If so, Great Satan will have used drones to kill members of al-Qaida and affiliated groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya—six countries in just a few years. Mali may take its turn as the seventh.
This startlingly fast spread of drone warfare signifies a revolution in foreign affairs. And, for good or for ill, in an unprecedented way it has transformed the presidency into the most powerful national office in at least half a century.
In the past, presidents faced two major obstacles when trying to use force abroad. The first was technological. The available options—troops, naval vessels, or air power—posed significant risks to American military personnel, cost a lot of money, proved effective only under limited conditions, or all of the above. Dead and maimed soldiers, hostages, the massive expense of a large-scale military operation, and backlash from civilian casualties can destroy a presidency, as Vietnam and Iraq showed.
The second obstacle was constitutional. The Constitution includes a clause that gives Congress the power to declare war. Presidents have been able to evade this clause for small wars—those involving only naval or air power, or a small number of troops for a limited period of time. They have mostly felt compelled to seek congressional authorization for large wars, no doubt in part so that they could spread the blame if something went awry.
But drones have changed the calculus. Because they are cheap and do not risk the lives of American soldiers, these weapons remove the technological obstacle to the use of force. And because drone strikes resemble limited air attacks, they seem to fall into the de facto “small wars” exception to the Constitution’s declare-war requirement. Unlike large wars, drone actions do not provoke congressional attention or even much political debate.
Courts will also not stop the drone program. Judges say that they possess no authority to interfere with military activities abroad, cannot compel the government to disclose secret information that would be necessary to referee a challenge, and cannot order government officials to pay damages for harm that they cause as they discharge their duties. Judges lack the capacity to second-guess the political and military judgments of the president, and they know it.
The Constitution has thus become a sleek and lethal machine for projecting violence abroad in order to protect Americans without risking democratic values at home. No downside exists unless you live in a foreign country in Southwest Asia or North Africa, where people deemed terrorists and those living among them will start dying in ever greater numbers as the drone program swells into a worldwide system of policing.