Drone warfare becomes America's face to the world

It is certainly not be what he hoped or intended, but one of President Barack Obama's biggest legacies in foreign affairs may prove to be the proliferation of drones as tools of war, assassination and terror.

Mr. Obama is not the first to use drones to strike enemy targets, but the 300 attacks that have happened on his watch are six times the number carried out under President George W. Bush. A new set of guidelines that give the president broad discretion in approving execution by drones, coupled with the current congressional hearings on the nomination of John Brennan as CIA director, have brought the drone debate front and center.

Civil libertarians and activists on the left see the use of missile-firing drones to target and take out suspected terrorists as a threat to the rule of law. They are particularly concerned that American citizens, such as al-Qaida propagandist Anwar Awlaki, have been killed in drone strikes without a finding of guilt and sentencing in a U.S. court. At the opening of his confirmation hearing on Thursday, Mr. Brennan -- who, as President Obama's counterterrorism advisor, has managed the deadly drone missions for four years -- was met by protesters shouting, "Assassination is against the Constitution! You are betraying democracy!"

Opponents of the drone attacks are making a principled point. A government free to kill citizens at will is truly the worst kind of Big Government nightmare. But few of the usual anti-government folks on the right are concerned about the drone hits. They consider the remote control killing of al-Qaida operatives as completely justified, the equivalent of doing battle in a declared war, and any American who has joined the other side is merely getting what he deserves.

About 80 percent of Americans agree with that view, and plenty of them are liberals and Democrats. Many see drone attacks as an improvement over commando raids and bombing runs. Drones do not put American soldiers directly at risk, and they are far more precise than big bombs dropped from the sky, thus minimizing the collateral deaths of innocent bystanders. Those are pretty good debating points -- probably winning points.

It is easy to see how this will play out. Concerned parties in Congress -- such as Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who has threatened to filibuster Mr. Brennan's confirmation unless the Obama administration provides more information about the drone program -- will demand more limits on who can be targeted and who can approve the killings. Promises will be made, guidelines will be revised and safeguards made a little safer, but the United States will not stop using unmanned drones to deal with perceived threats. In a twilight war with no front lines and elusive enemies who hide themselves amid the flow of unsuspecting humanity, drones are an unusually effective and politically popular weapon. What president could resist pulling such an appealing trigger?

A wise president will know, however, that there will be blowback. Drones may be precise, but intelligence agencies are fallible. There will be mistakes that lead to the death of innocent people and those who survive will have good reason to hate America. The question may be, can we kill terrorists as fast as we create them? In some parts of the world, the symbol of America is no longer the Statue of Liberty, it is the killer drone.

A wise president will also anticipate the day when this technologically marvelous weapon is turned against us. A decade ago, the United States had a near monopoly on drones; now they are in the hands of dozens of countries. It is likely that some enterprising terrorist is, even now, thinking there is no reason to pack a bomb in the underpants of some aspiring martyr when it would be simpler to get hold of a cheap hobbyist's drone, wire it up with explosives and send it on a short flight to the nearest airport.

This genie is out of the bottle. Drones are in our world to stay. Presidents, both wise and foolish, will employ them -- probably too easily and often -- and America's enemies will find a way to reciprocate.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.