To Drone or Not to Drone

The topic that excited most comment in President Obama’s May 23rd speech is the restrictions on the use of drones to carry out targeted killings. Those both strongly in favor of the use of drones and those strongly against it criticized the speech. The former believe that drone strikes should not be restricted as the President suggested. Those against drones believe that his comments in no way changed his drone policy, which they believe is immoral, illegal, and ineffective in diminishing numbers of terrorists. Read the speech and some divergent opinions at:

I am using the word ‘belief’ intentionally in order to point out that whether you are for or against drones, your arguments rest on belief. Those in favor believe that targeted killings have indeed prevented attacks on the U.S., that they reduce the number of terrorists, and that accidentally killing civilians in, say, Pakistan is acceptable while the potential death of American civilians is not. Those against drone strikes believe that they create more hatred of the U.S. and more terrorists, that they are immoral, and that they flout the rule of law.

The issue of morality is the easiest to deal with. Moral issues do not have a bearing on war, except as propaganda to make war look noble. Thus we aimed to bring democracy to Iraq and to free Afghan women. If those were our goals, war did not achieve them. Is killing suspects without due process immoral? Certainly. But will recognizing it as such stop targeted killings? Let’s put moral arguments aside, although in the unlikely event that we do stop targeted killings you can be sure that morality will be at the top of our list of reasons why.

Related to moral arguments are legal arguments. In his speech President Obama declared the use of drones legal. The question here is, legal according to whom and to what standard of law. Is a president’s say-so enough to make assassination by drone legal? A parallel is President George W. Bush’s declaration that waterboarding is not torture and that in any case torture is a permissible and efficacious method of interrogation. President Obama has banned torture. More interesting perhaps, the president’s authority to declare assassination by drone legal offers a challenge to party politics that waterboarding did not. Will Republicans who have acted to stymie this president’s authority on every front, support him in relation to the use of drones even if they don’t like the proposed restrictions? I would presume yes. Will this one case of supporting President Obama undermine the general Republican obstruction of his policies? Certainly not, and I wonder if he will even get his publicly stated quid pro quo: Republican support for the closing of GTMO?

More fundamental to the practice of foreign policy than questions of morality and legality, however much we may wish otherwise, is the question of efficacy. See these opposing views on how effective targeted killing may be:,3

Will targeted killings indeed reduce the number of terrorist attacks against Americans? Who could possibly know? That’s the fundamental dilemma of pre-emption. Have they done so so far? It’s logically impossible to prove a negative. Do they reduce the number of terrorists? Maybe, maybe not. But remember the U.S. invasion of Iraq as part of its war against al-Qaeda. Before the U.S. invaded in 2003, there was no al-Qaeda presence in Iraq, nor was Iraq a state sponsor of al-Qaeda, despite what President Bush believed; afterwards al-Qaeda blossomed there. While full-scale war is different from targeted killings, will targeted killing prevent similar blowback? Who knows? How would you feel, what would you do in reaction to sudden death coming from the skies according to criteria that, despite the president’s attempt to make them clear, are still fuzzy.

The framework he sketched in his speech seems clear, but I would argue that for those on the receiving end it is not: “we only target al-Qaeda and its associated forces…our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty…America does not take strikes to punish individuals…we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people…before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” What and how much evidence proves membership in al-Qaeda and what is an associated force? If indeed U.S. drone strikes are conducted in consultation with partners, who are these partners? Is, for example, the Pakistani government or some members of the Pakistani government a partner? Wouldn’t suspicion that a government colluded with the US in a drone strike render that government at risk? Or perhaps the partner is a local rival of the target or someone with an axe to grind. As for targeted killing not being an individual punishment—what else is ‘targeted’ killing? The whole point is to target individuals. Finally, can we really be sure our targets pose an imminent threat to Americans? What is the margin of error for near-certainty?

All of these questions, whose answers are at best vague and at worst unknowable, render positions on drone assassinations subject to belief. You must make a leap of faith to support or oppose drone attacks: you must believe that they are or are not effective against terrorism in general, that they are or are not moral and legal, that Americans are or are not in imminent danger, that American lives are or are not more precious than the lives of non-Americans.

And let me add two more possible consequences of drone warfare that have not been much debated in the public sphere. Will rendering killing costless in terms of American lives lead, however gradually, to a more trigger-happy America? And what about the societies subject to drone strikes? Aside from increased anti-Americanism, won’t pervasive fear and paranoia tear apart the human cohesiveness of which society is made? If “unrest in the Arab World has…allowed extremists to gain a foothold,” as President a Obama believes, what will anarchy do?

For all of these questions, make your best guess. Lives depend on it.

Read some comments on the local effects of drone strikes at:

Author: Mary Wilson

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