January 20, 2012

Daniel Goure: "Drones don’t kill terrorists, governments do."

In his article, Drones and the changing nature of warfare: Stop the presses!, Daniel Goure makes the case that we should be careful in assessing the impacts of drones and robotics in modern warfare and the claim that they could impact the tendency to go to war.
The availability of unmanned aerial systems in no way makes conflict more likely or more brutal. Quite the opposite, in fact, seems to be the case. The presumption that were it not for the availability of drones, the U.S. would refrain from conducting military operations against terrorists based in Pakistan is highly dubious. We have an example of an alternative military option: Operation Enduring Freedom. As Joshua Goldstein pointed out in a recent article, the use of armed drones in Pakistan may have prevented the use of far bloodier means. “Armed drones now attack targets that in the past would have required an invasion with thousands of heavily armed troops, displacing huge numbers of civilians and destroying valuable property along the way.” According to Robert Woodward’s reporting on President Obama’s decision to deploy additional forces to Afghanistan in 2009, a number of senior advisors proposed a lower-cost, smaller deployment based on increased use of special operations forces and unmanned aerial vehicles.

I might go even farther than Goldstein and argue that Cortright should advocate the greater use of drones, armed and otherwise, precisely due to his interest in reducing the frequency, intensity, and costs of conflicts. Just as dash cameras in police cars and cell phone cameras have led to a decrease in police brutality and the ability to bring those who violate procedures to account, the electro-optical sensors on drones can be used to increase oversight over military forces in the field. In fact, cameras can reduce what Cortright calls “the psychological distance that separates the launching of a strike from its bloody impact.” It can also help reduce the alleged isolation of the American people from the use of force in their name.

Unfortunately in view of its title, the primary focus of Cortright’s article is not on drones and warfare. Rather, it centers on the subset of the role of drones in current counterterrorism operations. A number of the issues he raises are frankly much more relevant to the rather murky legal and operational circumstances surrounding the global campaign against al Qaeda. Cortright is closer to the mark when, as the title of his article suggests, he connects the nature of drones, notably the lack of a person in the cockpit, to the sense that both the George W. Bush and, most particularly, the Obama Administration saw such systems as supporting if not promoting a “license to kill.” Critics of the use of drones against unlawful combatants in Pakistan and elsewhere would be on firmer ground by connecting the disembodied features of “Nintendo warfare” to our seeming tolerance for the weakening of legal safeguards for criminal terrorists.

In conclusion, I would suggest that there is nothing in the current employment of drones or in plans for future unmanned aerial systems that poses the kinds of dangers suggested by Mr. Cortright. They will not make war easier or cheaper. There is no evidence that armed drones have reduced the political inhibitions against the use of deadly force. The use of drones in no way threatens to weaken the moral presumption against the inappropriate or excessive use of force that is at the heart of the just war doctrine—the emphasis is mine, but the qualifiers have always belonged to just war theory. Mr. Cortright’s problem is not with drones but the policies of those who employ them. I almost hate to say it, but we should remember that drones don’t kill terrorists, governments do.

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