I saw Lincoln last weekend. It was amazing. Daniel Day Lewis disappeared effortlessly into his role. But the movie also got me thinking, as most things do, about American foreign policy.

In the movie, Lincoln discusses the legal precedence behind the Emancipation Proclamation, and the fact that he feels it is necessary to get the Senate to pass the 13th Amendment to ensure that slavery stays ended after the war. He knew that the courts would have their say once the war was over. He fully expected that his efforts would come under a critical microscope, and had put them into place knowing the legal ramifications of what he had done.

Obviously, this was a dramatization. I don’t know the specifics of the history (sadly, I still haven’t read Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s Team of Rivals), but that’s not important. Lincoln expected the courts to be involved. He expected some semblance of transparency, even in the throes of victor’s justice.

Which brings us the last ten years. We all know there is a gray area over declaring war; I still don’t fully understand the specifics. But we have been in an honest-to-god shooting war for half of my life. It started with the horse soldiers in Afghanistan, escalated with Shock and Awe in Iraq. At some point Afghanistan spilled into Pakistan, and Iraq came to include Yemen and Somalia. And then the war in Iraq ended.

Over the course of the conflict, the military began to operate Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. These UAVs were initially unarmed, used to inform soldiers on the ground of enemy positions without putting a pilot in harm’s way. Somewhere along the way, we realized we could strap weapons platforms to them, and use them to kill the insurgents before ground contact was made. (Did we not see this coming? Two of the biggest have names that could have come from the guy who named the Death Star: the Predator and the Reaper)

And that’s fine. The Air Force, as an arm of the military, used drone strikes as a tool in the conflict, and our host nations gave us their tacit approval. We ruffled more feathers when we killed bin Laden than with the drone strikes of years past. But the war in Iraq ended. We never ended up declaring war in Yemen. We never ended up declaring war in Somalia. And we continued to strike in these countries.

The legal authority of this behavior stems from the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). The problem with that is that the AUMF only authorizes action against “those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” As anyone who existed in the past ten years knows, that means al-Qaeda. But in the past ten years, the lines between strikes carried out as a military operation (wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), where the US sometimes came into direct conflict with al-Qaeda, and paramilitary operations against terrorists. Furthermore, it was one thing when we knew the identity of every individual on the receiving end of a missile. The US has since started targeting based on operational patterns, which means that an individual can be killed for simply behaving like a terrorist.

Somewhere along the way, we ceased to be at war. Somewhere along the way, the CIA began to make the majority of these strikes. And somewhere along the way, we should start processing these people as criminals, and begin persecuting them according to the criminal rule of law.

The NYT published a piece last weekend on the administration and their haste to publish rules in the face of an election loss. the piece pointed to an uncomfortable truth: the administration was not comfortable with the legality of what they were doing, and wanted to fully codify the system prior to a new administration taking office. In and of itself, this is shameful. It is a paradigm of conflict that you should never field a weapon you don’t want to fall into the hands of an enemy; it should stand to reason that a government should know this.

What is really troubling is that the administration now has no incentive to codify these rules. Now that their weapon won’t fall into the hands of the enemy, they can continue to use it at their discretion, without challenge.

Which brings it back to Lincoln. I don’t believe in the mythology of the great man, of the messiah. But I do believe that some people are more suited to certain challenges than others. The movie accurately captured one of the undeniably great features of Abraham Lincoln: he knew the law. He knew his limits. He knew that he was gambling, and he knew what he had to do under the law to make his gambles real. He was prepared to fail in court, but felt that the gamble was worth it.

The world has changed since Lincoln’s day. The president today doesn’t only have to justify his actions to the courts and the American people. He also has to justify them to the world. Although Pakistan has been quiescent so far, it is only a matter of time until the political scale of drone strikes and the aid that accompanies them tips unfavorably. And it is not unreasonable to imagine China utilizing this technology in Africa in ways that we do not approve of. At some point, a nation with human rights record worse than the US will get this technology. When that happens, who will we be to tell them they can’t kill from on high?

I don’t oppose the use of drones. But it is well and beyond time the administration codified their rules. Because soon enough, it won’t be the other side of the aisle gaining control of drones. It will be the other side of the rifle scope. We are live in an interconnected world. Soon enough, we will be held accountable for our actions within it.

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