Current American drone policy fosters a culture of aggression, in which we are desensitized to the suffering wreaked upon others by the actions of our armed forces, and lulled into contented ignorance of the consequences of our military’s actions both abroad and at home.
In 1945, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Japan, killing untold hundreds of thousands of civilians, and ending World War II. The United States was the first and only nuclear-armed country, and had acted independently of any international law or with the possibility of emulation in mind. By 1949, the Soviet Union had developed and tested an atomic bomb of its own. Had the Soviet Union employed its atomic weaponry with the relative abandon which had guided the United States in its earliest stages of nuclear armament, it is likely that civilization as we know it today would not exist.
A disturbingly similar sequence of events appears to be unfolding with respect to contemporary American drone policy, with the United States currently the only country fielding a significant number (more than 10,000) of attack and surveillance drones, and essentially, according to opponents, making up the rules as it goes along. The question arises: do there exist sufficient global political limitations on the use of drone technology, or should further international legal limitations be drafted (with the support of the United States) before the technology becomes widely available on a global scale?
In the absence of any real challenge to the drone status quo by representatives in government, it is up to American voters to answer this question themselves. Asked during an October 2012 foreign policy debate of his position concerning the use of drones, Mitt Romney, then-Republican presidential candidate and challenger to incumbent Barack Obama, stated, “I support [drone strikes] entirely and think that the president was right to use that technology.” Left to his own devices, neither man would, as president, alter America’s current course, which, in its focus on tactical supremacy, leaves human rights at the wayside.
Current American drone policy is both unethical and frequently counterproductive. In his brief article, “For Our Allies, Death From Above,” Clive Stafford Smith examines on a personal level the effect of unbridled drone technology on civilians living along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Smith details having encountered at a meeting between village elders and American officials a 16 year-old boy named Tariq Aziz, whom he describes as having been “too young to boast much facial hair, and too young to have learned to hate” (Smith 1). The meeting, Smith notes, “had been organized so that Pashtun tribal elders who lived along the Pakistani-Afghan frontier could meet with Westerners for the first time to offer their perspectives on the shadowy drone war being waged by the Central Intelligence Agency in their region.” Delivering a deeply moving appeal to emotion, Smith explains that:
At the end of the day, Tariq stepped forward. He volunteered to gather proof if it would help to protect his family from future harm. We told him to think about it some more before moving forward; if he carried a camera he might attract the hostility of the extremists. But the militants never had the chance to harm him. On Monday, he was killed by a C.I.A. drone strike, along with his 12-year-old cousin, Waheed Khan. The two of them had been dispatched, with Tariq driving, to pick up their aunt and bring her home to the village of Norak, when their short lives were ended by a Hellfire missile.
Smith’s use of simple, blunt, direct and undiluted language drives home the idea that, when one steps away from viewing the issue in terms of “abstract legal theory,” it becomes, “very real and personal.” Of course, he does not neglect to identify the purely practical negative repercussions which stem from deaths such as Tariq’s: “Tariq’s extended family,” Smith reminds us, “ so recently hoping to be our allies for peace, has now been ripped apart by an American missile —most likely making any effort we make at reconciliation futile.” Smith’s glimpse into the lives of the true victims of drone technology, despite (or perhaps because of) its lack of statistical or sourced data, is useful in affording outsiders a degree of empathy and understanding, all the while reinforcing the idea that current American drone policy allows for the exacerbation and escalation of conflict in addition to the violation of human rights.
If the roles were reversed—if an American civilian were collateral damage resulting from a drone attack conducted by any other nation on earth—would a lone reporter be that civilian’s only voice? Further, is American drone policy not in some way culpable for the present attitude?
In his “Robots at War: The New Battlefield,” P.W. Singer examines and addresses some of the issues surrounding the rapid acceleration of drone use by the United States armed forces, noting that, “When U.S. forces went to Iraq in 2003, they had zero robotic units,” but by “the end of 2008, it was projected to reach as high as 12,000” (Singer 31). This technology will, with its proliferation, remove many of the moral and political obstacles of initiating warfare, and therefore result in a greater number of wars. “When a citizenry has no sense of sacrifice or even the prospect of sacrifice,” says Singer, “the decision to go to war becomes just like any other policy decision, weighed by the same calculus used to determine whether to raise bridge tolls.” While his suggestion that the removal of human loss on the side of the aggressors in a conflict will result in a greater willingness to go to war in a manner comparable to the raising of bridge tolls is perhaps too extreme a claim supported by too weak an analogy, his reasoning and evidence do logically explain how drone technology seems to facilitate the political processes associated with war making. Singer’s claim is arguably better supported, though, by Greg Holyk in his “Drones, Gitmo, and Drawdown give Obama Foreign Policy Cred” in which he states that, “Eighty-three percent of Americans in the latest ABC News/Washington Post pollapprove of Obama’s use of unmanned drones against terrorist suspects” (Holyk 1). Holyk presents a clearly reliable statistical example of drone technology allowing a government to initiate armed assault without engaging in significant political risk, thus demonstrating in full the degree to which drones exacerbate the already-evident disconnect between Western populations and the people whose homes their militaries are occupying under the pretext of defense.
That is not to say that there are not any negative political repercussions associated with the use of drones. Joshua Foust, presenting a perspective not considered by Singer or Holyk, maintains in his “The Political Consequences of a Drone-First Policy” that, “The global counterterrorism [drone] mission imposes substantial political costs to the U.S.” and that we, “should start thinking more about politics, and less about killing bad guys.” Foust notes that, “Among domestic populations, drones are almost always unpopular, as they represent a distant and unaccountable foreign power exercising the right to kill them at will. The resistance to drones is debated heavily in Pakistani circles, but it’s difficult to ignore the effects, like a walkout in Parliament…it should concern U.S. policymakers deeply that the drone program is further destabilizing an already tenuous situation.” Foust’s consideration of the political repercussions of drone policy from outside the United States lends his analysis of the political influences governing any decision to use drones greater validity than that of Holyk and Singer, who focus exclusively on domestic acceptance. Foreign acceptance cannot and should not be discounted, since, ultimately, domestic approval can be influenced by foreign approval (or lack thereof). Widespread abhorrence of a country’s government abroad can result in problems (economic sanctions, limitations on emigration, and so forth) which will be felt domestically, and result in a net loss of domestic approval. (For a simple example, consider Greek riots in the wake of austerity measures imposed by the European Union, or the political protests in Iran coming in at the heels of a new wave of boycotts and other sanctions from the West). Foreign disapproval can, in other words, translate to domestic disapproval. Because there are political downsides to drone policy within the countries that the drones are employed, the fielding of drones cannot be conducted independent of any domestic political concerns, either.
In terms of international law, the findings of Robert P. Barnridge Jr. in his “Qualified Defense of American Drone Attacks in Northwest Pakistan Under International Humanitarian Law” suggest that, “it is much harder to say what the law exactly is, and how it should be applied in this context.” Barnridge states that, “interrelated concerns as regards transparency may or may not be understandable as a matter of morality, ethics, or policy preference, but they are not required from an international humanitarian law perspective” (Barnridge 443). Thus, Barnridge effectively defends the legality of American drone policy in Pakistan, which has been criticized for the shroud of secrecy surrounding it (the operations are conducted by the CIA, and technically have never been officially admitted to exist) while acknowledging that while the U.S. is acting in accordance with the law, the law may not be written in accordance with moral and ethical concerns. While the United States and its allies benefit from the freedom afforded them by existing shortcomings in international law, they will suffer from this inadequacy of applicability as drone technology proliferates on a global scale, and comes into use by non-allies. It would be in the interests of the United States and its allies to push for modification of existing international law governing drone technology while it would still be clearly beneficial to non-allies (e.g. Iran and North Korea), as it will be much more difficult to establish and enforce more reliable laws once such enemy states have acquired drone technology for themselves and would suffer equally in the event of limitation of freedoms surrounding drones.
Neither existing international law nor political obstacles sufficiently inhibit the United States’s use of drone technology. Yes, as Foust validly asserts, there are political deterrents abroad; however, these deterrents are demonstrably (through Barnridge as well as Smith) not sufficiently repellent politically as to limit American freedom in fielding drones to a level with which the United States and its allies would be comfortable a non-ally possessing. It is ethically unacceptable that the present political climate allows for young, innocent men such as Tariq Aziz to die needlessly by the weapons of their alleged allies, Americans. Furthermore, as the United States is not violating any international laws through its drone policy, it is clear that the laws should (in the interest of the United States and its allies) be strengthened to a point where the United States would be forced to cease to conduct its drone operations with such abandon, but where non-allies would also be incapable of legally emulating US drone policy as it exists today. As Singer notes, “technologies such as unmanned systems can be seductive, feeding overconfidence that can lead nations into war.” That is, the unsubstantiated conviction that a war begun with drones will never require the introduction of ground troops, and therefore will result in no loss of life for the invaders, lures leaders into a false sense of security. It would be in the interest of the United States, its allies, people like Tariq, and the global community at large if the ability of governments to legally act on this “overconfidence” were limited.
As the October 2012 foreign policy debate demonstrated, both leading party candidates for the presidency of the United States considered America’s current use of drones a non-issue. The election did not, and could not, change anything. It is the responsibility of the public at large now to now bring the troublesome reality to light, demand reform, and avert a future in which nations the world over, including American enemies, may exercise the same lack of restraint in conducting drone assaults as the American government enjoys today. A climate of political viability for wholesale murder must not be tolerated.
Singer, P.W. “Robots at War: The New Battlefield”. Wilson Quarterly (Winter, 2009): 30-48.
Holyk, Greg. “Drones, Gitmo and Drawdown Give Obama Foreign Policy Cred.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 28 Feb. 2012. Web. 21 Jan. 2013. <http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/02/drones-gitmo-and-drawdown- give-obama-foreign-policy-cred/>.
Foust, Joshua. “The Political Consequences of a Drones-First Policy.” The Atlantic. 27 Jan. 2012. Web. 21 Jan. 2013.
Barnidge, Robert. “A Qualified Defence of American Drone Attacks in Northwest
Pakistan Under International Humanitarian Law in Light of the Alston Report” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association Annual Conference “Global Governance: Political Authority in Transition”, Le Centre Sheraton Montreal Hotel, MONTREAL, QUEBEC, CANADA, 16 March 2011
Smith, Clive Stafford. “For Our Allies, Death From Above”. The New York Times 3
November 2011. Web.