We are in a long war against radical Islamic terrorism. The struggle seems almost similar to on-again/off-again ordeals of the past like the French-English Hundred Years War, of the 14th and 15th centuries, or the Thirty Years War, between Catholics and Protestants in the 17th century.
In these kinds of drawn-out conflicts, victory finally goes to the side that responds best to constant new challenges. And we've seen a lot of those since 9/11, when the United States was caught unaware and apparently ill-equipped to face the threat of radical Islamic terrorists hijacking our passenger jets.
But even when we adjusted to the 9/11 tactics, there were new threats, like suicide bombers and roadside improvised explosive devices, that seemed to nullify American technological and material advantages.
But now America is once again getting the upper hand with targeted assassinations by Predator drones, which the terrorists don't yet have an answer to. In systematically deadly fashion, Predators are picking off the top echelon of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, from the Hindu Kush to Yemen to the Horn of Africa.
The new drone models seem almost unstoppable. They are uncannily accurate in delivering missiles in a way that even precision aircraft bombing cannot. Compared with the cost of a new jet or infantry division, Predators are incredibly cheap. And they do not endanger American lives - at least as long as terrorists cannot get at hidden runways abroad or video control consoles at home.
The pilotless aircraft are nearly invisible and, without warning, can deliver instant death from thousands of feet above. Foreign governments often give us permission to cross borders with Predators in a way they would not for loud, manned aircraft.
Moreover, drones are constantly evolving. They now stay in the air far longer and are far more accurate and far more deadly than when they first appeared in force, shortly after 9/11. Suddenly it is a lot harder for a terrorist to bomb a train station in the West than it is for a Predator to target that same would-be terrorist's home in South Waziristan.
No need for a trial
All those advantages explain why President Obama has exponentially expanded the program. After five years of use under George W. Bush, such drones had killed around 400 suspected terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Under Obama, they have taken out more than 2,200 in less than three years.
The program apparently is uniquely suited to Obama's "leading from behind" kind of war: killing far out of sight and therefore out of mind - and the news. Indeed, Obama is so comfortable with this new approach to warfare that, at a White House Correspondents' Dinner, he joked about using Predators on his daughters' would-be suitors: "But boys, don't get any ideas. Two words for you: Predator drones. You will never see it coming."
The Predator drone avoids candidate Obama's legal objections to Bush's antiterrorism policies by simply blowing apart suspected terrorists without having to capture them - and then ponder how and where they should be tried. With a dead rather than a detained terrorist, civil libertarians cannot demand that Obama honor his campaign pledge to treat suspects like American criminals, while conservatives cannot pounce on any perceived softness in extending Miranda rights to captured al-Qaeda killers.
Antiwar protesters demonstrate in response to the deaths of American soldiers, but rarely about robotic aircraft quietly obliterating distant terrorists. American fatalities can make war unpopular, but who cares about a crashed drone?
Making it personal
Still, there are lots of questions that arise from this latest American advantage. Waterboarding, which once sparked liberal furor, is now a dead issue. How can anyone object to harshly interrogating a few known terrorists when we are routinely blowing apart more that 2,000 suspected ones - and anyone in their vicinity?
Predators both depersonalize and personalize war in a fashion quite unknown in the past. In one sense, killing a terrorist thousands of miles away is akin to playing an amoral video game. But in another, we often know the name and even recognize the face of each victim in a way that was unknown in the anonymous carnage of, for example, the Battles of Verdun and Hue. Does that make war more or less humane?
Once the most prominent critic of the war on terrorism, Obama has now become its greatest adherent - and, in the process, is turning the tide against al-Qaeda. And so far, Americans of all political stripes - for vastly different reasons - seem more relieved than worried about Obama's most unexpected incarnation: Predator in Chief.