World Politics Review | 11.6.12
By Alan W. Dowd
The White House has
reportedly ordered the Pentagon to reposition dronesfor possible retaliatory strikes in Libya -- the latest evidence that drones
are dislodging manned aircraft from the central role they have played in U.S.
warfighting since World War II.
After a decade of wars
that have cost billions of dollars and claimed thousands of American lives, the
American people overwhelmingly support this transition to an
unmanned air force. After all, unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) deliver
a lethal punch at low economic cost, with zero risk to American personnel. That
explains why 83
percent of the country approves of President Barack Obama’s use of drones.
It should come as no surprise, then, that
Washington has latched onto UCAVs as an important tool in the national-security
toolbox. Combat air patrols by UCAVs, deployed by the military and the CIA,
have increased by 1,200
percent since 2005, striking targetsin Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines.
The Brookings Institution reportsthat as many as 2,769 militants have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan
alone, where annual drone strikes
increased from just one in 2004 to 117 in 2010, when they peaked. The
drone war is following a similar upward trajectory in Yemen, and UCAVs played a
critical role in Libya: The missiles that hit Moammar
Gadhafi’s escaping convoy were fired by a U.S.
But what looks like an essential national-security tool to Americans appears
very different to international observers. “In 17 of
20 countries,” a recent Pew
survey found, “more than half [of
respondents] disapprove of U.S. drone attacks targeting extremist leaders and
groups.” According to Pew, the drone war feeds “a widespread perception that
the U.S. acts unilaterally and does not consider the interests of other
Thus, the drone war has reinforced the image of a cavalier America that
Obama once promised to erase. What many international observers don’t realize
is that there has always been continuity between
administrations in defending the national interest. The Bush-Obama handoff was
no exception. And if there is an Obama-Romney handoff, we can expect more
continuity, including on the use of UCAVs.
When asked about drone technology during the final
debate, former Gov. Mitt Romney said, “We should continue to use it . . .
to go after the people who represent a threat to this nation and to our
friends.” However, he implicitly critiqued the Obama administration’s
overreliance on drone strikes by adding, “We can’t kill our way out of this
Romney is right about this, but this is not the only drawback to the
drone war. It is a tactic masquerading as a strategy; it is
ethically problematic to rely on
robots to wage war; there are constitutional
and legal ramifications to an unmanned air force; and it is opening the
door to an era of accidental
On top of all that, it exposes the U.S. to
significant international human rights challenges. Drone attacks “raise serious
questions about compliance with international law,” according to U.N. High
Commissioner for Human Rights Navi
Pillay. Another U.N. human
rights official recently announcedplansto create an investigation unit within the Human Rights Council to look at
civilian casualties from drone strikes. The councilhas urged the U.S. to avoid civilian casualties, noting that “targeted
killing is only lawful when the target is a ‘combatant’ or ‘fighter.’” (.pdf).
Critics of the drone war argue that it has not
always met that standard. The use
of drones to cripple Anwar al-Awlaki’s Yemeni branch of
al-Qaida, for instance, killed dozens of other people, many of them apparently
not affiliated with al-Qaida, including a 16-year-old relative of al-Awlaki
born in Denver. The Brookings
Institution estimatesthat some 450 nonmilitants may have been killed in Pakistan in attacks on
According to publishedreports,
the Obama administration has embraced a controversial method for determining
civilian casualties that “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike
zone as combatants . . . unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously
proving them innocent.” The president is
described as being “at the helm” of a “nominations process” for a drone “kill list,” on which he insists
on “approving every new name.” In addition, he “signs off on every strike in
Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan,”
and often decides “personally whether to go ahead” with a drone strike.
Again, to many Americans, that sounds like a commander-in-chief
fulfilling his primary responsibility, albeit a bit more hands-on than we might
expect. But international observers could see something far more menacing in
these reports. For instance, the Rome Statute, the
founding document of the International Criminal Court, considers launching an
attack “in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or
injury to civilians” to be a war crime and defines “systematic attack directed
against any civilian population” as a crime against humanity. The U.S. is not
subject to the court’s jurisdiction, but this is another sign that the drone
program is out of step with international norms.
Although it’s unlikely that UCAVs will ever be
permanently grounded, the U.S. would do well to curtail their use. It pays to
recall that the United States has circumscribed its own military power at times
in the past, halting development of the neutron bomb, forswearing chemical weapons and renouncing biological warfare “for
the sake of all mankind.”
Washington has every right to kill those who are
trying to kill Americans. But the
brewing backlash against drones reminds us that means and methods matter as
much as ends.