Tom, an often-funny blogger at at Functional Ambivalent, today criticizes “liberals” among Kevin Drum’s commenters for failing to respond to a direct question Kevin asked concerning the US attack in Pakistan last week. Here’s the question from the popular blog:

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we had pretty good intelligence telling us that a bunch of al-Qaeda leaders were in the house we bombed. And let’s also assume that we did indeed kill al-Masri and several other major al-Qaeda leaders. Finally, let’s assume that the 18 civilians killed in the attack were genuinely innocent bystanders with no connection to terrorists.

Question: Under those assumptions, was the attack justified? I think the answer is pretty plainly yes, but I’d sure like to see the liberal blogosphere discuss it. And for those who answer no, I’m curious: under what circumstances would such an attack be justified?

Tom read the various answers and then asserts:

The question drew more than 200 comments, most of them questions, not answers….Liberal after liberal wrings his/her hands, unable to absorb even the premise of the question. The lack of intellectual clarity is stunning.

I read Tom regularly (he’s a fellow Louisvillian and baseball fan), so I know he’s not fond of the current crop of Republicans in the White House. I also agree with him that Drum’s question deservers a clear answer.

Here’s what I wrote on Tom’s blog (less competition there):

It is rare for terrorist attacks to kill even 18 innocent people. The obvious answer here is no.

Want more explanation?

My understanding of intelligence is that “pretty good” is closer to “far from certain” than it is to “certain.”

Killing alleged al Qaeda leaders may bring short-term gain by taking bad guys out of circulation, but the simulaneous killing of innocents provokes more hatred and terrorism. And that makes for more al Qaeda leaders too.

There’s no evidence here suggesting this was the only opportunity to nab or kill these alleged terrorists — or that they were plotting attacks that would pose imminent threats.

In the US, for good reason, we don’t allow the police to shoot suspected “fleeing felons,” even if the person is thought to be a mass murderer. Police can use their weapons in self defense or to protect threatened bystanders.

This phrase doesn’t merely apply to Americans: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

To take another’s life requires something akin to due process under law. Otherwise, we are little better than the killers. Under international law, an attack of this type would be legal only if the targets were clearly planning an imminent offensive.

The Bush administration asserted in September 2002 that the old definition of self defense had to be changed for the current “war on terror,” but their own standards for “preemptive” attack were not met in this strike.

Condi Rice said this in support of the new doctrine (which she called “anticipatory self-defense”) in an important speech from October 2002:

But this approach must be treated with great caution. The number of cases in which it might be justified will always be small. It does not give a green light — to the United States or any other nation — to act first without exhausting other means, including diplomacy. Preemptive action does not come at the beginning of a long chain of effort. The threat must be very grave. And the risks of waiting must far outweigh the risks of action.

Pakistan is an ally in the war on terror, and this wasn’t a strike against a state per se, but the quandry remains the same. The US launched a missile strike inside another state’s territory.

The US did not prove the threat was very grave and did not demonstrate that the risk of waiting outweighed the risk of action. Apparently, Pakistan didn’t think the diplomacy was up to snuff either.

They certainly aren’t happy about the attack, even though they apparently provided some of the intelligence:

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, on the eve of a trip to Washington, said that despite the importance of ties with the United States, attacks inside Pakistan “cannot be condoned.”

“Pakistan has committed to fighting terrorism, but naturally we cannot accept any action within our country which results in what happened over the weekend,” Aziz said

Again, I think the obvious answer to Kevin’s question is “NO.”

1/20/06 Update: An international lawyer and former blogger named Conrad (of the now-dead, or perhaps removed, blog Gweilo Diaries) is taking on my arguments in the comments at Functional Ambivalent. I’ve been replying there…at length.

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