Add morality to list of drone victims
May 27th, 2013
10:18 AM ET

Add morality to list of drone victims

By Christopher R. W. Dietrich, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Christopher R. W. Dietrich is assistant professor of the History of U.S. Foreign Relations at Fordham University. The views expressed are his own.

The awkward balance that President Barack Obama tried to strike between morality, law, and national security with Thursday’s drone speech reveals the major flaw in our era’s opaque “war on terror.”  More and more, the ends do not justify the means.  Indeed, the evidence from today and from history confirms that drone attacks in particular forfeit rather than protect national security.

Obama and supporters of targeted killings argue that drone strikes have benefits. Their unique capabilities have allowed the United States to annihilate the governance of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, they say. The drone program has also limited the operational capacity of al Qaeda members in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, and Somalia.

Yet while Obama described drone strikes in the same breath as “a necessary evil,” defining unmanned aerial violence as indispensable to U.S. national security is wrongheaded.  As Micah Zenko’s special report for the Council on Foreign Relations on reforming drone policy notes, the drawbacks actually outweigh the benefits.

Most importantly, targeted killings alienate the United States in international opinion. A joint report by the Stanford International Human Rights Clinic and the New York University Global Justice Clinic, “Living Under Drones,” confirms this position. The authors concluded after nine months of interviews not only that drones kill innocent civilians on a regular basis, but that drone policy itself has a broader injurious effect: increased anti-American sentiment in the international community.

More from CNN: A dangerous world of drones

Six witnesses discussed the problem at length last month in a Senate hearing.  The most poignant testimony came from the Yemeni youth activist Farea al-Muslimi, who described the physical and psychological effect of the bombing of his village in April. When his neighbors think of America, “they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time.”

Peter Bergen, the director of the New America Foundation and a CNN contributor, told the senators that the “dramatic amplification” of drone attacks under Obama sets a dangerous precedent.  Other governments that have obtained drones – including the Chinese, Iranians, or Russians – could easily justify strikes on separatists or nationalists with the simple argument that they are at war. How can future U.S. leaders call on other countries to exercise restraint, when its own use of drones is neither transparent nor accountable?

Historical precedent supports those who argue that extralegal lethal force is not in the national interest.  In the mid-1970s, Senator Frank Church’s select committee examined the balance between means and ends in U.S. foreign policy. Church famously exposed the CIA as possibly “a rogue elephant rampaging out of control,” emphasizing plans from the early 1960s to “neutralize” anti-American leaders like Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Abdul Kassem of Iraq, and Fidel Castro.  The committee also turned to the imprint such activities left.  Targeted killings, on an extent far smaller than Zenko’s estimated 401 civilian deaths, produced a backlash. The plans were widely perceived not just as illegal, but as immoral.

More from GPS: Danger of shoot to kill policy

Moral and legal considerations of U.S. national security are also intertwined with the country’s history, but not in a way that Obama would like. In its leaked white paper on drone policy, the Justice Department invoked as precedent the Nixon administration’s legal rationale for the invasion of Cambodia in late 1969 and early 1970. A legal adviser provided a post-hoc discussion in a February 1970 report.  If a nation-state was unable to prevent “violations of its neutrality” by one side of belligerents in a war, the other side was historically justified in “attacking those enemy forces in that state,” he wrote.

The white paper extends the argument.  “Transnational non-state organizations” are more diffuse, the Justice Department reasons.  Because “terrorist organizations may move their base of operations” from nation to nation, the U.S. government can justly eliminate threats anywhere.

Historians agree that the invasion of Cambodia did little in the long run to ensure the security of Americans, let alone Cambodians.

Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973 in response to the need for greater oversight of presidential war escalation.  On Thursday, Obama promised to give Congress that supervisory role.  He has also vowed to place the United States at the forefront of an international discussion on the international laws of war.

Bringing the killing program out of its extralegal penumbra is an important step, but promises for a less hazy legal architecture can only go so far. International regulations cannot resolve the more important moral tension in U.S. national security. The national image of the United States was another key theme of the president’s speech. But Obama also went to great pains to emphasize that the relative “human cost” to civilians was far less than the death toll of “acts of terrorism against Muslims.”

But that kind of conviction means that drone warfare will continue to replicate itself in the United States and elsewhere. And with this, another blow is dealt to the moral authority of U.S. national security.

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Topics: Terrorism • United States

soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. flouik

    I find this article rather informative but completely misses the reality.
    Can anyone come up with an alternative for once? just few weeks ago FBI came under fire for not being effective in it's investigation to prevent the boston bombings.

    May 27, 2013 at 10:26 am | Reply
  2. Bob

    "Turnabout is fair play". That's an old one, too. So, if it's OK for the US to decide they can shoot people with drones on Pakistani soil, isn't it OK for Pakistan to decide to shoot people in the US with their drones?
    I don't see a stopping point to this. It would be nonsense except that it is so very much more serious, and may unleash attacks on us that we have no legal way to take issue with.

    May 27, 2013 at 11:15 am | Reply
  3. Dennis

    Drones will dignity and honor to Pakistan. Pakistanis have taken billions of dollars to fight terrorism; however, they used it to fund Islamists. Pakistanis have no morality. Drones will set them straight.

    May 27, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  4. wjmccartan

    I know that this style of warfare has its detractors, regardless of what America does it will still have enemies. If America were to stand by and stay out of these countries that through their inability or unwillingness to deal with agents of terror, then they would be able to simply grow larger and perhaps get to a point that they actually destabilize the governments of the countries where they live. Then we have countries that through their need to maintain power, they make people disappear, or kill people in order to avoid dealing with the issues. Now that gives us Syria, where different factions have come together to overthrow the regime. Then we come to a point where some of the political body feel its imperative to put boots on the ground to cause change in another nation. This is not the method of choice that the United States is using with regards to the drone program. As long as countries exist that will not deal with those who would cause others harm, then options dwindle and fast. Would it be better to put boots on the ground in another nation, would it be better to bomb using conventional weapons, would it be better to throw money at the problem? There are no easy answers, these people within the foreign relations community say "this is not what America should do". Behind a desk or a computer screen it is easy to say this isn't the way. Rather then finding fault with the policies of the US maybe having the answers to make change would be a better place to start. It still isn't going to stop the enemies outside the borders that want to do harm to the country, there may be a heavier price to pay by using drones. Right now though its better than having bombs going off in the streets everyday. What is it that sets these terrorists in motion, what makes people who convert to the radical side of the Islamic religion. Would these souls have been caught up in some sort of criminal activities if they didn't follow that road or would they just be your average citizen who goes to work and collects his pay. All I do know for sure is America has to continue to be a place where ideals can be realized, where freedom of oppression is front and centre, the world we live won't be changing for the foreseeable future. These terrorists will continue to drive for the end of the American and the free worlds idea of peace and prosperity, as long as they do then those agencies of destruction and chaos have to be fought. Today its with drones, tomorrow who knows.

    Peace to those who bring peace.

    The rest can wait and see. Look up.

    May 27, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Reply
    • Joe M.

      There is no question that those ungodly drones are immoral and unjustifiable. Furthermore, those rotten cowards who operate them need to be prosecuted at the international war crimes tribunal and dealt with appropriately! Evidently, Barack Obama has no moral principles nor a humane bone in his body or he would't try to justify this rotten butchery!

      May 27, 2013 at 7:19 pm | Reply
  5. What a joke

    Anyone who speaks against drones as being "immoral" is clearly terrified of being zapped for some reason.
    Unless your arguments can also apply to any other aircraft or munitions that are only tools and weapons, everyone with a bit of sense will laugh in your face at your stupidity.
    It's a machine. Machines are not having any morality. You may as well say that kitchen knives are the work of the devil because they can be used to kill as well as chop vegetables. Just stupid.

    May 27, 2013 at 11:18 pm | Reply
    • wjmccartan

      Of course machines have no morality What a joke, nor do those sniveling cowards who operate them. They need to be indicted and brought before the I.C.C. whose judges have neither been bought nor paid for by the neocons in Washington! Unfortunately, that will never happen.

      May 28, 2013 at 10:06 am | Reply
      • Gyrogearloose

        So then, isn't a Taliban member who uses a rocket propelled grenade to attack unknown victims from a safe distance also a 'sniveling coward'? How about the guy who plants an Improvised Explosive Device, isn't he also a 'sniveling coward' because he's not at risk when it goes off and kills unknown victims? How about the armed militants who behead their unarmed victims for propaganda purposes, aren't they also 'sniveling cowards'? To be credible, you need to look at all sides of this.

        The whole point of weaponry is to take out your opponent with minimum of risk to yourself. It's not pretty and it's not intended to be fair. I'm not about to agree that we should put our guys in harms way if we don't have to do so. Just the opposite. We should use every tool we can to keep them safe while they do their jobs. Drones are just one way to do this.

        If you object to warfare then your target should be our political leaders who made and make the high level decisions to go to war and stay at war. I think the buck currently stops at Obama.

        May 29, 2013 at 10:28 am |
  6. j. von hettlingen

    It's really an irony that the debates over the legality of drone deployment heat up as the number of strikes in Pakistan and Yemen had gone down successively. No doubt Obama can afford to speak more openly and assure the public that the use of drone would be under more scrutiny in the future. It's running out of targets and many senior members of the Al-Qaeda have been felled. What they are after are mostly minnows.

    May 28, 2013 at 9:46 am | Reply
  7. John

    Really, if you're going to limit some of the blowback from targeted killing, you've got to keep on killing, as the U.S. has done by targeting both the would-be rescuers of the injured and the mourners at the victims' funerals.

    As drones proliferate throughout the world, it's important that we all can protect ourselves from angry friends and relatives of their victims, as well as others as we may see fit. Perhaps municipalities, churches, and corporations will all want to acquire their own drones to protect themselves from looming threats. What about that Phil in accounting? He's had a chip on his shoulder for some time and could easily destabilize the entire organization if he isn't pre-emptively stopped!

    May 29, 2013 at 10:59 am | Reply
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