There has been considerable discussion recently about the expansion of drone strikes in Pakistan and even to the Horn of Africa. Many of the arguments repeat the inaccurate claim that we kill mostly innocents in these attacks. Al Qaeda does not shelter or meet in areas filled with "innocents"; they hide in safe havens. The name itself ought to be explanation enough, but just to be clear; safe havens are inhabited by supporters of those who are offered sanctuary.
There is a more important development in this form of counterterrorism, however, and I want to give strong praise to the Obama administration for it. They have advanced the most intelligent and proper rationale and legal justification for the drone program I have heard publicly. It mirrors an argument that has been made by a number of legal and security experts for a considerable while. We have the right to kill those who are planning to kill us. Period. Doesn't matter where, when or how. If you plot to kill Americans, you have earned yourself a heaping, helping of Hellfire.
An area in which there is some disagreement is the geographic scope of the conflict. The United States does not view our authority to use military force against al-Qa’ida as being restricted solely to “hot” battlefields like Afghanistan. Because we are engaged in an armed conflict with al-Qa’ida, the United States takes the legal position that —in accordance with international law—we have the authority to take action against al-Qa’ida and its associated forces without doing a separate self-defense analysis each time. And as President Obama has stated on numerous occasions, we reserve the right to take unilateral action if or when other governments are unwilling or unable to take the necessary actions themselves. That does not mean we can use military force whenever we want, wherever we want. International legal principles, including respect for a state’s sovereignty and the laws of war, impose important constraints on our ability to act unilaterally—and on the way in which we can use force—in foreign territories.
Others in the international community—including some of our closest allies and partners—take a different view of the geographic scope of the conflict, limiting it only to the “hot” battlefields. As such, they argue that, outside of these two active theatres, the United States can only act in self-defense against al-Qa’ida when they are planning, engaging in, or threatening an armed attack against U.S. interests if it amounts to an “imminent” threat.
In practice, the U.S. approach to targeting in the conflict with al-Qa’ida is far more aligned with our allies’ approach than many assume. This Administration’s counterterrorism efforts outside of Afghanistan and Iraq are focused on those individuals who are a threat to the United States, whose removal would cause a significant – even if only temporary – disruption of the plans and capabilities of al-Qa’ida and its associated forces. Practically speaking, then, the question turns principally on how you define “imminence.”
That is some of the clearest thinking about our inherent and legal right to defend ourselves against those who plan and conduct terror attacks. It was a breath of fresh air to hear this bold assertion of our sovereign rights as a nation from the trans-nationalist-leaning Obama administration. Let's hope they maintain this in the face of the certain outrage and pushback from the left.