What Would Augustine Do? the President, Drones, and Just War Theory
This week, 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.)