Better late than never, President Obama has moved to establish more rigorous standards for the targeted killings of Americans and foreigners alike away from a battlefield. The need for what he called "strong oversight of all lethal action" was one theme of the president's address Thursday at National Defense University. Another, equally overdue, was his renewed determination to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and expedite the repatriation of dozens of inmates who have languished there despite being cleared for release.
Beyond these changes in policy, Obama's speech offered tantalizing signals that the president is contemplating a downsizing of what many — but not Obama himself — refer to as the global war on terror. Even as he defended the use of drone strikes and other efforts against "specific networks of violent extremists," the president warned that "a perpetual war — through drones or special forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways." And he said that he would work with Congress to "refine, and ultimately repeal" the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force that has served as the legal authority for far-flung attacks on suspected terrorists. All in all, the speech pointed to a major repositioning.
In discussing the use of unmanned drones to kill suspected terrorists — a policy that has cost roughly 3,000 lives in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia — Obama didn't acknowledge that he was changing the rules. But he mentioned that he had signed a document on Wednesday that would allow targeted killings only if a suspect posed a "continuing, imminent threat to Americans" and could not otherwise be captured. There also would have to be "near certainty" that civilians wouldn't be killed. Finally, and perhaps most important, Obama said that "the high threshold that we have set for taking lethal action applies to all potential terrorist targets, regardless of whether or not they are American citizens."
On Guantanamo, Obama said that he would lift an executive branch hold on the repatriation of 59 prisoners from Yemen and indicated that he would press Congress anew to lift other restrictions that have made it impossible to close the facility. He also hinted that he might revisit the decision by an administration task force that more than 40 inmates could be neither put on trial nor released, consigning them to the sort of indefinite detention that Obama has described as "contrary to who we are."
Drones have undermined American diplomacy, and Guantanamo haunts America's global standing today in part because Obama for too long has shied away from a confrontation with Congress over what has become an emblem of overreaction and abuse. His newly muscular language is welcome; even better would be comparably strong action.