The President, Drones and Just War Theory

By David Luban

Recently, U.S. officials announced that they had killed al Qaeda's second-in-command with a drone strike. The news came soon after the New York Times published the fullest account to date of the process by which the United States selects lower-profile targets for drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen. The most startling revelation was that President Obama personally supervises the "nomination" of potential targets and gives final approval for killing them.

The lengthy Times story isn't based on a leak-it is clearly news that the White House wants the world to know. The reporters interviewed three dozen current and former Obama advisors to assemble their picture of the target-selection process. In his new book, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman notes that Obama's presidential campaign "is painting a portrait of a steely commander who pursues the enemy without flinching." Three days after the drones article, the Times ran an equally detailed article, again with obvious White House consent, about U.S. cyberattacks against Iran, reporting that "Mr. Obama, according to participants in the many Situation Room meetings . . . was acutely aware that with every attack he was pushing the United States into new territory." This image of the president firmly in command of the drone campaign is precisely what the White House wishes to convey in the run-up to the election.

So why did the president put his hand on the helm? The Times reports:

Aides say Mr. Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal counterterrorism operations. A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions.

This image of a president schooled in just war theory is remarkable. At least one Catholic Web site has poured scorn on "the wise, judicious philosopher-king consulting Aquinas and Augustine before sending a drone missile on a ‘signature strike' on a group of picnickers in Yemen or farmers in Pakistan." (Perhaps the sarcasm is deserved-there have indeed been catastrophic mistakes in targeting-but Abu Yahya al-Libi, the al Qaeda second-in-command, was no picnicker or farmer.)

We of course have no idea how serious a student of just war theory the president is, but there is no reason to suspect that his aides are making it up. That entitles us to ask what the president may have taken from these two Christian writers and, more important, whether their arguments in fact support the morality of the president's actions. What we find is a messy mix of insights and errors, by the saints as well as the president. The central themes of just war theory are easy to grasp: that war is a proper subject of moral judgment and that no leader should duck responsibility for making these judgments. Obama seems to understand that much. But today's debate about drones centers on more specific questions about targeting, civilian deaths, and who should make the crucial decisions. On these issues Augustine and Aquinas offer scant guidance. Furthermore, the Times reports that the CIA uses dishonest rules for counting civilian casualties. If Obama acquiesces to such deceits, all the just war theory in the world will make no difference.

The verdict on Obama turns on the morality of targeted killings themselves. In my view, they are no different in principle from other wartime killings, and they have to be judged by the same standards of necessity and proportionality applied to warfare in general: sometimes they are justified, sometimes not. There are no simple answers.


• • •

Augustine and Aquinas, like all just war theorists, believe that some wars and tactics are morally permissible but others are not. This is the first, and far and away the most important, point that Obama would have taken from just war theory. Realists, by contrast, agree with the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes that in war "the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place" while "force, and fraud, are in war the two cardinal virtues." (Leviathan, ch. 13.) Michael Walzer begins Just and Unjust Wars, the greatest twentieth-century book on just war, with a chapter titled "Against ‘Realism'." His point is that people do make moral judgments about war, and that "without them we would have no coherent way of talking about war." In that sense, "realism" is quite unrealistic.

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David Luban is University Professor of Law and Philosophy at Georgetown University. This essay originally appeared in the Boston Review and has been republished with permission.

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