President Obama's proposed policy changes on the use of drones to kill key terrorist leaders has raised more questions than it has answered.
Under pressure from leftist, anti-drone activists among groups like Amnesty International, Obama has suggested making the rules governing these airborne weapons more stringent when a strike might result in civilian casualties.
While he defends their use as legal and necessary in the battle against terrorists, he made it clear in last week's address at the National Defense University that he intends to place further restrictions on the use of drones in what he still refuses to call the war on terrorism.
"And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set," Obama said.
He added, that "by narrowly targeting our [drone] action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life."
Message to al Qaeda terrorists in the Arabian Peninsula and
elsewhere: Surround yourself with civilians and you'll very likely be protected from one of our drone attacks.
This doesn't mean we shouldn't look for opportunities where terrorist murderers can be taken out without the loss of innocent life. But we needn't broadcast our rules of engagement to the world and to our enemies. Better that they continue to believe there are no safe places for them to hide.
The use of pilotless drones, begun by President George W. Bush and vigorously expanded under Obama, has given the U.S. a major strategic advantage in the war on terror.
There have been nearly 400 drone attacks in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia by American military forces and the CIA thus far in Obama's presidency. And they have killed hundreds of the most dangerous military leaders in the al Qaeda terrorist network.
But now, under pressure from the drone program's leftist critics, the administration is preparing strategic changes in its operations: narrowing rules of engagement and curbing the CIA's enlarged role in drone warfare by turning it over to our military forces.
The tone of Obama's address and the changes he wants to implement -- that include closing the Guantanamo Bay military prison --- have triggered a firestorm of Republican criticism.
Needless to say, the president's many GOP critics do not agree with his repeated insistence that al Qaeda is "on the path to defeat," the questionable theme in last week's national security address.
"We show this lack of resolve, talking about the war being over," said South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham who thinks Obama is sending a message of weakness at a time when terrorists have stepped up their plots against us at home and abroad.
"What do you think the Iranians are thinking? At the end of the day, this is the most tone-deaf president I ever could imagine," Graham said.
Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn was similarly troubled by the president's remarks in the wake of a wave of deadly terrorist attacks on innocent civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, as well as the horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon that killed and injured more than 260 people.
"I see a big difference between the president saying the war's at an end and whether or not you've won the war," Coburn said. "We can claim that it's at an end, but this war's going to continue. And we have still tremendous threats out there, that are building, not declining, building, and to not recognize that, I think, is dangerous in the long run and dangerous for the world."
Yet Obama went to greatly exaggerated lengths in his address that "the Afghan war is coming to an end" and that "Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self."
There was a disturbing tone of "not to worry" sprinkled throughout Obama's speech. At one point he said that "not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States."
Is that what he thinks these terrorist cells are? Merely toothless, benign, street thugs who cannot harm us or our allies?
And then there was this troubling passage in Obama's speech:
"Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don't need to fight."
No sooner did Obama take the reins of the presidency than he stopped using the Bush administration's "war on terrorism” designation. But redefining the words and terms of war is not an effective strategy to defeat terrorism. We are in a long twilight struggle against Islamist extremists and it's not going to go away anytime soon.
And what are we to make of Obama's efforts to shift the CIA's drone program out of the shadows of covert operations and return it back to the Pentagon?
"You have to go into this with some concern," a former senior U.S. counterrorism official told the Washington Post about the administration's plan. "It didn't work before. Will it work this time?"
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, voiced similar doubts earlier this year when she learned of the changes being considered.
Feinstein maintained the CIA had exercised "patience and discretion specifically to prevent collateral damage," adding that she "would really have to be convinced that the military would carry it out that well."
Twelve years ago, Congress enacted the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) powers to combat terrorism. Now, Obama, eager to declare victory, wants Congress "to refine, and ultimately repeal"
AUMF's mandate, vowing, "I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further."
More cautious, grown-up minds believe it is dangerously premature to talk about winding down a war against the very real threat that terrorism still poses to our freedoms and our way of life.