I was listening to my friend Norman Goldman's radio show the other day, and his guest host Dennis Sirota made some rather inflammatory statements, to the effect that the Obama administration is destroying the constitution by "summarily condemning and executing American citizens" and "indiscriminately killing Pakistani civilians with drones".
Sirota was engaging in gross exaggeration, but hyperbole is the talk radio host's stock in trade. Does Sirota have a point, though? Are the actions of the American forces in targeting leaders of hostile forces, in countries like Yemen and Pakistan, illegal by international norms? And what should be done about that?
To my mind, there is a relatively straightforward approach that would largely legitimize acts against our enemies, and, yes, even some unfortunate collateral losses to noncombatants. I have no idea why it has not been used. It is well past time that the United States declared war.
For some unknown reason, there has never been a proposal of a declaration of war against al-Qaeda. It's kind of late for that one; it should have been declared in the late '90's, when Osama declared hostilities against us, or when al-Qaeda bombed our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, or when it attacked the U.S.S. Cole off the coast of Yemen, or, most obviously, when it conducted mass murder of civilians on 9/11. Now, the remnants of al-Qaeda are on the run, hardly worthy of a proper declaration of war.
The Taliban are a different story, to some extent, mostly because they continue to be active. We would have been fully justified in declaring war on the Taliban when they ruled in Afghanistan and permitted al-Qaeda to operate against us from there. Since then, of course, there have been countless aggressions and atrocities they have committed against our forces or against Afghans which would justify a declaration of war. In particular, they have rebuffed our offers, and those of the government we consider legitimate in Afghanistan, to join peace talks. Conducting a proper War against the Taliban could bring them to the table of Peace, which is what we all want.
Surely a resolution to declare war against the Taliban (we may as well include the remnants of al-Qaeda, while we're at it) could get the required support in Congress; it might even be a rare occasion for bipartisanship. What is holding us back? Just some archaic notion that we can only declare war against another sovereign state.
Once that nicety is taken care of, I don't see anything particularly criminal or unconstitutional about the way the US is actually conducting war. I have discussed drone attacks before, and I don't see anything particularly immoral about that form of bombing--if we are in a war; in fact, it causes a lot less collateral casualties than many other forms of aerial attack.
One final point: under the "rules of war", it is allowed for military forces to cross a border in "hot pursuit" of an enemy. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's recent comments about how he is losing patience with the Pakistanis providing safe haven to the Taliban suggest to me that the way may being prepared for such an incursion, in which American/NATO forces would cross into uncontrolled Pakistani territories, brushing aside Pakistani border patrols if necessary, to take the Taliban out in their havens. This could be the October surprise the Republicans--justly--fear. It would surely make relations with Pakistan boil over and could have other ramifications, and it is bit too "Nixon into Cambodia" to make me feel comfortable. That being said, I could not say--war having been declared--that it would be unjustified or illegal; it might even be successful--either by weakening the Taliban or convincing them to enter into peace talks. Oh, and it would probably clinch the election.