On a practical level, Mark Thiessen’s case for capturing and torturing suspected terrorists in place of bombing them is pretty unpersuasive, mainly because he doesn’t have any proof that we lose a chance to interrogate Al Qaeda operatives every time they’re assassinated. Maybe Thiessen has some evidence to the contrary and the military really is sitting on a terrorist-capturing contingency plan, but absent an explanation of how we’d go about detaining terrorists in rural Yemen or Pakistan’s tribal provinces, I think it’s a safe bet that we use drone strikes because the alternatives are totally impractical. As I understand it, one of the benefits of drones is that they’re not as intrusive as a larger US military presence, which makes their use less offensive to the host country’s sensibilities than other military options (emphasis mine):
By early 2008, the Bush administration had tired of the Pakistani government’s unwillingness or inability to take out the militants in the FATA, and in July the president authorized Special Operations forces to carry out ground assaults in the tribal regions without the prior permission of the Pakistani government. On September 3, 2008, a team of Navy SEALs based in Afghanistan crossed the Pakistani border into South Waziristan to attack a compound housing militants. Twenty of the occupants were killed, most of them women and children. The Pakistani press picked up on the attack, and the assault sparked vehement objections from Pakistani officials, who protested that it violated their national sovereignty. Army chief of staff Afshaq Parvez Kayani bluntly said that Pakistan’s “territorial integrity … will be defended at all costs,” suggesting that any future insertion of American soldiers into Pakistan would be met by force.
In the face of the intense Pakistani opposition to American boots on the ground, the Bush administration chose to rely on drones to target suspected militants.
Thiessen also suggests that the Obama Administration is deliberately avoiding efforts to capture terrorists because high-level interrogations would force “hard decisions” about what’s “needed to protect the United States.” By “hard decisions,” Thiessen is presumably referring to the use of torture, a cause he’s championed tirelessly in recent months. This is a clever insinuation, but it’s worth noting that the Obama Administration opposes torture not only on moral grounds, but also because it’s not particularly effective. If we take the Administration at its word that conventional interrogation techniques work better than torture, there’s no real political incentive for Obama to deliberately avoid capturing terrorists.
Despite his enthusiasm for mistreating prisoners, Thiessen does raise one important point. Namely, the moral contradiction between opposing torture and endorsing targeted airstrikes:
The president has claimed the moral high ground in eliminating the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, saying that he rejects the “the false choice between our security and our ideals.” Yet when Obama orders a Predator or Reaper strike, he is often signing the death warrant for the women and children who will be killed alongside the target — individuals whose only sin is that they are married to, or the children of, a terrorist. Is this not a choice between security and ideals? And why is it a morally superior choice? Is it really more in keeping with American ideals to kill a terrorist and the innocent people around him, when the United States might instead spare the innocent, capture the same terrorist alive, and get intelligence from him that could potentially save many other innocent lives as well?
My intuition is that airstrikes are appropriate if the military takes all reasonable precautions to avoid civilian casualties. My thoughts on this issue are pretty unformed, however, so I thought I’d throw these questions at the commentariat: Why does the status of terrorists change so dramatically after they’ve been captured? Is it because we can afford to treat enemies better once they’re detained and rendered harmless? Or does being held in captivity fundamentally change a detainee’s moral status?