Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010
The recent article in the Wall Street Journal stating that the White House and the Pentagon are actively considering the deployment of unmanned drones as part of “hunter killer” teams in Yemen is an interesting development in the Obama administration’s foreign policy.
It is not a development for the better.
Under this proposal the military would cede authority over elite special forces units to the C.I.A. to allow them to operate in foreign countries extra judicially… that is with out oversight, accountability and most importantly, without asking permission of the governments in which they conduct their operations.
Recognizing the increasingly questionable nature of the reporting in the Wall Street Journal – neither the White House nor the Yemeni Government deigned to comment on their claims – the mere notion that the White House might even be considering this move should be enough to send chills up the spines of tribal muslims around the globe. The deployment of special forces teams or even just a squad of armed drones under the auspices of the C.I.A. would cement the precedent set in Pakistan to allow the President to issue targeted assassination orders of foreign nationals in secret with no accountability whatsoever. In other words it would give the president his own personal hit squad.
My own feeling is that even if drones in Yemen is only a trial balloon it is one that should be punctured without delay.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right off. Unmanned drones are lousy as tools of statecraft. If you want to have a drone circle a battle field for hours and then blow things up without putting soldier’s lives at risk then arguably they are an effective weapon. No one can argue that American soldier’s live are in jeopardy when the operators of the drones are half a world away slipping Big Gulp Slurpies in air-conditioned comfort the deserts of New Mexico.
If your goal is to build things, like roads, bridges, and hospitals or if you desire to bring stability to a region through democratic nation building or if you merely wish to win over hearts and minds, drones will not do you any good. The ability to blow up a building without putting yourself in harm’s way is hardly the way to make peace, build infrastructure, or get people to like you. In fact, as many observers and counter terrorism experts have noted, the use of drones as a weapon against insurgents is wildly ineffective and even counter productive. Every time a drone attack kills innocent civilians it acts as a recruiting tool for the militants whom you are fighting. And drones always kill civilians.
To use unmanned drones as we have been, for targeted, extra-judicial killing is contrary to every known international law one can think of. If one has any respect for the laws of other nations one has to condemn the use of drones as tools of state sponsored assassination. It matters not that we have been flying them over areas where the “state” government is a loose and unruly collection of tribal councils. If we were to fly drones over Ottowa, Cancun, or London in an effort to assassinate those we suspect of harboring ill will against our country, we would be just as guilty as we are blowing up militants in the Tribal areas of Waziristan. Every time we use drones to run an assassination mission over a sovereign nation we are guilty of a crime under international law. It’s that simple.
If it is illegal to use drones as assassination tools, then it is perforce immoral as well. Let me put it bluntly. Assassination is murder. You can call it extra-judicial killing but that doesn’t make it any more ethical. In order to put any kind of legitimacy on the taking of a life by the United States government we must first make such an order comply with the full weight of the law. The process must be transparent, or at least be controlled by some independent body with oversight capability. This does not happen with drones. The targets are chosen in secret. The death sentence decrees are handed down in secret. The affected parties are incinerated with no ability to face their accuser declare their innocence or refute the evidence against them. Indeed, if the person blown to glory is innocent, he or she may go to their reward never even knowing they were suspected of being a militant. And of course, the innocent bystanders who die as a result of any attack never get a say in the matter at all.
To be able to use any weapon without oversight or accountability, virtually insures that the weapon in question will be used with less reservation than if controls and oversight were in place. If any one requires proof of this, simply look at the statistics for frequency of drone attacks by the United States. Since the introduction of drones as a tool for targeting insurgents was introduced, their use has steadily increased. For Presidents like Obama and Bush before him, the ability to wipe out inconvenient people in foreign countries without having to ask permission or provide any reason to the leaders of the countries in question is like a powerful drug – one with dangerous side effects.
To sum up,
1) using drones for state assassination is illegal and immoral.
2) When employed with no oversight or accountability, the use of any weapon to carry out state sponsored assassination is an addictive drug for world leaders bent on military domination of the planet.
3) Drones are lousy weapons for fighting insurgencies because they are inaccurate and they create enemies when we kill the wrong people. The use of remote drones in targeted assassinations act as a recruiting tool for the very militants we are attempting to kill.
4) Finally, when used as a weapon of war, drones are excellent for blowing things up. However, they are useless for putting things back together, thus they are lousy as instruments of Statecraft, nation building, and bringing stability to a region.
The use of unmanned armed drones as tools for targeted assassination virtually assures instability and lawlessness in a region. The president, the Pentagon, and the manufacturers of unmanned areal vehicles may try to push them on us as effective at producing peace. However, the truth is the escalating use of unmanned assassination drones as a substitute for diplomacy will produce a much, much more dangerous world and make us all less safe.