There is a major on-going debate in America (and perhaps elsewhere) about the legality, morality, and the efficacy of the use of drones in warfare and targeted killings. This has been on-going for years, ever since the knowledge of drone attacks were made public before the Obama administration. After Obama came into office these attacks increased rather than diminished.
In this post I will not address the international legal issues, which needs another examination. But, there are major moral, strategic and practical issues that do need added exploration.
The first question is just why this means of “warfare” was developed and used and whether there are better and less problematic options.
The first assumption must be, in this case, that there is adequate and compelling reasons to take down active and dangerous terrorists and their networks that pose an imminent threat to Americans and our allies. That is the fundamental “rationale” of our policy simply put.
However, we must first acknowledge that the killing of innocent civilians has been a sad historic constant in almost all warfare in history, including our own times. Think of Japan’s brutal invasion and butchery of China in the 1930s, the widespread German killing of Jews and non-combatants in areas they invaded and occupied, the German bombing of London and the allied firebombing of Berlin and Dresden, the American atomic bombing of two cities in Japan and the even more destructive fire bombing of Tokyo. Think of the Serbian mass killing of civilians in Srebrenica, of Bosnian Muslims massacred in July 1995, or today the brutality of the Syrian civil war.
The second reason for the decision to use drones was their ability to observe, from an advantaged and largely unseen point, ground activities. They are also able to attack without putting in danger our own military personnel and are able to deliver a pinpoint destructive force. This is not an inconsiderable advantage over insertion of major “boots on the ground” where civilians would still be at risk or large scale airplane bomber attacks or even the use of long-medium-short range missiles that do not have interactive “sight” of the immediate target.
The other reality is that we are unlikely to abolish drones any more than we have been successful in abolishing nuclear or other WMD weapons. We have used drones, others are using them, and it is more likely they will become ubiquitous over time and will be used against us. Even more destructive “war weapons” have been and are now in use and few efforts are being made to abolish them.
Reuters’ correspondent David Rohde not long ago wrote about the other side of the equation:
“The Obama administration’s covert drone program is on the wrong side of history. With each strike, Washington presents itself as an opponent of the rule of law, not a supporter. Not surprisingly, a foreign power killing people with no public discussion, or review of who died and why, promotes anger among Pakistanis, Yemenis and many others.” I largely agree with this assessment, but recognize it does not address what alternative better options are available that have less negative impact.
My view is that drones provide so many “advantages” to the using nation, that drones will be an element of warfare as are missiles, planes, and cyber warfare efforts. This is simply a statement of reality not an ethical judgment. But in making policy decisions this reality must be understood and evaluated.
But, we do need to look still at the moral and “efficacy” issues in their specific use and the context in which they are used. To be realistic we need to recognize that the key to this issue is to clearly and publicly define and regulate their use and to ask the question of alternatives and better options and their real efficacy, including “unintended consequences,” which frankly we have already seen in the context of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On the moral dimension, the key question is frankly not “taking out terrorists,” no nation can just stand down if there are individuals or groups that aim to do what happened in 9/11 or to attack our troops or civilians. So, the question is when and how and especially can one eliminate or diminish civilian casualties. One criteria the new “ground rules” contain is whether alternative means are more dangerous to our people or are basically infeasible.
One major problem of the use of drones, and frankly, any kind of kinetic warfare on the ground, is the “blowback,” i.e. the likelihood when civilians are also killed, that there is a creation of further terrorists and the continued cycle of unending conflict such acts engender.
We already have a policy of minimizing civilian casualties built into our existing requirements for determining an attack. They do not always work due to mistakes in intelligence and judgment, which will likely never be fully eliminated. There is a concept called the “fog of war,” which inherently is a fundamental element of most elements of warfare. But, frankly decisions are also made based on the importance of the “target” and what is termed the rarity of an “opportunity.”
So, what is the key to looking at “drones,” or to be more precise and focused, how do we develop a smart strategy that can both reduce the dangers of terrorism and conflicts and thus the use of drones and indeed other large scale weapons of even greater destruction – a policy of preventive actions, that are pro-active to the undermining causes of conflict and terrorism.
With all of these realities and constraints and military objectives, the key question is what can be done to minimize terrorism, the use of lethal military force, and the societal dysfunction which breeds hatreds, despair, and terrorist motivation?
First, as I have implied, the “drone debate” has been too narrow and our “moral” perspective needs a wider context. We need to approach the present strategic terrorist threat or indeed conflict syndrome, in a longer range and preemptive approach.
Second, we need new “tools” that are more efficacious and discreet. That also means we need to know more about the causes and realities of those who feel they are most aggrieved and most marginalized. Poverty is clearly one element that the global community has still not seriously addressed. Another is the development of religious or ideological ideology that puts force and indifference to human suffering at the center of its strategy and belief. One simple fact is mass unemployment and the despair created provides no path towards upward mobility and political participation. The other element is the existence of authoritarian rule, which does not respond to broad basic citizen needs. The problem is that there is no broad citizen and political “constituency” for this kind of civilian diplomatic “nation building.” It is easier to get funding for drones and largely useless fighter and bomber planes than for educational projects or job creating programs in failing and at-risk nations.
In short, we need a more careful assessment of the use of force generally and unintended consequences, but even more of looking at how to create programs that both support human rights, democratic norms, and not least economic development that reaches deep to those most in need and disaffected elements in at-risk states and regions. Getting there early, understanding the change forcing trends and events, and the perspective of the affected citizens and leaders and then designing effective intervention modalities and recognizing the long term nature of the task at hand. Also, tools of public diplomacy, peacemaking, strong international intervention in disputes and unrest when needed, and above all a global consensus towards strong humanitarian program capabilities and on the ground intervention when possible.
Drones, in short, are more a result of a dysfunctional and high risk world, they are not the cause. We need to control their use better, but also look beyond.
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