Crowley argues that "in political terms, it's getting hard to tell the difference" between Obama and Dick Cheney. In the last few months, "his drone war has turned from asset to headache," thanks to dogged criticism from human rights groups, international lawyers and a few politicians, including Republican Sen. Rand Paul.
Crowley writes that the program "is increasingly straining against its legal authority" and that "a big practical problem with the drone war is that the rest of the world hates it." He runs through various ideas that could introduce accountability or new legal mechanisms to constrain or refine the program–or "it might seem easier to simply wind down the drone war entirely."
"Washington is rethinking some of its basic assumptions about the drone war," Crowley writes–and this a rapid shift:
For years, only a handful of critics questioned whether the drone campaign begun by George W. Bush and Cheney and accelerated by Obama was operating outside the law. Now members of Congress and legal scholars are asking whether it makes sense for U.S. counterterrorism policy to be guided by language hastily drafted as the wreckage of the World Trade Center still burned.
That's true enough. Another way to measure the shift in official opinion is to consider how Time's coverage of drones has changed. A little more than a year ago, it hardly seemed to think there was any debate at all.
Indeed, an article in the January 9, 2012, issue could hardly have been more ecstatic about the future of U.S. drone warfare. The "hot military trend" was all about "weapons that are smaller, remote-controlled and bristling with intelligence."
As reporter Mark Thompson put it, "more drones that can tightly target terrorists, deliver larger payloads and are some of the best spies the U.S. has ever produced." As he put it:
These clandestine warriors have killed some 2,000 people identified as terrorists lurking in shadows around the globe since 9/11. Expect the tally to go higher this year.
The article also had other insights, such as:
The Predator-C Avenger can be armed with 2,000-lb. bombs, four times the size of those carried by the Predator-B Reaper
None of this is intended to diminish Time's new take on drones–it is obviously a vast improvement. The point is that this is a reminder that often the "official" debate on something has to change before the media covers the issue with the appropriate skepticism. The press is far too often lagging behind the activists, and even the political leaders, who are posing the kinds of questions that reporters should be the first ones asking.