Battlefield Earth

This year, Congress will reconsider our expansive, post-9/11 definition of war. It must start with a realistic assessment of the existing threats.

Tagged national securityTerrorism

Next December, more than 13 years after they arrived in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, the last U.S. combat troops will leave it. America’s longest war will be over. Or will it? The declaration of that war has changed the very definition of war. In 2001, Congress authorized the President to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” This 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) set no limits on time, location, or target.

In 2013 alone, individuals or groups claiming an association with Al Qaeda committed acts of violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Kenya, Mali, Syria, and Iraq, among other places. Other perpetrators, including the Boston Marathon bombers, claimed inspiration from Al Qaeda but had no operational links. The AUMF was invoked in support of unconventional U.S. operations in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and possibly elsewhere—operations like targeted killings using unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), Special Forces captures, and, in all probability, cyberwarfare and other operations of which the public is unaware. Americans could be forgiven for wondering when Congress declared war on Somalia, or why the President deemed it necessary to gain congressional approval for a few days of proposed missile strikes on Syria but not for the 80-odd drone strikes launched into Yemen over the past five years. Indeed, public debate over the use of force in Syria and the revelations concerning National Security Agency surveillance suggest that Americans are increasingly uncomfortable with actions being undertaken in their name. President Obama appeared to acknowledge this reality in May when he said he looked forward “to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate.” That engagement is now about to happen—2014 is likely to see the most intensive and far-reaching debate in Congress about the AUMF in a decade.

What will Congress do? The debate about whether to constrain, expand, or maintain American employment of force in zones where it is not at war—and to decide who monitors its use—will be consequential and contentious. Last summer, Adam Schiff, a Democratic congressman from California, got 185 votes in the House for an amendment to cut off funding for any activities under the AUMF after 2014. Thirty Republicans joined three-quarters of Democrats in sending a message that they were plenty ready for an aggressive debate. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has called Congress’s hands-off approach “totally feckless” and suggested that he will offer proposals in which Congress has ownership of uses of force but decisions can be made quickly in urgent situations. Not to be outdone, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has led an opposing faction arguing that the Earth is the battlefield and that the definition of counterterrorism operations permitted under the current AUMF should in fact be “broaden[ed].” Obama came into office saying that the Earth was not the battlefield and vowing to move away from the “war on terror.” Yet cyberwarfare tools, electronic snooping, and above all drone technology—as well as continued terrorist threats and a public that expects near-perfect prevention of terrorist attacks—have pulled this Administration into battles across the globe. It seems the position now is that the war must end, but not yet.

With thousands killed and new militants taking up arms against the United States in response, the targeted-killing program has become its own war—one about which we and many of our elected representatives know very little. Yet counterterrorism professionals say that the frame of war is the wrong way to defeat extremism: Across party lines and for half a decade now, they have called for more emphasis on preventing and limiting the spread of noxious ideologies, and giving local governments the institutional strength and resources to fight their own battles. Most will concede that some uses of force have created more militants than they have dispatched.

As we enter the debate over the AUMF, Congress must focus on two specific reforms. First, it must insist that the White House tell it—in a way that the public can hold Congress responsible for knowing—who is targeted, why, and with what results. Second, it will have to find a modicum of common ground with current and future executive branches on how Congress can exert its war-making authority.

But equally important and more broadly speaking, our political class will have to cure its political addiction to the rhetoric of threat, and tell Americans that the risk from terrorism to the nation’s institutions is real but not existential. This change is essential to allow the development of a counterterrorism policy that is sustainable financially, that improves relations with partners and allies, and that will actually work better.

1970s Redux?

We have been here before. In the post-Vietnam 1970s, we asked charged questions about how and why Congress had allowed a war to start, escalate, and continue so long, and confronted embarrassing revelations of CIA spying on foreigners and Americans. A 1973 Gallup poll found 80 percent of Americans supporting “significant” congressional involvement in the decision to go to war.

The years between 1973 and 1978 saw a flood of congressional oversight and legislation on national security, thanks to the Senate’s Church Committee (named for its chairman, Idaho Democrat Frank Church), which brought to the surface numerous allegations of illegal and improper behavior by the intelligence agencies—including the disclosure that the agency had stockpiled, against presidential orders, enough shellfish toxin to assassinate thousands. The Church Committee’s findings led to a ban on assassinations and the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which created the Senate and House Select Committees on Intelligence and the now-reviled FISA court that gives secret legal review to surveillance requests. The War Powers Act of 1973 aimed to restrict the circumstances under which a President could use force, requiring a President to consult with (but not seek approval from) Congress before initiating hostilities, and to report to Congress on a conflict and then cease hostilities if he did not receive affirmative backing from the legislature within 60 days.

Since then, White Houses have requested—and Congresses have passed—authorizations for major wars that seemed likely to approach Vietnam in scale: both Iraq Wars, the presence of peacekeeping troops in Lebanon under President Reagan, and the post-9/11 AUMF. But Presidents did not request resolutions of support for the many smaller military campaigns undertaken over the last four decades: Grenada, Libya (1986), Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya (2012). For its part, Congress again and again has found it politically expedient to decide that humanitarian operations, and very small-scale ones, didn’t need to be called “war”—a distinction that makes more sense in Washington than on the battlefield. Meanwhile, the courts have declined to force a President to follow the War Powers Act, saying either that members of Congress lacked standing to bring the suit or that the decision over presidential powers was inherently political, not legal.

Forty years later, targeted killings with drones raise the full set of issues Congress wrestled with in the 1970s: the legitimacy of assassination, the relative priority given to secrecy versus oversight, and above all, the role of the public and its elected representatives in national security decision-making. The War Powers Act affirms that the public gets a say in decisions about “war.” But what counts as war?

Defining War Down: The Drone Problem

Daniel Brunstetter and Megan Braun of the University of California, Irvine, write that war “used to be easily defined as a zone of combat where lethal force was justified.” However, the struggle against terrorism “has created ‘in-between-spaces’ of moral uncertainty where force is used on a consistent and limited scale, but war is not declared.”

Like every President since 1973, President Obama argues that he has the authority for smaller uses of force without congressional authorization. Yet he also ruminated publicly about “a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the President, and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force.”

Goodness knows it’s nice to hear a President fret about having too much power. But in reality this Administration has expanded and defended its powers aggressively, nowhere more than in targeted killings carried out by what the Pentagon calls “unmanned systems” and what civilians call drones. The Administration has never released a public accounting of who has been placed on a kill list, how many drone strikes it has undertaken, against whom, by whom, and what it believes the impacts have been. Some of that information is provided to some members of Congress, but few if any members and staff have a comprehensive picture (in part because some strikes are carried out by the CIA and some by the Department of Defense, which fall under different congressional oversight committees). Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon has sought that basic information for the past two years—and been rebuffed.

Different outside groups with different ideological perspectives have attempted to compile a best-guess record of drone strikes. In January 2013, a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) task force pulled together three nongovernmental studies and estimated that a total of 411 had occurred between 2002 and 2012 in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, with a total of 3,430 fatalities, 401 of them civilian. The New America Foundation estimates drone strikes in Pakistan escalated from four in 2007 to 36 in 2008 to 54 in 2009 and finally to 122 in 2010 before declining in 2011 and 2012.

How has it been possible for the Obama Administration to increase the use of targeted killings so dramatically, with so little oversight and even less public accountability?

“Surgical” targeting of individual militant leaders was supposed to be the antidote to massive land invasions that became quagmires on the order of Iraq and Afghanistan. The American public demanded that the deployments, mass casualties, and American deaths cease, and, as of January 2015, they will. Indeed, even the highest estimates of civilian casualties from drone strikes are orders of magnitude lower than the rates of civilian deaths during the Iraq War. Drone casualty rates in Pakistan even compare favorably to those associated with Pakistani military operations against militants.

Public debate tends to focus on the sci-fi nature of drone technology. Indeed, major advances in robotics and miniaturization have brought unprecedented applications for remotely piloted vehicles off the battlefield as well. A music festival in South Africa pledged to deliver beers to concertgoers via drone aircraft and parachute; Domino’s has copyrighted a “Domicopter” for remote pizza delivery. The use of drones for surveillance and commercial purposes in the United States is curtailed until 2015, when the Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled to issue regulations for their use. But that delay applies only to the private sector. The FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and local police departments have moved ahead with the procurement of surveillance drones, using them for a range of activities, from defusing hostage situations to watching borders.

In some cases, these governmental entities have begun using drones following public debate on whether drones should be armed, how long surveillance footage taken should be kept, and what it may be used for. But in many cases, they’ve moved without such input. Meanwhile, the technology continues to advance. While military officials insist that the possibility of eliminating the human element is far off, tech experts counter that it will only be a few years until the military and law enforcement can acquire surveillance and weapons systems whose computers, without a remote human operator, will decide when and on whom to open fire. Indeed, some Israeli anti-missile defenses are now being designed with the ability to operate without human management. And current intelligence efforts for drones include allowing them to “anticipate” actions of human pilots.
If domestically we face a future with a patchwork of unreconciled local and national regulations on the use of drones, internationally we face a future with no rules at all. The 2013 CFR task force on drone strikes reported that, while few countries are close to having drone systems that pose a threat to U.S. national interests, the technology is spreading rapidly. The study identified 76 countries with unmanned systems that can fly, but it found public evidence of weaponized drone use only by the United States and Israel. (The Israeli government does not publicly acknowledge drone strikes, but their use during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008 and 2009 is discussed in State Department cables disclosed by WikiLeaks.) And then there’s Hezbollah, which claims to have armed and used an Iranian-supplied surveillance drone.

Until the United States, Israel, Iran, and the other 73 nations can agree on a shared set of rules, the public justifications the United States makes for targeted killings will be the closest thing the world has to a standard. It is then profoundly in the United States’s own security interest for the rules to be both limiting and clear.

How We Justify Force

Yet we are largely in the dark as to the laws and regulations under which the Obama and Bush Administrations have based their actions. Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan first officially acknowledged the use of drones for targeted killing in April 2012, in a speech that offered three different legal rationales.

Brennan argued that: 1) the Administration had congressional authorization through the 2001 AUMF; 2) in any event, it did not need authorization because targeted killings are permitted as defense of the nation under Article II of the Constitution; and 3) they are also permitted as self-defense as defined in international humanitarian law. As things stand now, the officials carrying out the strikes, the civilians affected by them, and the American people who pay for them have an unclear idea of our aims in any given country or the rules that apply. Clarifying the legal rationales can help us begin to address these issues. They can also tell civilian drone victims what redress they have if errors occur—and whether the world thinks they may legitimately take up arms against the United States in response, which is exactly what the choice of targeted killing over invasion and nation-building was meant to avoid. So it is important to understand what the Administration means by each.

Targeted killing is legal because the AUMF puts the United States in a state of war with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and “associated forces.” For Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda and the Taliban were headquartered, this makes matters fairly clear. In war, targeting anyone directly participating in hostilities is clearly permitted. While the law of war requires commanders to try to avoid civilian casualties and forbids attacks that harm civilians “disproportionately” to the gain achieved, it also assumes that unintentional civilian deaths will occur.

But Brennan’s AUMF rationale obscures as much as it clarifies. The AUMF makes no effort to define what is an “associated force,” how membership in such a group is determined, where the United States may target such forces, or for how long. So neither Americans nor Somalis know for sure whether Washington is “at war” with Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda-affiliated group behind this fall’s deadly mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, that killed at least 67. Some inside the U.S. government are uncomfortable operating under these vagaries: General Carter Ham, then-head of the U.S. Africa Command, proposed consideration of a separate AUMF for Africa, though others in the Administration took the position that it was not needed, or that Congress would produce something unhelpfully broad.

The Al Shabab example raises the question of when and whether U.S. citizens may legitimately be targeted. At least 15 American citizens are known to have died fighting for the Somali group. If they believed they were changing sides to fight against the United States in a war, international and domestic law are fairly clear that they are enemy combatants and valid targets, having voluntarily surrendered the protections of citizenship. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula propagandist and Yemeni-American Anwar al-Awlaki bragged about his ability to elude U.S. strikes, even as his father partnered with the ACLU to sue the Administration to try to reverse his targeting. (After Awlaki’s death by drone, his son, a teenage American citizen living in Yemen who had not publicly pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda, was also killed by a drone while searching for his missing father.)

But if the United States is not at war with Al Shabab, there is a strong case to be made that Americans fighting with the group in Somalia have not wittingly given up their protections as citizens. And if members of Congress are unclear about whether the United States is at war with Al Shabab or not, it’s hard to expect the poor immigrant teens in Minneapolis who have been recruited by Al Shabab to know and make an informed choice. Nor, to return to the strategic point, can Somali villagers who must assess which side to support—and whose choices determine long-term victory or defeat in the effort to prevent extremist forces from taking over societies.

Targeted killing is legal under the Constitution “to protect the nation from any imminent threat of attack.” The common understanding of the word “imminent”—likely to occur at any moment—is also the way in which its use in the Constitution has been understood. If the United States had known the intentions of the 9/11 hijackers, our government could legally have shot down the planes carrying them. Drones have been used in Afghanistan for “force protection,” which is to say that militants believed to be preparing attacks against U.S. forces are targeted before they can carry them out. A military detachment pinned down by enemy gunfire and radioing in for reinforcements, which arrive in the form of a drone, offers a clear example of “imminent threat.”

Yet a leaked Justice Department memo on targeted killing suggests that imminence has been defined down to a vague future: “[A]n ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.” The memo says individuals may be targeted if they might later pose an imminent threat to which the United States could not respond imminently. Neither an English major nor a just-war theorist—or the average person for that matter—would recognize this definition of the word.

Targeted killing is legal because international law gives every nation the right of self-defense. Again, attacking soldiers who are themselves attacking U.S. troops in Afghanistan is a fairly straightforward exercise of self-defense. But if the targeted individuals or groups are not themselves targeting the United States or a declared ally, invoking self-defense seems problematic. For example, a pre-emptive strike on the Al Shabab fighters who stormed the Nairobi mall in September would have been self-defense for the Kenyan government, but not the United States. Discussion of whether the United States should or could lawfully use drones against Islamist groups in northern Mali also raised this question—the groups’ ill intentions against the governments of Mali and its neighbors were not in question, but they had not publicly threatened or been alleged to be plotting against the United States.

This grab bag of justifications doesn’t give clarity to Americans or to people in targeted countries. Is a targeted country engaged in a conflict in which citizens must choose sides, or are drones being used there simply as an adjunct of law enforcement? If the former, when was the debate in which Americans and others could voice their views? If the latter, where is the court in which sentences can be contested?

The lack of strict oversight also gives rise to distortions like the redefinition of “imminence,” which can only further diminish Americans’ respect for the rule of law. If an administration feels the need to target individuals or groups who don’t pose an immediate threat, let it happen in a transparent manner that citizens can accept or reject at the ballot box.

The Coming Debate

President Obama seemed to make the connection between his request for congressional authorization for strikes in Syria and the upcoming debate over the 9/11 AUMF in his address to the nation in September:

I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together. This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the President, and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force.

Policy-makers and national security experts have already begun discussing possible changes and reforms. For example, on the broad question of whom we are and are not fighting, a Hoover Institution task force—which counts among its members two men who played central roles in the development of Bush Administration counterterrorism policy—proposed that Congress explicitly authorize the President to use military force against terrorist groups, and then set a procedure by which the executive branch would list, and Congress would oversee, what groups were included.

On drone use, libertarians on the right and human-rights activists on the left, as well as advocates for affected communities overseas, would block or dramatically restrict the use of drones and other new technologies. Many on the left were surprised to see Senator Rand Paul and his followers on the libertarian right teaming with the human-rights community in assailing targeted killings. Meanwhile, a number of military and counterterrorism professionals have unexpectedly called for limiting the use of targeted killing. Several commanders who led troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, including Stanley McChrystal and David Barno, have spoken out about how drone use turns public opinion among civilians against U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Because they want these tools to be available and perceived as legitimate, many military, counterterrorism, and intelligence professionals have advocated stronger and more transparent rules and controls for their use.

But the drone discussion can’t be resolved without a fundamental debate about what kind of conflict the struggle with extremist terror is and how it should be fought. Admiral Dennis Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence, argues that a focus on drones takes energy away from comprehensive strategies that would be more effective: “American officials dealing with Pakistan now spend most of their time haggling over our military and intelligence activities, when they should instead be pursuing the sort of comprehensive social, diplomatic, and economic reforms that Pakistan desperately needs and that would advance America’s long-term interests.”

What Must Congress Do?

Congress needs to act on two fronts. First, it must push this and future administrations to ensure transparency and oversight, such that Americans and global publics believe that targeted-killing programs are effective, ethical, and accountable. Second, it has to establish the principle that legitimacy for such operations can flow only from an openly debated and articulated strategy for U.S. counterterrorism policy—one that can be changed through democratic political processes.

Ensure Transparency, Accountability, and Legality

Perhaps surprisingly, strong supporters of military approaches to counterterrorism join opponents in advocating sweeping new requirements for oversight and public disclosure. As the Hoover Institution Commission wrote:

Congress…should require public reporting of matters that can be discussed openly, such as the number of strikes and operations, their geographic sweep, and estimates of civilian casualties. It should demand maximum feasible openness about the procedural elements of listing groups as covered entities and about the legal opinions that underlie the American legal framework…and for the creation of formal compensation mechanisms for victims of errors in non-battlefield settings.

Existing mechanisms have created a system in which a few members of Congress—the so-called “Gang of Eight”—are briefed on most or all targeted killings, while most others, even those with senior status on the Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, or Appropriations Committees, are not briefed at all. This raises the question of whether a system that aims to provide “accountability without transparency,” as legal analyst Benjamin Wittes puts it, can in fact be effective. If this was ever the case, arguably it is no longer. It is quite easy for the domestic and global public to access news, and it is proving possible and tempting for motivated individuals to access and leak supposedly secure government information. The record of unsubstantiated and wildly varying casualty claims around drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen—and the accompanying collapse in public support for them there—strongly suggests that more transparency would bolster rather than damage legitimacy. (The Pakistani government’s claims for total civilian deaths in drone strikes vary between 67 and more than 400.)

But information by itself does not guarantee that targeted killing is used only in accordance with principles laid out by the Constitution, Congress, and the executive branch. Nor does it ensure that there are consequences for errors or misuse. Here again, the Obama Administration insists it has a robust set of internal checks and balances but has neither revealed what they are nor codified them into law so that they would bind subsequent Administrations.

Legal experts have proposed a range of options for improved oversight, some of which the executive branch could implement on its own and some of which Congress could implement or compel the executive to take on:

After-the-fact reviews: Wittes and former State Department counterterrorism official Daniel Benjamin, among others, have proposed variants of a review process used by the UK during the later years of the Northern Ireland conflict: Information involving any drone strike would be released, after the fact, to a legislative, executive, or independent review body, to determine whether rules had been followed.

Judicial review: Others have proposed creating another court like the FISA court to put targeting decisions under the sort of secret legal review FISA uses for wiretapping. Judges would review, in secret, evidence justifying the proposed targeting of an individual.

Prior consultation: Congress could mandate a formal, publicly understood procedure in which either some element of Congress or the executive branch would be required to sign off explicitly on each targeting decision.

Authorization for specific extremist groups: The Hoover Institution proposal suggested requiring the Administration to consult in advance with Congress on what terrorist organizations it considered to rise to the level of threat justifying targeted killing.

These and other proposals should be judged by two criteria: Will they result in clear public information being available to Americans and foreigners about who is being targeted and why? And will they give American legislators and voters a clear avenue to change or sanction executive branch actions with which they disagree? After-the-fact reviews provide oversight but not a control mechanism. Executive-branch-only remedies like a secret legal proceeding don’t address the public credibility challenge—and they create what would in effect be a secret capital trial without a defendant, which American jurisprudence forbids. This makes clear the need for the prior consultation proposals, which would create a War Powers-type regime that would require Congress to explicitly support or block any targeting, either in specific instances or generally by group or region.

Openly Articulate Counterterrorism Strategy

The single most valuable thing Congress could do, however, is to act in the spirit of the Constitution and the War Powers Act, and hold this and all administrations accountable to provide public and explicit answers to the following questions: With whom are we at war? What does that designation permit? And for what entities do we judge force short of war to be a legitimate response? The public, then, can hold its elected officials accountable, or not, as it chooses: Witness the mass outpouring of public anger on Syria and the U.S. electorate’s shift against the Iraq War in 2006 and 2008, versus the more muted response on Libya or the partisan-specific concerns with Benghazi.

Why will neither Congress nor the Administration offer explicit rationales and reports? There are two reasons, one substantive and one political. On the substance the problem is one of plausible deniability. This applies to Pakistan in particular: Islamabad cannot claim to be ignorant of or unconsulted on U.S. strikes if Washington regularly acknowledges and defends them. This is a serious concern, and not just in Pakistan; in October, militia members briefly kidnapped the Libyan prime minister to protest his complicity in a U.S. raid that captured an alleged Al Qaeda leader in Tripoli. U.S. drone strikes can be hazardous to an allied government’s health.

But this leads back to the larger question raised by Admiral Blair. Targeted killing and military intervention to remove Al Qaeda leaders weakens the government that needs to compete with extremist militants not just militarily, but in meeting citizens’ needs and providing legitimacy in daily life. Given that, such killings may be creating a cycle in which the government grows less effective and militants more extreme over time.

Yet here lies the political problem that Congress has been even less willing than the President to confront: While military leaders almost routinely declare, “You can’t drone your way to victory,” the media and many officials still approach the problem of terrorism as an existential one for the United States—and the stated logic of U.S. military power, after all, is to deal with existential threats. Yet conventional political wisdom says overstating the threat will not be punished, while any understatement could be career ending.

Change We Can Believe In?

Candidate Obama’s desire to stop conducting counterterrorism by occupying and trying to rebuild entire societies was an attempt to get out from under a strategy that produced both bad policy and, eventually, disastrous politics for its Bush Administration originators. Yet the drone war he unleashed has spawned its own logic of endless war. His 2013 speech on counterterrorism strategy was meant to turn the page, again. He challenged Americans to “define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us,” and said, “this war, like all wars, must end.” He pledged that the use of drones would diminish and become more transparent, and that his Administration would conduct a review and dialogue with Congress about how to improve oversight of targeted killing and revise and wind down the AUMF.

Since that speech was given, an indicted Al Qaeda leader captured in Libya has been brought to New York for criminal trial on an indictment dating from before 9/11; as this article goes to press, 2013 has seen very few Americans hurt or killed by terror attacks emanating from Al Qaeda-trained and -directed extremists. (The Tsarnaev brothers, who are alleged to have acted without Al Qaeda direction, wounded more than 264 people in Boston but killed only three.) The number of terrorist incidents in the United States, the number inspired by Al Qaeda-linked ideology, and the number of Americans killed have all trended down in recent years.
In hundreds of pages of reports, briefings, and assessments since the tenth anniversary of 9/11, terrorism analysts and professionals have made the argument that while Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and its admirers can still do us and our allies grievous harm, they do not pose an existential threat. Political and nonpolitical experts, including Bush, Clinton, and Obama appointees, have pressed for a counterterrorism policy and rhetoric that moves away from treating terrorism as an existential threat and toward viewing it as a serious challenge, one that American courage and ingenuity can control and diminish.

Drone strikes are reported to be down more than 30 percent from 2012; yet at the same time, the United States seems to have launched more drone strikes in the four months after Obama’s speech than in the five months before it. The public conversations on oversight and new rules for authorization have not materialized. Neither have hoped-for releases of information on the rationales for and results of strikes. And whether the topic is targeted killing or electronic surveillance, Americans have heard the same justification across the political spectrum: This is war.

The mystery of counterterrorism in the age of Obama is: bin Laden is dead, attacks are down, the public is exhausted; so why has the political debate and policy structure of the “war on terror” stuck so close to the rhetoric of 2007?

I would point to three factors that will discomfit liberals and conservatives alike. First, the threat remains real and can morph quickly. A year ago, few experts imagined that Al Shabab could mount an attack as sophisticated as the Nairobi mall incident. No one who has studied the details of that attack would want to say that Al Shabab or another group with access to Al Qaeda expertise could “never” stage a comparable attack inside the United States. Nor does it seem likely that, as long as some individuals and groups remain determined to use force against us, the United States will be able to entirely avoid using force against them. To assert that the United States should have no military counterterrorism operations, or for that matter no surveillance, is to imagine a different country—an important intellectual and advocacy project, perhaps, but not a ground for policy-making.

Second, our politics still pretend that we can reclaim our lost national innocence. Both sides of the aisle and the security establishment use the rhetoric of “winning the war on terror” and set the goal of perfect safety. But ask Israelis, Indians, even the Irish and British; all will tell you that such an approach to terrorism does not move a society forward. Instead of pursuing the unobtainable goal of perfect safety, these societies have been able to put terrorism in perspective and pursue higher national priorities: tigers in the face of terrorism.

Third, our bureaucracy and political systems are organized for war. Both parties know how to “support the troops,” and local and national media will always feature military events. Meanwhile, the more mundane stuff of securing the country—police training, partnership agreements, the dreaded foreign aid to entities that will not always behave—happens out of the public’s sight and in complex ways that are never explained. Yet even our military leaders point to those boring efforts as the ones that can dry up terrorism in the long run. Admiral Blair’s advice about prioritizing “social, diplomatic, and economic reforms that Pakistan desperately needs” over drone strikes is hardly naïve. But supporting Pakistani entrepreneurs in borderlands, or enabling Pakistani lawyers to defend their rights against their own security state, will never make the evening news—or steer jobs to a swing district.

Congress and the President—be it Obama or his successor—will eventually have to ditch the rhetoric of perfect security. Americans will not pay for another decade of dramatic growth in security spending. And they will increasingly demand changes to the wartime regimes—drones, surveillance—that the last decade put in place.

Congress—even a divided, dysfunctional Congress—could get ahead of this dynamic. The parties can compete to define a postwar security mindset. Whether it is Senator Rand Paul or Representative Adam Schiff, or another ambitious figure who seizes the issue, such a move will pay substantive and political dividends.
If the terrorist threat is not existential, calls for the release of more data about where, how, and why drones are used become more reasonable. The definition of “imminent” returns to something more like its dictionary meaning. Then, when Washington does decide that targeted killing is the best available option, it is not laboring under a presumption of its own wrongness; equally important, observers can judge for themselves after the fact.

The retention of support for force when it is used is just one of the ways that de-emphasizing the threat from terrorism would allow us to craft security policies that work better. Terrorism uses violence to achieve political ends; its solutions are also political. Targeting young men in Pakistan and Yemen who do not pose a threat to our nation’s existence is a fool’s errand—they will be replaced by other, more radical men. We need to target their ideology and relevance instead—those are harder to replace. But what is hardest to replace is our own capital: moral, financial, and human. The lesson from Vietnam is that when the public seeks an angry accounting of these losses, it will not exempt Congress from the reckoning.

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