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Silent drone of war too loud to ignore

In times of war, the law is not silent. Throughout history, there have been codes even the hell of war could not override.

I am conflicted about drone strikes. The 19 young Arabs who struck the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, shredded the old notions and rules of war and erased the line between combatants and noncombatants. Our country had to be made ready for this new kind of war.

The terrorists waged a twilight war of their own, bereft of scruples and limits. Chased from Afghanistan, they turned up in Yemen and Somalia. They thrived in ungoverned spaces.

Targeted killing was the response of a great military power to the frustrations of this “asymmetrical” war. We didn’t know that larger world of Islam from which this war arose. We were sandbagged by regimes and rulers that feigned friendship with us as they winked at the terror that came our way.

What was one to make of the New Mexico-born radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki inciting his devotees to a holy war – all in good Americanese? He wore no uniform, slipped into the badlands of his ancestral Yemen and mastered the new means of communication.

He was an American citizen, but he bore this country a deadly animus. No tears need be shed for him. The strike that killed him was just retribution. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney’s defense of the drone strikes as legal, ethical and wise can stand in the case of Awlaki.

In truth, the public didn’t want to look too closely into the doings of our government. We left it to our intelligence agencies and our military to keep us safe. But there came a time – after the doings of the night shift at Abu Ghraib became public – when the writ granted our officials was withdrawn.

The renditions and the enhanced interrogation techniques and, yes, the 50 or so drone strikes used during the Bush years became, to the liberals, a matter of national shame. A rising politician in the Democratic Party, a former teacher of constitutional law at that, rode this sense of outrage to the pinnacle of political power. He posed as a moralist.

Barack Obama was certain that rendition and waterboarding and the prison at Guantanamo Bay were recruiting tools of the jihadis. Our practices had run afoul of time-tested traditions and institutions, and in his stewardship, he promised, our values would again be a compass for our deeds abroad.

In hindsight, the great reckoning for Obama came at the end of the first year of his presidency. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young Nigerian, a disciple of Awlaki, came close to bringing down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. From that close call, the president emerged a determined leader in the war on terrorism.

He had his trusted aide, John Brennan, and Brennan knew the world of intelligence and terrorism. He knew the Arabian Peninsula.

Together the president and the spook oversaw a stealth war, and the president became his own targeting officer. (Obama going over kill lists recalls President Lyndon Johnson’s poring over the map in search of bombing targets in Vietnam.)

The drone strikes were the choice of a president who had given up on winning “hearts and minds” in the North-West Frontier of Pakistan. Secure in the knowledge that he can’t be outflanked from the right by the Republicans, Obama served up a policy that was economical – and remote.

Congress didn’t intrude and, save for the purists at the American Civil Liberties Union, no powerful intellectual lobby was calling for accountability.

The passion had drained out of the progressives who had hounded Bush, Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby. Brennan had to step aside once when he was put up to head the Central Intelligence Agency, as a man tainted with the Bush legacy. His confirmation is certain this time around.

There remains the discrepancy between an extensive campaign of drones and a passive foreign policy that maintains – the president’s very words – that an era of war is ending.

Forgive those Syrians left at the mercy of their dictator’s cruel war: It is hard to explain to them why those drones don’t somehow find their way to Bashar al-Assad’s bunker. We do anti- terrorism. Wars of rescue are not an American specialty nowadays.

Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He wrote this for Bloomberg News.