Robert Farley notes that rather than drop a bomb on Anwar al-Awlaki, the Obama administration “potentially could have launched an SOF raid in Yemen to grab/kill al-Awlaki.” They did so with Osama bin Laden but when it came to Awlaki “judged that the political cost-benefit analysis of a similar mission to grab al-Awkali was negative, and decided to blow him up instead.” Which is to say that there’s no argument of strict military necessity that required him to be killed.
This returns us, I think, to a disturbing issue raised around the time of bin Laden’s killing. Wouldn’t it have discomfited the U.S. government a great deal had he surrendered? After all, it’s pretty clear that President Obama has no desire to engage in the political and legal controversies that would be posed by the capture of new high-value detainees. Having abandoned his campaign pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, the president clearly would prefer for the whole issue of the legal status of detainees to go away. And a “take no prisoners” attitude toward alleged al-Qaeda ringleaders suits that agenda quite well. But you can’t give no quarters orders to soldiers. So it seems more appealing to rely on death from above via aerial drone, regardless of the consequences for due process. That, however, is not only not a question of military necessity, it’s a mighty ugly kind of political motive. Of course it’s hard to prove anything about motive, so maybe that’s not what’s driving what’s going on, but given the administration’s previous handling of detainee politics I have my suspicions.