Commentary Magazine


The Case for Drones

1. When Obama Embraced Drone Warfare

How, exactly, did drone warfare and targeted killing become key elements in America’s counterterrorism strategy? And why should we care about them as essential national-security tools for the future?

Barack Obama campaigned for his first presidential term on the platform of ending America’s wars. Obama voters and much of the rest of the world figured this promise referred not only to the conventional conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also to what liberals considered the long and unnecessary national nightmare of the war on terror. It now seems clear he was misunderstood—though we don’t know yet whether the misunderstanding was by Obama’s design or due to changes that took place after he assumed office. Obama’s policy proved not to be “peace breaks out.” It was, rather, that America would wind down its two counterinsurgency, boots-on-the-ground wars and undertake a refocused effort against the terrorists who had set this all in motion. He framed it this way during the 2008 race. “If Pakistan cannot or will not take out al-Qaeda leadership when we have actionable intelligence about their whereabouts,” he said on the campaign trail, “we will act to protect the American people. There can be no safe haven for al-Qaeda terrorists.” No safe havens—that has been Barack Obama’s strategic lodestar in the war on terror.

It is this proposition, more than any other, that gets us to drone warfare.

Even as Obama publicly disdained the institutions and methodologies of Bush’s war on terror, he was issuing a new call to arms in that war. Taking the fight directly to the enemy required a means of combat other than counterinsurgency warfare on the ground, and the United States turned to a technology the Israelis had used effectively in their war against Palestinian terrorists: unmanned surveillance drones, now weaponized.

This tool had been used during the Bush administration, but sparingly-—largely due to geopolitical fears, but also because it was only by the second Bush term that the CIA had established ground-level human-intelligence networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan sufficient for making independent targeting decisions without having to rely on the questionable and self-interested information coming from Pakistan’s intelligence services.

The strategy has worked far better than anyone expected. It is effective, and has rightfully assumed an indispensable place on the list of strategic elements of U.S. counterterrorism-on-offense.

But it is not only a strategy of effectiveness, convenience, and necessity. Drone warfare offers ethical advantages as well, allowing for increased discrimination in time, manner, and targeting not available via any other comparable weapon platform. As such, it lends civilians in the path of hostilities vastly greater protection than does any other fighting tool. Drone warfare is an honorable attempt to seek out terrorists and insurgents who hide among civilians.

The expansion into automated and robotic military equipment owes much to the ethical impulse to create new technologies of discrimination when fighting enemies for whom unwitting civilian shields were their main materiel of war. Moreover, these are weapons that gain much of their discrimination in use from the fact that U.S. forces are not directly at personal risk and are thus able to take time to choose a moment to attack when civilians might be least at risk. Remoteness—the fact that the drone user is nowhere near the target, as the pilot is probably sitting in an air-conditioned room in Nevada—actually enables precision.

Ethical and effective—and yet today drone warfare is coming under increasingly strong public attack as being neither. Opponents of drones are seeking to raise the political costs of drone warfare to the United States, portraying it as a symbol of an arrogant, reprobate superpower dating back to the days of the “ugly American.” Steve Coll, writing in the New Yorker, says drone use is “unnervingly reminiscent of Eisenhower’s enthusiasm for poisoning schemes and coup plots.” And though, in a recent Gallup poll, two-thirds of those surveyed said they supported drone strikes, there is no question that the political, legal, and moral legitimacy of drone warfare is increasingly at risk. The delegitimators are the international community, both its UN officials and NGO advocates; a sizable portion of academic international lawyers; much of the elite international media; and Obama’s American left.

These delegitimators also include a number of conservatives and Republicans, chief among them Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. They claim the core issue is constitutional—that drones violate due process. This argument focuses specifically on the case of a radical cleric and terrorist operative in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who inspired a terrorist assault at Fort Hood in 2009, designed an al-Qaeda effort to detonate a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day in the same year, and was deeply involved in a plot to load printer ink cartridges with explosives for detonation on a plane. Awlaki was killed in a targeted drone strike in Yemen in 2011—and he was an American citizen.

His citizenship, some argue (most vigorously on the libertarian right), should have prevented the Obama administration from performing the targeted killing. But as an enemy combatant in the war on terror authorized by Congress in 2001, Awlaki could not be granted some special get-out-of-a-drone-strike-free card. Given the inherently unsympathetic nature of the Awlaki example, the due-process arguments of those on the right who stand in opposition to drone strikes took a markedly populist and anti-government turn. When the Republican senator Rand Paul decided to stage a 13-hour filibuster on the question of the legality of drone strikes, he and others spent a great deal of time talking not about the violated rights of a terrorist in Yemen but about the theoretical use of drones on American soil against a suspected domestic terrorist “sitting in a café.”

Paul’s critique delighted many conservatives and libertarians. They loved seeing him and others engage the Obama administration in a direct and seemingly high-minded manner, denouncing the “imperial” presidency. But they confused and conflated the Obama administration’s arguably imperial domestic policies with policies on national security, war, and foreign affairs—spheres in which the president has many and capacious constitutional powers. Moreover, those who were thrilled did not give much thought to whether they might see a need for a president they liked better to have access to those same policies—and whether, in making common cause with those who have opposed the war on terror since it began, they are working to destroy one of its most effective tools not only for Obama, but for future residents of the White House.

2. How Drone Warfare Works

Drone warfare consists of two distinct things. The first is a technology of war—the drone itself, such as the Predator, a “remotely piloted aerial vehicle” originally designed for pure surveillance. As a surveillance aircraft, it is slow-speed, but (in terms of manned aircraft) it has immensely long “loiter” times over the object of interest, clocking in many hours circling at slow speed. It is noisy, sometimes visible, and vulnerable to any enemy with even a minimal air-defense system. But it was not designed for use against highly developed military powers, but for the surveillance of technologically unsophisticated but potentially dangerous actors lacking such capabilities. From a strategic standpoint, the drone offers unparalleled “persistence” around its target—persistence that can last months on end and can outstrip what a human team might monitor on the ground, even if undetected, apart from other air systems.

This feature of Predators and Reapers—the two forms of drones really at issue today—enables the second aspect of drone warfare: targeted killing, a method of using force that takes advantage of drone technology. But drones and targeted killing are not the same thing: One is a technology and weapon platform, the other a way to use it. Targeted killing can be done not only with drones, but with human teams, too, as seen most dramatically in the Bin Laden raid by the Navy SEALs.

Similarly, drones are useful for more than targeted killing. They have broad, indeed rapidly expanding, military functions as a weapons platform—as evidenced in counterinsurgency strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen against groups of fighters, not only individuals. This is conventional targeting of hostile forces in conventional conflict, just like one would see with a manned war plane. They have much in common. The pilot of a manned craft is often far away from the target, as would be a drone pilot—over the horizon or many miles away. Unlike the drone pilot, however, he might have minimal situational awareness of the actual events on the ground at the target—his knowledge may be nothing more than instrument data. A drone pilot may in fact have far greater visual and other sensor data than the pilot of a manned craft without handling the distractions caused by the work to keep a high-speed jet in the air.

The most offensively foolish (though endlessly repeated) objection raised against drones was the one made by Jane Mayer in her influential 2009 New Yorker article, “The Predator War”: that drone pilots are so distant from their targets that they encourage a “push-button,” video-game mentality toward killing. The professional military find the claim bizarre, and it fails to take into account the other kinds of weapons and platforms in use. Note, the pilot of a manned craft is often thousands of feet away and a mile above a target looking at a tiny coordinates screen. And what of the sailor, deep in the below-decks of a ship, or a submarine, firing a cruise missile with no awareness of any kind about the target hundreds of miles away?

For that matter, the common perception of drones as a sci-fi combination of total surveillance and complete discretion in where and when to strike is simply wrong. The drone pilot might sit in Nevada, but the drone itself has a limited range, requires an airstrip, fuel, repairs, and 200 or so personnel to keep it in the air. All this physical infrastructure must be close to the theater of operations. Stress rates among drone pilots are at least as high as those of manned aircraft pilots; they are far from having a desensitized attitude toward killing. This appears to be partially because these are not mere combat operations but fundamentally and primarily intelligence operations. Drone pilots engaged in targeted killing operations watch their targets from a very personal distance via sensor technology, through which they track intimate, daily patterns of life to gather information and, perhaps, to determine precisely the best moment to strike, when collateral damage might be least.

As one drone operator told me, it is not as if one sees the terrible things the target is engaged in doing that made him a target in the first place; instead, it feels, after a few weeks of observation, as though you are killing your neighbor. 

In any case, the mentality of drone pilots in targeted-killing ops is irrelevant to firing decisions; they do not make decisions to fire weapons. The very existence of a remote platform, one with long loiter times and maximum tactical surveillance, enables decisions to fire by committee. And deliberately so, notes Gregory McNeal, a professor of law at Pepperdine University, who has put together the most complete study of the still largely secret decision-making process—the so-called disposition lists and kill matrix the New York Times has described in front page stories. It starts from the assessment of intelligence through meetings in which determinations, including layers of legal review, are made about whether a potential target has sufficient value and, finally, whether and when to fire the weapon in real time. The drone pilot is just a pilot.

Targeting is therefore a bureaucratized process that necessarily relies on judgment and estimations of many uncertainties. Its discretionary and bloodless nature alarms critics, as does its bureaucratic regularization. Yet it is essential to understand, as McNeal observes, that this is not fundamentally different from any other process of targeting that takes place in conventional war, save that it seeks to pinpoint the targets. Conventional war targeting, by contrast, seeks not individuals, but merely formations of hostile forces as groups. In either case, targeting is inherently intelligence-driven and a highly organized activity, whether in the military or across the broader national-security agencies.

Concerns about the nature of the warfare itself leads to a sharing and checking of that discretion among actors; in turn, this leads to committees’ making decisions; and by the time this process of bureaucratic rationalization is complete, it looks like military targeting processes in conventional war, with an extra dollop of intelligence assessments, not some mysterious Star Chamber assassination committee. After all, any group of generals deciding where to hit the enemy in war is, by definition, a “kill list” committee.

 3. What Makes Drone Warfare Strategically Effective?

Are drone technology and targeted killing really so strategically valuable? The answer depends in great part not on drone technology, but on the quality of the intelligence that leads to a particular target in the first place. The drone strike is the final kinetic act in a process of intelligence-gathering and analysis. The success—and it is remarkable success—of the CIA in disrupting al-Qaeda in Pakistan has come about not because of drones alone, but because the CIA managed to establish, over years of effort, its own ground-level, human-intelligence networks that have allowed it to identify targets independent of information fed to it by Pakistan’s intelligence services. The quality of drone-targeted killing depends fundamentally on that intelligence, for a drone is not much use unless pointed toward surveillance of a particular village, area, or person.

It can be used for a different kind of targeting altogether: against groups of fighters with their weapons on trucks headed toward the Afghan border. But these so-called signature strikes are not, as sometimes represented, a relaxed form of targeted killing in which groups are crudely blown up because nothing is known about individual members. Intelligence assessments are made, including behavioral signatures such as organized groups of men carrying weapons, suggesting strongly that they are “hostile forces” (in the legal meaning of that term in the U.S. military’s Standing Rules of Engagement). That is the norm in conventional war.

Targeted killing of high-value terrorist targets, by contrast, is the end result of a long, independent intelligence process. What the drone adds to that intelligence might be considerable, through its surveillance capabilities—but much of the drone’s contribution will be tactical, providing intelligence that assists in the planning and execution of the strike itself, in order to pick the moment when there might be the fewest civilian casualties.

Nonetheless, in conjunction with high-quality intelligence, drone warfare offers an unparalleled means to strike directly at terrorist organizations without needing a conventional or counterinsurgency approach to reach terrorist groups in their safe havens. It offers an offensive capability, rather than simply defensive measures, such as homeland security alone. Drone warfare offers a raiding strategy directly against the terrorists and their leadership.

If one believes, as many of the critics of drone warfare do, that the proper strategies of counterterrorism are essentially defensive—including those that eschew the paradigm of armed conflict in favor of law enforcement and criminal law—then the strategic virtue of an offensive capability against the terrorists themselves will seem small. But that has not been American policy since 9/11, not under the Bush administration, not under the Obama administration—and not by the Congress of the United States, which has authorized hundreds of billions of dollars to fight the war on terror aggressively. The United States has used many offensive methods in the past dozen years: Regime change of states offering safe havens, counterinsurgency war, special operations, military and intelligence assistance to regimes battling our common enemies are examples of the methods that are just of military nature.

Drone warfare today is integrated with a much larger strategic counterterrorism target—one in which, as in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, radical Islamist groups seize governance of whole populations and territories and provide not only safe haven, but also an honored central role to transnational terrorist groups. This is what current conflicts in Yemen and Mali threaten, in counterterrorism terms, and why the United States, along with France and even the UN, has moved to intervene militarily. Drone warfare is just one element of overall strategy, but it has a clear utility in disrupting terrorist leadership. It makes the planning and execution of complex plots difficult if only because it is hard to plan for years down the road if you have some reason to think you will be struck down by a drone but have no idea when. The unpredictability and terrifying anticipation of sudden attack, which terrorists have acknowledged in communications, have a significant impact on planning and organizational effectiveness.

This is all subject to objections, of course, and the objections generally fall into three categories: unnecessary, ineffective, or counterproductive.

There are some who argue that drone warfare is unnecessary because the right approach is simply to defend the homeland from within the homeland; among liberals this is often a way of saying, fight terrorists with law enforcement and criminal law, while among some conservatives it corresponds closely with the resurgence of right-wing isolationism.

Other critics argue that drone warfare is ineffective because killing one operational commander merely means that another rises to take his place. This is the source of the oft-heard remark that drone warfare is a “whack-a-mole” strategy: Kill one here and another pops up there. Drone warfare is nothing more than a tactic masquerading as a strategy, it is said. Worse, it indulges one of the oldest and most seductive quests of modern military technology, the one that says you can win a war from the air alone.

The whack-a-mole criticism is wildly overstated and, as a matter of terrorist leadership, simply not true. Captured terrorist communications show that qualified and experienced operational commanders are not so easy to come by. One can argue that the failure to carry off large-scale attacks in the West is the result of the defensive hardening of targets and better homeland security, which is certainly true; but culling the ranks of terrorist leaders and the resulting inability to plan another 9/11 is also critical.

 4. Blowback 

The most prominent critique today, however, is that drone warfare is counterproductive because it produces “blowback.” What is blowback?

Blowback comprises the supposed bad consequences of drones that swamp the benefits, if any, of drone warfare itself—the anger of villagers whose civilian relatives have been killed, for instance, or the resentment among larger populations in Pakistan or Yemen over drone strikes. The anger, we are told, is fanned by Islamist preachers, local media, and global Web communities, and then goes global in the ummah about the perceived targeting of Muslims and Islam. This leads to radicalization and membership recruitment where the strikes take place. Or maybe it leads to independently organized violence—perhaps the case of the Boston bombers, though it is too early to say. All this bad public perception outweighs whatever tactical value, if any, drone strikes might have.

Blowback can never be dismissed, because it might be true in some cases. But even when true, it would exist as a matter of degree, to be set against the benefits of the drone strikes themselves. By definition, blowback is a second-order effect, and its diffuse nature makes its existence more a matter of subjective judgment than any other evaluation of drone warfare. As a hypothesis, the possibility of blowback arises in two distinct settings: “narrow” counterinsurgency and “broad” global counterterrorism.

The narrow blowback hypothesis concerns those in communities directly affected by global counterterrorism drone strikes while the United States is trying to carry out a ground-level counterinsurgency campaign. The question is whether civilians, women and children especially, are being killed by drones in such numbers—because collateral damage is a fact, including from drone strikes—that they make these local communities even more fertile ground for anti-American operations. Do the drone strikes make things unacceptably more difficult for ground forces attempting to carry out a hearts-and-minds campaign to win over the local population?

Direct and immediate concerns about villagers’ perceptions during the counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan led, at some points, to extraordinary (from the standpoint of lawful targeting and acceptable collateral damage) measures against using air power and even infantry to fire back at insurgents. But local counterinsurgency is not the long-term concern today; global counterterrorism is. Village-level resentments fueling recruitment might be a concern, but this type of blowback matters far less in terms of war fighting when the United States no longer has infantry in those places (and is no longer making its counterterrorism policy rest upon the chimera of a stable, democratic Afghanistan).

It is sharply contested, to say the least, whether and to what extent drone strikes are creating blowback among villagers, or whether and to what extent, as a former British soldier recently returned from Afghanistan remarked to me, villagers are sad to see the Taliban commander who just insisted on marrying someone’s young daughter blown up in an airstrike. There is also debate about the degree to which villagers are aware that the American drones are undertaking strikes that the Pakistani government might otherwise undertake. Critics often neglect to focus on the Pakistani government’s regular and brutal assaults in the tribal zones. Despite a general perception that all of Pakistan is united against drone strikes, voices in the Pakistani newspapers have often made note that the tribal areas fear the Pakistani army far more than they fear U.S. drones, because, despite mistakes and inevitable civilian casualties, they see them as smaller and more precise. But the blunt reality is that as the counterinsurgency era ends for U.S. forces, narrow blowback concerns about whether villages might be sufficiently provoked against American infantry are subsiding.

That leaves the broader claim of global blowback—the idea that drone campaigns are effectively creating transnational terrorists as well as sympathy for their actions. That could always be true and could conceivably outweigh all other concerns. But the evidence is so diffuse as to be pointless. Do Gallup polls of the general Pakistani population indicate overwhelming resentment about drone strikes—or do they really suggest that more than half the country is unaware of a drone campaign at all? Recent polls found the latter to be the case. Any causal connections that lead from supposed resentments to actual terrorist recruitment are contingent and uncertain. Discussing global blowback is also an easy stance for journalists writing about U.S. counterterrorism—Mark Mazzetti’s new book, The Way of the Knife, is a good example—because it automatically frames an oppositional narrative, one with dark undertones and intimations of unattractive, unintended consequence. The blowback argument is also peculiarly susceptible to raising the behavioral bar the United States must meet in order to keep the local population happy enough not to embrace suicide bombing and terrorism. It defines terrorist deviancy down, while U.S. and Western security behaviors are always defined up.

From a strategic standpoint, however, the trouble with the blowback theory is simple: It will always counsel doing nothing rather than doing something. It’s the kibitzer’s lazy objection. Whether one knows a lot or a little about the action and its possible blowback consequences, whether one has an axe to grind or is reasonably objective, one can always offer the blowback scenario.

There might be situations in which to give it priority; Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert, for example, says that a particular form of strike in Yemen causes blowback because it hits low-level fighters whose families cannot understand the American justification. (The response is, usually, that we are effectively fighting as the air arm of the Yemen government against its insurgents, including its low-level fighters.) That bears attention; whether it outweighs the strategic concern of supporting the Yemeni government, which does have to fight even low-level insurgents who in effect offer protection to the transnational terrorist wing, is another question. But we should consider it carefully.

Blowback is a form of the precautionary principle. But it’s awfully difficult to conduct war, after all, on the basis of “first do no harm.” As it happens, the United States once had a commander driven largely by considerations of blowback from a restive local population. His name was George McClellan. If he had not been replaced by Abraham Lincoln, the Union would have lost the Civil War.

 5. The Ethical Objection

Effectiveness is one thing, morality another. The leading objection to drone warfare today is that it supposedly involves large, or “excessive,” numbers of civilian casualties, and that the claims of precision and discrimination are greatly overblown. These are partly factual questions full of unknowns and many contested issues. The Obama administration did not help itself by offering estimates of civilian collateral damage early on that ranged absurdly from zero to the low two digits. This both squandered credibility with the media and, worse, set a bar of perfection—zero civilian collateral damage—that no weapon system could ever meet, while distracting people entirely from the crucial question of what standard civilian harms should be set against.

The most useful estimates of civilian casualties from targeted killing with drones come from the New America Foundation (NAF) and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which each keep running counts of strikes, locations, and estimates of total killed and civilian casualties. They don’t pretend to know what they don’t know, and rely on open sources and media accounts. There is no independent journalistic access to Waziristan to help corroborate accounts that might be wrong or skewed by Taliban sources, Pakistani media, Pakistani and Western advocacy groups, or the U.S. or Pakistani governments. Pakistan’s military sometimes takes credit for drone strikes against its enemies and sometimes blames drone strikes for its own air raids against villages. A third source of estimates, UK-based The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), comes up with higher numbers.

TBIJ (whose numbers are considered much too high by many knowledgeable American observers) came up with a range, notes Georgetown law professor and former Obama DOD official Rosa Brooks. The 344 known drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and 2012 killed, according to TBIJ, between “2,562 and 3,325 people, of whom between 474 and 881 were civilians.” The NAF, she continues, came up with slightly lower figures, somewhere “between 1,873 and 3,171 people killed overall in Pakistan, of whom between 282 and 459 were civilians.” (Media have frequently cited the total killed as though it were the civilians killed.) Is this a lot of civilians killed? Even accepting for argument’s sake TBIJ’s numbers, Brooks concludes, if you work out the “civilian deaths per drone strike ratio for the last eight years…on average, each drone strike seems to have killed between 0.8 and 2.5 civilians.” In practical terms, adds McNeal, this suggests “less than three civilians killed per strike, and that’s using the highest numbers” of any credible estimating organization.1

Whether any of this is “disproportionate” or “excessive” as a matter of the laws of war cannot be answered simply by comparing total deaths to civilian deaths, or civilian deaths per drone strike, however. Although commentators often leap to a conclusion in this way, one cannot answer the legal question of proportionality without an assessment of the military benefits anticipated. Moreover, part of the disputes over numbers involves not just unverifiable facts on the ground, but differences in legal views defining who is a civilian and who is a lawful target. The U.S. government’s definition of those terms, following its long-standing views of the law of targeting in war, almost certainly differs from those of TBIJ or other liberal nongovernmental groups, particularly in Europe. Additionally, much of drone warfare today targets groups who are deemed, under the laws of war, to be part of hostile forces. Targeted killing aimed at individuated high-value targets is a much smaller part of drone warfare than it once was. The targeting of groups, however, while lawful under long-standing U.S. interpretations of the laws of war, might result in casualties often counted by others as civilians.

Yet irrespective of what numbers one accepts as the best estimate of harms of drone warfare, or the legal proportionality of the drone strikes, the moral question is simply, What’s the alternative? One way to answer this is to start from the proposition that if you believe the use of force in these circumstances is lawful and ethical, then all things being equal as an ethical matter, the method of force used should be the one that spares the most civilians while achieving its lawful aims. If that is the comparison of moral alternatives, there is simply no serious way to dispute that drone warfare is the best method available. It is more discriminating and more precise than other available means of air warfare, including manned aircraft—as France and Britain, lacking their own drones and forced to rely on far less precise manned jet strikes, found over Libya and Mali—and Tomahawk cruise missiles.

A second observation is to look across the history of precision weapons in the past several decades. I started my career as a human-rights campaigner, kicking off the campaign to ban landmines for leading organizations. Around 1990, I had many conversations with military planners, asking them to develop more accurate and discriminating weapons—ones with smaller kinetic force and greater ability to put the force where sought. Although every civilian death is a tragedy, and drone warfare is very far from being the perfect tool the Obama administration sometimes suggests, for someone who has watched weapons development over a quarter century, the drone represents a steady advance in precision that has cut zeroes off collateral-damage figures.

Those who see only the snapshot of civilian harm today are angered by civilian deaths. But barring an outbreak of world peace, it is foolish and immoral not to encourage the development and use of more sparing and exact weapons. One has only to look at the campaigns of the Pakistani army to see the alternatives in action. The Pakistani military for many years has been in a running war with its own Taliban and has regularly attacked villages in the tribal areas with heavy and imprecise airstrikes. A few years ago, it thought it had reached an accommodation with an advancing Taliban, but when the enemy decided it wanted not just the Swat Valley but Islamabad, the Pakistani government decided it had no choice but to drive it back. And it did, with a punishing campaign of airstrikes and rolling artillery barrages that leveled whole villages, left hundreds of thousands without homes, and killed hundreds.

But critics do not typically evaluate drones against the standards of the artillery barrage of manned airstrikes, because their assumption, explicit or implicit, is that there is no call to use force at all. And of course, if the assumption is that you don’t need or should not use force, then any civilian death by drones is excessive. That cannot be blamed on drone warfare, its ethics or effectiveness, but on a much bigger question of whether one ought to use force in counterterrorism at all.

6. The Ethical Objection, Globalized

The objection to civilian deaths draws out a related criticism: Why should the United States be able to conduct these drone strikes in Pakistan or in Yemen, countries that are not at war with America? What gives the United States the moral right to take its troubles to other places and inflict damage by waging war? Why should innocent Pakistanis suffer because the United States has trouble with terrorists?

The answer is simply that like it or not, the terrorists are in these parts of Pakistan, and it is the terrorists that have brought trouble to the country. The U.S. has adopted a moral and legal standard with regard to where it will conduct drone strikes against terrorist groups. It will seek consent of the government, as it has long done with Pakistan, even if that is contested and much less certain than it once was. But there will be no safe havens. If al-Qaeda or its affiliated groups take haven somewhere and the government is unwilling or unable to address that threat, America’s very long-standing view of international law permits it to take forcible action against the threat, sovereignty and territorial integrity notwithstanding.

This is not to say that the United States could or would use drones anywhere it wished. Places that have the rule of law and the ability to respond to terrorists on their territory are different from weakly governed or ungoverned places. There won’t be drones over Paris or London—this canard is popular among campaigners and the media but ought to be put to rest. But the vast, weakly governed spaces, where states are often threatened by Islamist insurgency, such as Mali or Yemen, are a different case altogether.

This critique often leads, however, to the further objection that the American use of drones is essentially laying the groundwork for others to do the same. Steve Coll wrote in the New Yorker: “America’s drone campaign is also creating an ominous global precedent. Ten years or less from now, China will likely be able to field armed drones. How might its Politburo apply Obama’s doctrines to Tibetan activists holding meetings in Nepal?”

The United States, it is claimed, is arrogantly exerting its momentary technological advantage to do what it likes. It will be sorry when other states follow suit. But the United States does not use drones in this fashion and has claimed no special status for drones. The U.S. government uses drone warfare in a far more limited way, legally and morally, and entirely within the bounds of international law. The problem with China (or Russia) using drones is that they might not use them in the same way as the United States. The drone itself is a tool. How it is used and against whom—these are moral questions. If China behaves malignantly, drones will not be responsible. Its leaders will be.

Finally, drone warfare is often objected to on the premise that the reduced risks to one’s own soldiers might tempt political leaders to resort to force more than they should. As a moral objection, however, this is simply wrong. It is probably true that drone warfare makes it easier to use force—though the proposition that it is “too easy” depends entirely on whether one sees any particular use of force as just or unjust. While many assume that the use of force needs to be made more difficult, in the case of humanitarian intervention, where NATO countries are loath to risk their forces, one might say it is exactly the other way around.

In any case, it is an immoral argument that posits soldiers as mere means to pressure political leadership. Soldiers take risks against the enemy for reasons of military necessity. But they don’t exist to put pressure on their own political leaders. That would be to use them as hostages.

It is a most remarkable state of affairs, however, that advocacy and campaigning groups—dedicated over the decades to demanding that war’s risks to civilians be reduced—have so thoroughly bought into an argument that the fundamental problem of drones is that they threaten to make war less harmful to civilians as well as soldiers.

7. The Future of Drone Warfare

Though the critics are wrong to claim that drone warfare itself is neither effective nor ethical, they are not wrong to inquire about process and policy concerns. Drone warfare and the development of tools for using force in discrete and focused ways are inviting novel questions of law, ethics, and policy. The list of matters that need legislative and administrative reform in order to put drone warfare and targeted killing on an institutionally stable footing is a long one.

As “associated forces” of al-Qaeda evolve and fragment into groups only notionally connected to the al-Qaeda of 9/11, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) looks increasingly threadbare. At some point, whether by the increasingly tenuous connection of new groups to the AUMF or by the appearance of some wholly new terrorist threat unrelated in any way to 9/11 or al-Qaeda or jihadis, the president will have to act either under his own constitutional authority or obtain a new congressional authorization.

It is also the case that the definition of “covert action” itself needs to be revised to take into account operations that now span a range from truly secret to unacknowledged to plausibly deniable to only preposterously deniable. Congress and the president must address the fundamental question of which policies, processes, means, methods, and operations must remain secret and which ought to be revealed for public discussion.

There is little indication that either the Congress or the president has any appetite for addressing many, if any, of the serious questions. Instead there is grandstanding by Republicans and Democrats alike, grandiloquent speeches on the Constitution, and precious little attention paid to how citizens who have taken up armed conflict and terrorism against the United States should actually be uncovered and dealt with. That’s apart from the propensity of Congress to go AWOL on its oversight responsibilities and punt to a bunch of judges so it doesn’t have to take any blame for killing an innocent American or allowing an American terrorist in Yemen to direct the killing of innocent Americans.

Without a hardheaded effort on the part of Congress and the executive branch to make drone policy, the efforts to discredit drones will continue. The current wide public support in the United States today should not mask the ways in which public perception and sentiment can be shifted, here and abroad. The campaign of delegitimation is modeled on the one against Guantanamo Bay during the George W. Bush administration; the British campaigning organization Reprieve tweets that it will make drones the Obama administration’s Guantanamo. Then as now, administration officials did not, or were unforgivably slow to, believe that a mere civil-society campaign could force a reset of their policies. They miscalculated then and, as former Bush administration officials John Bellinger and Jack Goldsmith have repeatedly warned, they might well be miscalculating now.

U.S. counterterrorism policy overall needs to be embedded in policies, processes, and laws that get beyond mere executive-branch discretion and bear the stamp of the two political branches coming together in tools available in a stable way across presidential administrations of both parties. We are not there now. While the critics are not wrong to call for reform of drone-warfare processes, many of them see these merely as the first step to ending drone warfare altogether. They are advocating procedural reforms not to give it a permanent and steady framework for the long run, but effectively to outlaw the practice.

Republicans should not be enablers in this effort. They should not mimic the disgraceful behavior of Democrats during the Bush-era war on terror. They should be moving—especially in Congress—to offer firm institutional and political support to drone warfare as a legitimate, effective, legal, ethical, and necessary tool of counterterrorism. Republicans in Congress should stand with the president on the main issue of drone warfare, to shore up the foundations of its legitimacy. They should do this not only because it is the right thing to do, but as a practical matter—to preserve this key element of 21st-century defense for future presidents, among whom there will surely be a Republican or two.


Footnotes

1 An often cited report, “Living Under Drones,” issued in 2012 by advocacy law clinics at NYU and Stanford law schools, does not merit the attention it has received. The study was solicited by a UK anti-drone organization, Reprieve, which helped organize the “study,” and which then sat in on some interviews. A Pakistani group closely linked to Reprieve, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, which is engaged in multiple lawsuits against the drone programs, selected the interviewees and also sat in on interviews; the interviewees included nine of FFR’s own clients in its anti-drone lawsuits. The foundation also partly funded the study by paying for the transportation of interviewees.  The report invents a peculiar and novel category—“experiential victims” of drones—apparently lacking enough direct family members killed or injured in actual drone strikes to make the numbers interesting. Crucially, this category includes “victims” who might have witnessed not a drone strike but merely drone surveillance, and also includes those who might be family members of a person from North Waziristan who might have witnessed something. In any case, those called “close family members” for purposes of establishing this “experiential” victimhood include grandparents, parents, siblings, children, uncles, and cousins. All of this is plainly laid out in “Living Under Drones” and requires no special digging around for background facts; national-security columnist for PBS’s Need to Know, Joshua Foust, walked through numerous methodological inadequacies of the report in an article for the Atlantic online on September 26, 2012. 

About the Author

Kenneth Anderson is a professor of international law at American University and a member of the Task Force on National Security and Law at the Hoover Institution, under whose auspices his new book, Speaking the Law, co-written with Benjamin Wittes, will be published this year. This is his first article for Commentary.




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