Pondering the Ethical, Legal and Practical Implications of the C.I.A. Drone War
Today’s tumultuous confirmation hearing for John O. Brennan, the Obama administration’s outgoing foreign policy adviser and current candidate to head the C.I.A., highlights a growing fault line among liberals, Democrats and progressive activist groups like Code Pink (and to a lesser extent, the G.O.P.) that is likely to escalate in the coming months. Ostensibly, the controversy revolves around the Obama administration’s unprecedented use of unmanned drones to target members of al-Qaeda, including the American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, a messy process that has led to some collateral damage.
The drone war touches on deeply-rooted moral questions about the nature of warfare and the lengths to which the U.S. should go in order to defend its interests abroad. However, it is important that as Americans debate the legal and moral implications of drone warfare, we don’t fall into the trap of making simplistic and/or abstract arguments detached from the facts on the ground.
While statistics show that 83% of Americans support the administration’s drone program, a vocal minority of progressives consider this particular method a war crime, one that will inevitably provoke a backlash against the U.S. as civilians and low-level militants are torn apart by Hellfire Missiles. There is certainly legitimacy to this argument. As we have seen following America’s training and arming of Islamist militants in Afghanistan to fend off the Soviet Union during the Cold War, tactics that seem expedient at the time can lead to unintended blowback. Some argue that 9/11 was in part the result of reckless U.S. policies in the Middle East.
That being said, it is important to keep in mind that drones, while controversial, are not universally condemned by the citizens of states in which they are employed. For example, most Yemenis have no love for al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization that has killed far more innocent Muslims than Americans. Governments fighting against radical Islamist factions are often supportive and/or intimately involved in the planning of drone strikes, which they see as an invaluable tool to strike at the mass murderers who set off car bombs in marketplaces and assassinate moderate Muslims for daring to advocate peace with the West.
In observing the inherent risks of drone warfare, we should not overlook its benefits when utilized with restraint and proper oversight. The image of what is essentially a robot raining death down on a house or vehicle and inadvertently killing innocent people is harrowing. But in certain cases, the alternatives are far worse. For instance, sending troops or Special Forces to capture or kill a target not only puts American troops in harm’s way, but can result in more civilian casualties than a drone strike. Soldiers who fought in close-quarters combat in Iraq and Afghanistan will attest that all too often, innocents get caught in the crossfire.
If one person armed with a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle can kill 26 people in an elementary school (I am referring, of course, to the Sandy Hook massacre), than imagine the devastation wrought by trained soldiers with fully-automatic rifles exchanging fire with terrorists in a crowded street. Furthermore, even if said personnel are able to accomplish their mission with no or minimal civilian casualties, it is highly possible that their quarry, familiar with the terrain and local geography, will escape in the chaos. Why put our soldiers at risk chasing after militants in heavily-populated areas, who regularly resort to using civilians as human shields, when we can take them out with a quick drone strike?
None of this is to say that drone strikes should be carried out indiscriminately or in secret. The Constitution demands that the Executive Branch inform Congress of such actions. To a certain extent, the Obama administration has done so. However, it is perfectly reasonable for the American people to demand rigorous standards governing the use of drones that adequately weigh the risk of collateral damage against the security threat posed by the target. Unelected officials should not have carte blanche to order assassinations indiscriminately. Granting them this power sets a dangerous precedent.
Nevertheless, if today’s disruption of John Brennan’s confirmation hearing is any indication, groups like Code Pink, who call for a complete cessation of drone warfare, are out of touch with reality and governed by emotion rather than a sober analysis of the facts. Their implication that Brennan is a war criminal for carrying out the policies of his administration is ludicrous; if these protesters have issues with the drone program, they should take it up with President Obama. In the meantime, their simplistic slogans and childish displays are not helpful and only serve to hamper discussion of a complex issue deserving of serious intellectual debate.