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. drone.

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 countries.”

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 mess.”

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 wars.

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 militants there.

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.