The Case For Drone Strikes

Predator drone. Courtesy: US Air Force

Predator drone. Courtesy: US Air Force

For the record, I am in favor of our drone program, even if the targets are US citizens. I’ll let David Frum and Mark McKinnon lay out the case for me. Lets begin with Frum’s piece:

During the Civil War, Union snipers aimed at Confederate officers. They did so because killing officers demoralized and disorganized rebel units, a valid military necessity. Every one of those Confederate officers was an American citizen. None of them got a jury trial. If they came into view … bang.

Was it a war crime to shoot down a Confederate officer?

Why not?

Within the technology of the time, that person was “targeted” just as surely as any Yemeni al Qaeda operative. The sniper didn’t know the officer’s name or life story. But in the words of the painter Winslow Homer – who witnessed sniper operations during the 1862 Peninsula campaign: sharp-shooting “struck me as being as near murder as anything I could think of in connection with the army.”

War means fighting, and fighting means killing. Those were the words of General Sherman 150 years ago, and they remain true today. They are terrible words, because war is a terrible thing. But there is one thing even more terrible than war, and that is, failing to defend your country against those who have decided to make war against you.

Mark McKinnon’s argument is threefold:

From a totally American perspective, I can think of three justifications. Drone strikes are less costly in terms of dollars. And budgets, we are told, are moral documents. So less money spent on war can go toward human needs, in education, in health care, even in foreign aid.

Second, drone strikes are less costly in terms of lives lost. In a drone warfare world, there is no GI returning with posttraumatic stress, none back with limbs missing. It means less of the kind of knocks on the door that every mother or father or husband or wife who has someone serving overseas dreads. And the technology of precision strikes means that fewer innocent lives are lost among foreign populations living near the field of battle.

Which leads me to my third justification—that drone strikes are less costly in terms of objections in the court of public opinion. Insulated by technology, the strikes appear to us—and more important, to those around the world—on our TV screens as little more than a scene from 24.

McKinnon also points out the important moral argument:

And I believe there is also a moral case for the use of drone strikes in many of the specific cases we have heard about, including that of American-born terrorists like Anwar al-Awlaki. By declaring himself an enemy of the state, calling for a violent jihad against the United States, I believe he ceded his rights to the protections of our legal system.

Those are compelling arguments, in my opinion. For the counter argument, I’ll refer you to The Huffington Post, where you can compare Frum’s case to Steve Clemmons’ from The Atlantic.

I would also add that the lack of evidence is also evidence in this case. We hear the slippery slope argument most, that this can lead to government overreach and abuse of power. If this is the case, I have yet to see any evidence of such.

Remember the slippery slope argument towards government abuse is exactly what gun-rights advocates use to oppose gun control and registration. I find it unpersuasive in both cases.

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23 Responses to The Case For Drone Strikes

  1. Pingback: #StandwithRand: A Symbolic, But Significant, Filibuster | Outspoken

  2. Pingback: The Case Against Drone Strikes | Reason and Politics

  3. Don’t have time right now to read every comment but I wonder how one is for this, but not pro torture. People who have Bush such a hard time with guatamano are ok with us killing the suspected terrorists instead.

    My biggest problem with this memo is that the government doesn’t need evidence.

    • I think the issue lies with the difference between active combatants and those in custody. In any conflict, you kill those who are actively fighting you, however as soon as the threat is over, whether they surrender or you capture them by force, you must treat them a certain way. The military spells out proper treatment of prisoners.

      Your concerns about lack of evidence are totally valid. The problem is that we just don’t know what evidence is required to authorize a strike. For people to demand more information about that is completely legitimate in my opinion.

      The Daily Beast put this out yesterday, which runs down everything we know about the drone program.

      • I will read the article when I get a chance. I’ve been so busy this past week (hence my slim posting).

        The memo pretty much insinuates that there doesn’t have to be any evidence. That’s what is so scary. And in that case, I don’t see how Democratic leaders are so mum on this issue, but vilified Pres. Bush on “enhanced interrogations” (a.k.a torture).

  4. I do not support or oppose targeted killings by drones. However, I have a real problem with government deception on the consequences of this program (for a detailed analysis, see the article I posted today). Administration claims that collateral damage has been sparse is not supported by the evidence. Furthermore, the constitutionality of assassinating American citizens without due process is a legitimate question. On the other hand, without the relatively cheap and effective drone program, the costs of maintaining America’s current level of security would certainly rise. All I expect from the Obama Administration is an honest and comprehensive public assessment of the drone program. Instead, they are being evasive. I don’t believe either side in the Civil War tried to hide the fact that officers were being deliberately targeted by snipers.

    • “All I expect from the Obama Administration is an honest and comprehensive public assessment of the drone program. Instead, they are being evasive.”

      I think that’s a fair think to expect and a fair critique.

  5. johnhaskell says:

    What is being missed by Frum et al. is that the White Paper, and the official doc, might as well be printed on taffy because the government can stretch it as far as they would like. Is that a slippery slope? No. Why? Because the basis of the WP and the policy in general relies on the authority of the AUMF, which is perhaps the most open ended piece of foreign policy related legislation–the Presidency has virtually unfettered discretion vis-a-vis military operations abroad, and that does invite abuses of power.

    Moreover, the terms “imminence” and “associated force” are extremely vague and subject to a whole slew of interpretations. The former has been talked about plenty in the media, but the latter is without similar media attention and discourse. Succinctly, the WP relies on the DC Circuit’s opinion on what constitutes as associated force:

    “Despite the Court’s rejection of “substantial support” as an independent basis for detention, the concept may play a role under the functional test used to determine who is a “part of” a covered organization . . .

    For example, if the evidence demonstrates that an individual did not identify himself as a member, but undertook certain tasks within the command structure-20-or rendered frequent substantive assistance to al Qaeda, whether operational, financial or otherwise, then a court might conclude that he was a “part of” the organization. Of course, such determinations are highly fact-intensive and will be made on an individualized, case-by-case basis, applying the conclusions reflected in this decision.”

    There are two problem I have. First, the WP is adopting terminology used in relation to a detainee matter. Why the problem? Because there is an enormous difference between a detainee and a drone strike target–i.e., one can receive remedy, and the other cannot. Second, the court defers, and the government gladly accepts, that determination of associated force will be a case by case basis. Given that the WP acknowledges the government will often operate with limited intelligence coupled with a truncated time frame, there is little belief that even a moderate analysis of a potential target will be undertaken. Lacking a working definition, there are no bare minimums or burdens of proof the government has to make when making a determination on a drone strike.

    Also, I completely disagree with the notion that reaction to the use of technology in war is irrational. Using such technology removes the moral hazard of war by removing the human casualty element of it. Yes, there are arguments to be made for removing humans from the battlefield (in that it saves lives), but such use opens a pandora’s box, in my opinion, because it removes one of the key checks to going to war; one side suffering human loss. That is often argued as the balancing test on whether to go to war; are 5,000 lives worth military intervention in country A? What about 10,000? Remove the human casualty, and the equation shifts greatly to a lower standard to conduct military operations.

    • Those are all excellent points and valid concerns. Thanks for adding a voice of opposition to this conversation.

      I agree with you in that better definitions and clearer rules would improve this program. That seems to be the general consensus among comments here today. Is your concern specifically to the ambiguous nature of the guidelines, or is a philosophical objection in general to targeting US citizens?

      I would challenge you on your final point, however. It would be an immoral and reckless choice to choose a military option that increased human risks, would it not? Drones keep our personnel safe as well as innocent people in the nearby area. Drones can easily target individuals with minimal chance of additional deaths or even injury. Technology is now moving in a less lethal direction, reducing death counts to all parties involved. Why would anyone, when presented with various options, choose the one with the most chance of casualties? One has the moral and ethical duty to choose the option that reduces deaths.

      That technology will exist whether we like it or not. We would be morally bankrupt to ignore it and put more lives at risk than necessary.

      • johnhaskell says:

        “I would challenge you on your final point, however. It would be an immoral and reckless choice to choose a military option that increased human risks, would it not?”

        Yes. I think we can draw distinction here: the possibility of loss of human life can serve as a means to measure the merits for going to war. However, once going to war, that is, once there is justification, we want to reduce the number of casualties. For instance, I think there are few people that would argue against U.S. intervention in WWII, and would call it just. Clearly, to most, the potential loss of human life was worth responding to the Axis powers. However, once in the war, we could certainly agree that we would want to reduce casualties both of U.S. forces while limiting collateral damage (civilian lives).

        I understand the counter-arguments to both my points (lack of definition of who can be targeted and why, lack of morality via use of technology in war that reduces moral hazard). For instance, Sherman, von Clausewitz, and others would vehemently argue against fashioning hard and fast rules (or any rules) restricting how a military army should conduct its campaign–“total war.” And I understand that we do not want to micromanage wars from D.C.–Vietnam. But at the same time as Drones and other military wonders have evolved from technology, technology has evolved in another fashion; diplomacy. I am not suggesting there is never a military solution or response to various situations, but, the vastly increased communication between nations which then reduces the need to conduct total war. In context of the drone strikes and the White Paper, I am not sure that the use of this technology, at least in the manner conveyed to the public via the Paper and Holder’s speech in 2012, is conducive to diplomacy.

        Obviously this opens the door to another discussion regarding diplomacy with organizations and whether the U.S. should conduct such efforts.

      • Yes, that is a good point you make. The distinction between justification for war and the actions taken during must be made.

        The case for new military adventures could hypothetically be strengthened because of limited risk to our forces, and that is a valid concern.

        In the issue at hand with the war we are currently engaged in, however, it would seem foolish to me not to utilize all the tools we have available.

        Did you get a chance to read Andrew Sullivan’s take on the issue?

        He’s an overall supporter of the program, but shares concerns similar to your own. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  6. My single biggest problem with targeted killing of citizens by drones is the lack of oversight. All it takes is the assertion of guilt in order to assassinate citizens.

    I can understand capture maynot always be feasible and killing the individual might be the best option. But there needs to be oversight. I think they should get pre-approval by a jidge first. The judge needs to review the evidence that the individual is in fact Al Qaeda and that capture appears infeasible. The assertion of a single individual should NEVER but sufficient grounds for execution.

    • That’s a fair point. I’d like know why that’s not workable. Seems reasonable to me.

      I assume the one main worry would be revealing the intel to the overseers. That could get our intel agents and human assets killed. I’m sure their is a way of accomplishing it, though.

      • So the judge(s) would need security clearance and such. But I don’t see that as a major issue. When I read the white paper Section II C sounded to me like they just don’t want anybody to interfere should they decide to target somebody. Now I understand that it could be time sensitive and they don’t want to delay when there is an opportunity. But in that case they could seek approval before an opportunity arises then take the opportunity when it is present. That is get a judge to sign off on it first, then the next chance they get they can target that person.

        I also take issue with the expansive definition of imminent threat and the idea that the entire world is a battlefield. But those are secondary to oversight. With oversight I could be more or less ok with them continuing the program.

      • I think that’s probably the majority opinion here. I don’t think too many people have a philosophical opposition to this.

      • I do have an uncomfortableness with allowing killing of citizens without due process. When they are on a battle field or directly engage in violence that is one thing. When they are assumed to be plotting violence is another. If you read the white paper they state that since the US has no way to tell if they are an immediate threat then they are. That is guilty until proven innocent. On top of that it is impossible to prove a negative which is what they are asking for so it is philosophical catch 22.

        But like I said, it wouldn’t bother me as much if there was judicial oversight since I do agree that there are limitations to our ability to capture individuals for trial.

      • That is a good article, thank you.

  7. I was JUST about to write my own piece in support of it, as well.
    I do think that we need to review our drone strike policy and set out clear limitations on who and what can and will constitute a terrorist threat.
    Al-Awlaki clearly constituted a threat. I think he was completely fair game for assassination. That he did not renounce his U.S. citizenship is a mere technicality when the man has been linked with plotting to blow up cargo jets over this country. You don’t do that to a country you’re a true, patriotic citizen of.
    When I was applying for naturalization, among the questions asked was whether or not I’ve called for the violent overthrow of the government or made threats against it. If I had, I would not have been granted citizenship. And rightly so. I don’t see why people like al-Awlaki, who are Americans yet plot to kill Americans and attack the U.S., should be entitled to special consideration otherwise.

    • Reviewing the drone policy and setting clear guideline and restrictions is totally reasonable.

      Do you think the issue has more to do with the technology rather than the principal. If we sent a SEAL team in, would anyone even care? I remember a few months ago there was an uproar over the EPA using drones for law enforcement. They’d been using planes forever, but using a drone just sets people off irrationally.

      • I definitely think it’s a matter of technological advancement that we didn’t see coming when we first set on this ‘war on terror’ path post-9/11. People are unfamiliar with it, unprepared for it, and while some concerns are legitimate and should be addressed, it’s the means and not simply the principle.
        Personally, drones are just a newer and cheaper version of laser-guided cruise missiles we used even during the first year or so in Afghanistan when we were trying to get bin Laden in the mountains.

      • This also is why it’s important for the administration to not simply shut down as far as questions and criticisms. They need to kick in the PR now and clarify what the drone use means and the rules of engagement. Extrajudicial killings are not going to be an easy sell and no matter what they say, people will say they’re just covering things up with a haze.
        But some transparency would win some good faith among the more reasonable majority and make it less taboo for anyone to endorse the drone strike policy.

      • Those are all excellent points.

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