The question that should be asked in tonight's foreign-policy debate won't be. The question that should be asked would have to do with the killing of American citizens in the name of foreign policy, and would go something like this: "President Obama, just over a year ago an American drone killed a 16-year-old American citizen named Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. Despite your personal involvement in America's targeted killing programs, you have never acknowledged nor addressed the circumstances of his death. How do you justify such secrecy under the United States Constitution and do you, Governor Romney, also believe that such secrecy is justified?"
The question won't be asked because the administration has done its utmost to convince the American public that it can't be asked — to convince the American people that all information regarding the fate of an American-born teenager should remain classified, and that they are threatened not by the bulwark of official silence but rather by its breach. The question won't be asked because the administration has managed the trick of taking credit for targeted killings in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere without revealing its hand in them, and because debates, after all, are not press conferences or instruments of investigation. We should not expect the Lethal President to reveal aspects of the Lethal Presidency while engaged in a spitting contest with a Republican challenger who has given every indication that his would not just be a Lethal Presidency but also a torturing one.
That the Lethal Presidency is by definition resistant to questions does not mean that Bob Schieffer shouldn't ask questions about it in tonight's debate, however, or that such questions are beyond the pale. Obviously, Schieffer will get nowhere asking questions about classified subjects. But while the Obama administration has kept silent about the specifics of the program — and the CIA has still refused to say whether the program even exists — it has been voluble about the legal and moral apparatus of the program, and this past spring set about justifying it in a series of highly public speeches by officials deputized to speak for the President. The last of these speeches, by Obama's lead counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, was delivered on April 30, and included these words:
So let me say it as simply as I can. Yes, in full accordance with the law — and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives — the United States Government conducts targeted strikes against specific Al Qaeda terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones. And I’m here today because President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people about these efforts.”
Brennan's speech came about a month before the New York Times published a front-page story detailing President Obama's managerial involvement with his administration's list of "specific Al Qaeda terrorists" targeted for killing — its "kill list." Since then, the Lethal Presidency has found itself under political attack (from, among others, the Republican challenger) not for its lethality but rather for its leaking, and the terms of the debate have shifted. The terms of the debate have shifted in that there is no debate, as evidenced by two political campaigns in which drones are never mentioned; two political conventions in which President Obama's main problem seems to be his penchant for apology and no terrorist has died but Osama bin Laden; and two political debates obsessed with every American economy but the moral one. Meanwhile, the inherently-expansive Lethal Presidency keeps expanding, to the point where the only question remaining about the suspected ringleader of the Benghazi consulate murders is when we are going to kill him.
We have been told, many times, that each killing carried out by the administration is accompanied by vigorous and even agonized debate about its legality, advisability, efficacy, and morality. That debate, however has remained staunchly internal — has remained secret — and it has become clear that the only way to find out what our two presidential candidates think about the implications of the Lethal Presidency is to ask them, tonight, at the debate in Florida. President Obama has limited his comments to all but the most self-serving circumstance, and Governor Romney has spoken only through inference and through the often confounding comments of his foreign-policy surrogates. Bob Schieffer should know that if he does not ask a question about targeted killing tonight, he is — we are — unlikely to get another chance.
With that mind, here are some questions that Schieffer might ask, and that seem, in the light of the Brennan speech, eminently askable, even in the august environs of a presidential debate.
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To President Obama: Mr. President, you have over the last four years greatly expanded the use of targeted killing in America's war against Al Qaeda. If you are given a second term, will you keep expanding the use of this tool? If so, is there any natural limit on its use, and if not, what will you do to rein it back in? Governor Romney, are you comfortable with the framework that the Obama administration has established in regard to targeted killing, or are there new limits that you plan to introduce if you are elected president?
To Governor Romney: You have called for a return to limited government if you are elected president. But you have not said a single thing about targeted killing, even when the those killed have been American citizens never indicted for a crime. How can you square the expansion of what seems to many like the ultimate power with your vision of a limited constitutional government? And President Obama, how do you respond to those who view the expansion of targeted killing under your administration as symptomatic of your belief in government in general?
To President Obama: Your administration has not just employed targeted killing; it has made the case for targeted killing to the rest of the world. What would you tell the leader of another country who wants to make use not only of technology pioneered by America but also of legal arguments pioneered by America? Do those arguments only count for America, or do they count also for Russia, China, and well, North Korea and Hezbollah? Governor Romney, have you prepared for the possibility of another country acquiring and using drone technology during a Romney Administration, and have you considered the possibility that you might have to argue against a prerogative so forcefully championed by your predecessor?
And, finally, to both men: President Obama, you got your start as a community organizer and as a law professor. Governor Romney, your experience, before you entered politics, was as a missionary and then, for a long time, as a businessman. Neither of you have been trained by the military. And yet the confluence of asymmetrical threat, data-driven intelligence, and drone technology has called for the president of the United States to exercise power in a new and startlingly personalized way — to say, quite literally, who is going to live and who is going to die. President Obama, has lethal responsibility changed the nature of the job for you and do you think it changes the nature of the presidency itself? Governor Romney, you will inherit the power to target and kill individuals, if you are elected president. Does this, in any way, give you pause? Do you have any qualms about it, and can you tell us if and how you've made peace with lethal responsibility — with killing?
And this, of course, are what the questions are all about, and why they demand to be answered. The underlying presumption of the Lethal Presidency is that targeted killing is not war because it's better than war — because it's precise, restrained, limited, measured. But every argument for targeted killing's limited and restrained use has served the cause of its expansion, to the point where the United States is engaging in something very close to war in Pakistan and Yemen — wars made no less harrowing to those populations by their antiseptic execution. People die, a lot of them, and not only those identified as "militants" in the agate type of the next day's aftermath. And yet when the Obama administration justifies targeted killing, it rarely speaks of killing anyone — it speaks instead of "targeting" them, and its freedom to do so. But the Lethal Presidency is not about targeting; it's about killing, and Bob Schieffer would do well to remind us of that tonight, by reminding the two men who purport to represent us.