Commentary Magazine

A Too Perfect Weapon?

To the Editor:

Kenneth Anderson’s otherwise superlative “The Case for Drones” [June] touches only obliquely on the two objections that, however lacking in sense, seem to resonate most strongly with Americans who oppose the use of drone warfare.

One objection is that this excellent weapon of war may be turned against America’s domestic population. For this reason Senator Rand Paul, as Mr. Anderson notes, rhetorically blurred targeting American citizens abroad with targeting American citizens in America. And the Obama administration has done much to make this otherwise remote concern seem plausible.

Of course, it applies equally to all other weapons of war. Like this objection, most objections to drones are really objections to all weapons, and especially to weapons that America possesses and her enemies lack.

The other objection arises precisely from the drone’s design and operational excellence. Drones have a great many advantages over other weapons. They are, first off, relatively inexpensive. And, as Mr. Anderson points out, a drone’s data can be sent right up to CENTCOM, or to the Situation Room. A downed drone leaves behind no captured pilots. Remember how important the recovery of American prisoners became in Vietnam, and even Korea? As Mr. Anderson noted, a drone perfects targeting and minimizes collateral damage as much as humanly possible. Apart from the advantage in efficacy and efficiency, there is this great ethical advance: the capacity to fight an enemy without (save a few accidental exceptions) having also to slaughter legions of “less guilty” operatives, to say nothing of innocent civilians of both sexes and all ages.

The point is that a drone is so perfect that it might tempt even a pacifist (not to say a defeatist) president to take military action. It is of course another question whether those who hold this objection have correctly assessed their president.

Roberto Alazar
San Marcos, California

Kenneth Anderson writes:

Roberto Alazar raises two important points—important, as he rightly says, because these two animate much anti-drone sentiment on both right and left. On the matter of armed drones on U.S. soil, Rand Paul engaged in an unlovely bit of demagoguery in pushing one of our admittedly least articulate attorney generals to give a yes or no answer to a question that has no single-word answer. Are there circumstances in which the president has the authority to use armed drones against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil? Certainly. All things equal, armed drones are not different from any other weapon system in the arsenal in that admittedly remote circumstance.

This may sound like an obvious “ticking time bomb” constitutional hypothetical, but if you put that hypothetical to the nation’s chief legal officer and demand an answer, you had better anticipate a complicated legal one. It was a mistake for the attorney general to issue a brief letter finally saying “no” without elaboration—because though perfectly acceptable as a matter of ordinary life, it is not correct as a matter of law.

As to Mr. Alazar’s point that drones pose so little risk to the U.S. forces operating them that they tempt political leaders to reach too quickly and easily to use force, he is correct in seeing it as the heart of the anti-drone argument. Despite its surface appeal, it is an incoherent and immoral argument. It rests upon the observation that less risk to a side’s forces reduces its political and other disincentives to use force, so that political leaders resort to force too easily. Note that the argument is exactly the same if, as I stated in the article, harm to civilians is also reduced. If political leadership is even mildly responsive to the disincentives civilian deaths pose to using force, and if drones are less harmful to civilians as well as more protective of one’s own forces, then the temptation to use force more frequently is increased.

But saying that drones make it “easier” to resort to force is not the same as saying that drones make it “too easy.” To know whether it is “too easy” for a president to use force through drones, and not just “easier,” requires an answer to the question of what the “right” or “optimal” amount of the use of force is. But there is no neutrally “optimal” value, because what the two sides want is not reducible to a common denominator under a common criterion of efficiency; quite the contrary. If there’s no conceptual basis for saying what the right amount of war is, then it’s not possible to say whether drones make it too easy—or, for that matter, not easy enough.

Finally, the “solution” to the problem of political leadership’s resorting to force too easily is simply immoral: a scenario whereby a side should put its soldiers at risk in order to force their own political leaders to weigh the risk as they ought. This is, as I wrote, a hostage-taking argument. It uses the soldiers as mere means, in the Kantian sense, to the ends of pressuring leaders.

It is a bad argument, and some moral philosophers appear to have abandoned it. They have adopted the more easily defended position that the problem with drone warfare is that its discrete and secretive nature might undermine the larger norms of international law against the use of force. That position also has serious problems—it is perfectly plausible that the world would be a better place with many more small, limited, discrete belligerent encounters short of all-out war, rather than the less frequent, but more damaging eruption of major conflict. And one can be skeptical of the moral position of giving up the bird-in-hand of reduced harm from more precise, discrete strikes rather than the two-in-the-bush of a rather abstract idea of the “international system.” But that critique is certainly easier to hold than the hostage-taking argument of the “too-easy” proposition.

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