular set of laws; he was an enemy seeking to destroy all the laws and the institutions that create them. His fiery sermons inspired numerous jihadists, like Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan, to attack Americans. He was personally involved with planning the attempted Christmas Day bombing in 2009 and he mentored several of the 9/11 bombers. That he was at war with the United States may not have been proved in a criminal court but is not really up for debate.
By waging private war against the United States, he placed himself in jeopardy, and our Chief Magistrate, obedient to the commitments he made when he took his oath of office, fulfilled his solemn duty by returning Mr. Al-Awlaki to his maker by the most effective means at hand.
Far from President Obama launching an unprecedented assault on the civil rights of all Americans, he was acting as presidents must — and do. Every President of the United States, including Thomas Jefferson and probable Ron Paul hero John Tyler (the only ex-president who stood with the Confederacy in the Civil War) would have taken a similar step in similar conditions, and I have no doubt that every Congress ever elected would have backed them up. Abraham Lincoln did not order the Kearsarge to arrest the Confederate sailors on the Alabama and return them to the US for a civil trial; he ordered the Navy to sink Confederate ships without serving them arrest warrants, without getting grand jury indictments, without reading them their rights and without giving them the opportunity to send their lawyers into court to get injunctions against the attack.
I am neither a lawyer nor a judge, but it does not take much special knowledge to understand that Mr. Awlaki had placed himself well beyond the protections of criminal law. Had he been captured, and dragged as it were unwillingly back under the umbrella of American law, it might have been different, and he could have been tried for treason or other crimes. But Mr. Obama was under no obligation to risk the lives of American soldiers to save Mr. Awlaki from himself and restore to him the protection of the laws he despised, nor was he under any obligation to forbear and allow Mr. Awlaki to continue his activities until such time as Interpol or some other recognized law enforcement agency could serve him a warrant and take him into custody.
Both Congressman Paul and Mr. Greenwald do, I think, have a legitimate beef with the President. The President is clearly acting like a man who is fighting a war. He is bringing down fiery death from the skies against any foe he can locate. This is not the normal behavior of a Chief Magistrate faithfully executing the laws. It is the behavior of a president locked in a bitter struggle against a dangerous foe.
President Obama cannot have it both ways. If he is our chief law enforcement officer leading the investigation of a global criminal network known as Al-Qaeda, then his actions are subject to one set of restrictions and one kind of review. Perhaps an Al-Awlaki can be killed resisting arrest, but the Greenwald-Paul questions about targeted killings make some sense if we are in the middle of a complex law enforcement operation against an organized crime entity comparable to the mafia or perhaps to a drug cartel.
But if the President is acting as Commander in Chief in a Congressionally authorized quasi-war (quasi because Al Qaeda is not a state), then his actions fall under another set of guidelines altogether.
The President has created some of the confusion in our debate. Frequently during the campaign, sometimes even in office, he has spoken as if he is the head of a criminal investigation team. When it comes to actual decisions, however, he acts like a military leader at war. Greenwald and Paul appear to believe that he is a policeman and needs to start acting more like one; I believe he is a war leader and needs to start talking more like one.
Via Meadia applauds President Obama for killing America’s enemies as fast as he can — and I have no fear that a future US President will use that precedent to send a Hellfire missile through the windows of the stately Mead manor in Queens. I don’t even think American stock market swindlers and tax evaders lounging on the Riviera need to worry about a Predator strike bringing their peaceful retirements to a premature close. Roman Polanski does not need to move to an undisclosed bunker underground. This isn’t a slippery slope; it is war.
Two years ago, the idea that America was in a war might have seemed like one of those anachronistic Bushisms which could be swept underfoot by the New Age of Light and Reason—Guantanamo and military tribunals would have to go as well. With Anwar al-Awlaki dead, the Obama Administration has again demonstrated that it can fight the Lord Voldemort War pretty well; it just can’t quite bring itself to make the case for what it must do.
The President can speak forcefully about force; his Nobel Peace Prize address on the continuing importance of war is a case in point. He needs to do more of this at home; if a war is important enough to fight it is important enough to defend and explain.