Let’s Talk About Drones

The New York Times, John Kaag and Sarah Kreps, “The Moral Hazard of Drones”

The New York Times, Scott Shane, “The Moral Case for Drones”

Esquire, Tom Junod, “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama”

The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama”

Oxford Journals, Bradley Jay Strawser, “Walking the Tightrope of Just War” 

The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, “The Strikes’ Effect on Life in Pakistan”

What follows is a meandering rumination on one of the most contentious issues facing modern political philosophers and anyone interested in discussing global-political ethics: the implementation and expansion of the U.S. military’s drone program in the Middle East. As you can probably tell from the number of links featured above (and the length of this post), the issue is extremely complex and is of great importance to prominently featured thinkers across the internet, despite mass media’s relative indifference.

The majority of writers talking about drones tend to come down definitively on one side or another, either for or against them, but I find myself wavering among the arguments and honestly unsure of where I stand. Not that I need definitive certainty, but I thought writing a bit about it and offering some resources would prove beneficial for anyone else grappling with this conundrum like I am. If you have any interest in this debate – one which I think will only become more prevalent in the future – I strongly recommend any of the pieces above.

So, where do you start with such a factually and philosophically challenging problem? I guess I would begin by asking “Why is this issue so complex?” followed quickly by “What are your reservations?”

As many people are aware, the U.S. government has deployed unmanned, remote-controlled planes commonly referred to as “drones” to the Pakistan/Afghanistan/Yemen region to conduct reconnaissance missions and often kill suspected terrorists. These actions are carried out in the name of defense of the U.S. citizenry.

Perhaps the most sensational and widely-known drone incident was the targeting and killing of Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American citizen who defected to Yemen, joined Al-Qeada, and was suspected of having a hand in planning the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. This event is of particular note because it “was believed to be the first instance in which a U.S. citizen was tracked and killed based on secret intelligence and the president’s say-so,” according to Huffington Post.

The drone program was started during President Bush’s time in the White House after 9/11 at the outset of the “war on terror,” but of particular concern to observers is the way in which President Obama has expanded the program, even as U.S. ground forces are in the process of exiting Iraq and Afghanistan. The practical causes for concern are many and mounting: the CIA has never openly acknowledged the program’s existence, the U.S. Congress has never officially supported the program, there have been an unrecorded number of civilian casualties, the program reportedly inspires more terrorists than it kills, and the President seems to operate with unilateral, unchallenged authority. And to further complicate things, questions abound about the ethics of the program, which is where I am with regards to the issue: many questions, few answers.

I have to admit that this technology is obviously a phenomenal development in the prevention of soldier casualties, and it allows us to stop our enemies in remote, difficult-to-access regions of the world. I am not naive and don’t think every enemy can be dealt with through diplomacy or sanctions. But the increasingly remote nature of our armed conflicts and the resultant detachment of the citizens in whose name those actions are taken is worrying. As far as I can tell, there are four troubling questions at the heart of this matter:

  • Is the drone program more or less ethically acceptable than larger armed conflicts, and to what extent does the remote nature of the devices influence our conception of war?
  • Does the unilateral expansion and implementation of the drone program constitute an express overstepping of the President’s military authority and violation of the law?
  • Are the supposed benefits of the drone program justification enough, despite ethical misgivings, to engage in the remote execution of even a suspected terrorist?
  • Do technological developments that remove the risk of soldiers’ lives from the battlefield render armed conflict meaningless and is that a good or bad thing?

These are the questions I find myself debating internally and with friends whenever this issue comes up, and no matter how many times I try to wrap my head around them, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer to any of them. I think part of the difficulty is the fact that we live in a time when traditional definitions of terms such as “war” are evolving at such a rapid pace that our linguistic and philosophical vocabularies are struggling to catch up. Many contend that drone strikes constitute acts of war or even war crimes, but when the strikes kill a relative few compared to a traditional war, do those accusations hold merit? Are they even relevant?

And when we discuss the validity of unilateral military actions taken by our leaders, it’s growing increasingly difficult – especially where the Middle Eastern region is concerned – to see any instance in any shade but gray. President Obama’s decision to use the U.S. military in Libya without congressional support (as the law traditionally requires) was more humanitarian mission than war, and although his means were questionable, I ultimately support the ends given the rapidity with which circumstances were developing and the potentially devastating result of inaction. Further, he acted as part of a coalition, but without abiding by our laws – is that acceptable?

Many people I speak with about the subject contend that the drone program is without doubt ethically-bankrupt because of the suspect results, and I both agree and disagree. I think it depends on your perception of the persistence of our enemies. The most unfortunate aspect of the debate about military action is that the circumstances being discussed are often relative and subjective. I think most would agree that the U.S. has enemies that wish to do it harm. In organizations like Al-Qaeda, though, we find an enemy unwilling to negotiate or relent.

So, realistically, what can you do? If the U.S. government desires a proactive approach to negating the potential effects of its enemies, it realistically has only a few options, all of which have been used over the course of the last decade: a remote targeting program, a full-scale invasion, and a small-scale infiltration.

The questions I listed above are unfortunately predicated on my pessimistic understanding that the U.S. President will, for the foreseeable future, be required (by ideology or public account) to eschew a more ethically sound defensive posture for an ethically questionable offensive one. In other words, I consider this issue from the perspective that the U.S. will always want to attack its allies instead of defend against them.

Many would argue “the best defense is a good offense,” and that the potential benefits of the program far outweigh the cost or ethical agony. But I struggle with my confident belief that that’s not always true and that such a self-assured attitude toward an institution implemented with the sole purpose of killing individuals we deem enemies is cavalier and wrong. And with that I can’t help adding to my list of questions and asking myself “At what point is one forced to accept that the animal fear of pragmatism trumps the human hope of idealism?”

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2 comments
  1. underscore33 said:

    mmm. al-Aulaqi only went to the same mosque as two of the 9/11 attackers (if memory serves), he wasn’t affiliated with al-Qaeda or the attacks then. again, i am speaking from memory here, but according to the anonymous US gov’t sources he doesn’t become “operational” until the Christmas underwear bomber.

    • According to articles I’ve read and al-Aulaqi’s Wikipedia page, he was the “spiritual adviser” to three of the 9/11 hijackers. There was no absolute link proven between them at the time, but given his later affiliation and involvement, it’s hard to believe he knew nothing about 9/11 and said nothing to those men about their impending suicidal attack. I don’t know, the facts are always a bit muddy with this kind of thing, which is really part of the problem I’m obviously trying to grapple with. Further thoughts?

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