The Cost of Drones

Jennifer Welsh on why military drones and liberal democracy don't mix.
By: /
May 29, 2012
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Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

One of the most significant findings in international relations over the past three decades has been the observation that democracies (at least established ones) tend not to go to war with one another. Indeed, political scientist Jack Levy has claimed that the so-called democratic peace “is the closest thing we have to an empirical law in international relations.”

The explanations for this correlation between democracy and peace vary, but one strand emphasizes the structural features of democratic states, and how they serve to restrain the recourse to war. The first of such features is the degree of influence that democratic states give to the people – those most likely to personally bear the costs of war (either financially, or by being killed or wounded). The second is the tendency for democratic states to separate legislative and executive power, thereby subjecting leaders to institutionalized constraints that limit their capacity to engage in war (unless they can appeal to a very broad base of their electorate).

But as Peter Singer points out in his discussion of drones, recent transformations in technology are eroding both of these sources of restraint in democratic societies, particularly in the United States. Unmanned drones can spend considerable time observing targets, wait for them to come into clear view, and then deliver lower-yield weapons with a far higher degree of accuracy than other weapons platforms (such as bombers or helicopters). Drones therefore enable their users to 1) kill without being killed, and 2) inflict minimal “collateral” damage on societies that are being targeted.

As a result of this level of precision – and capacity to minimize cost – many American policy-makers, such as counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, have described drones as both ethical and wise. Drones have the added bonus of freeing the executive branch from the constraints of congressional approval, since leaders only need to seek authorization for operations that send their soldiers into “harm’s way.”

As Singer notes, however, such unmanned weapons are not completely cost free. There is growing evidence that drone attacks have fuelled public anger in Pakistan and Yemen, threatening to undermine the internal support in those countries for the West’s antiterrorism policy. The use of drones on the sovereign territory of these countries makes it increasingly difficult to refute militants’ claims that the governments of Pakistan and Yemen are mere puppets of the United States.

It is also debatable as to whether the casualty figures associated with drone attacks are really as minimal as they are claimed to be. A recent article in the New York Times about President Obama’s drone strikes questions his administration’s approach to counting civilian casualties. In effect, it treats all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously which proves them innocent.  While counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic – people in an area of known terrorist activity are probably "up to no good" – some members of the Obama administration are angered by the CIA’s accounting method. According to the Times, one official called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

Beyond these immediate casualties, there is a long-term cost to the use of drones. They are part of a more general decline in conventional war – and with it the practices of mutual recognition and reciprocity that helped to “hardwire” some restraint into the conduct of war (represented, for example, in some of the provisions of the Geneva Conventions on the laws of war). There are two particular ways in which drones ride roughshod over these ideas of equality and reciprocity.

First, drones allow for a high level of disassociation with the violence that they unleash, thereby eliminating one of the traditional restraints on the conduct of war. Psychological literature shows quite convincingly that people find it difficult to kill their fellow human beings at close range, and that particular training and conditioning is needed to overcome this aversion. Drones do away with these effects of proximity. In so doing, some have argued, they also promote a change in perspective regarding the target of violence. As it becomes easier to kill the enemy, there is a subtle but important shift in the reasoning for that killing: The enemy becomes depicted as criminal and ruthless, and thereby deserving of direct attack. The potential for drones to change how an enemy is perceived, and to reduce the reluctance to engage in violence, was noted by the U.K. government’s own Ministry of Defence Report in 2011: “… one of the contributory factors in controlling and limiting aggressive policy is the risk to one’s own forces,” the report states. By “removing some of the horror, or at least keeping it at a distance … we might risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely.”

Second, drones contribute to dissolution of the very notion of a battlefield. The laws of war were designed to try to create a delineated space in which war would occur, thereby protecting the rest of society and civilian life from its horrors. The introduction of air power in the 20th century eroded this distinction (think back to the fire-bombing of German cities during the Second World War), as did the rise of counterinsurgency warfare. But drones constitute the ultimate next step in this process.

Finally, the use of drones takes a toll on those who operate them. As philosopher and psychoanalyst Nancy Sherman has argued in her book, The Untold War, soldiers carry all “the moral weight of war,” exempting the citizens of democratic states from having to do that “heavy lifting.” We might be tempted to think that drone operators, who work from a safe civilian space far away from any battlefield, do not bear the same level of guilt as more formal combatants who engage in killing of the enemy at closer range.

But this fails to acknowledge the difference between anonymous intentional killing of enemy combatants (which is what most soldiers engage in) and the kind of targeted killing we increasingly see through drone attacks today. As lawyer and philosopher Fernando Teson explains, in a targeted killing, the victim is precisely identified – the lethal action is directed squarely at him. And the deliberate killing of another human being, no matter who that person is, is presumably a deeply immoral act. To justify such intentional killing in peacetime situations, Teson argues, there must be a clear and just public purpose, proof that the identified “villain” is the person responsible for creating a threat (or inflicting violence), a strong belief that many innocent lives will be saved through such an attack, and the lack of non-lethal alternatives (such as capture of the targeted individual) (for a podcast of Teson’s presentation, click here). This latter stipulation is crucial, for it is by choosing these alternatives – when available – that governments and their representatives avoid engaging in premeditated, deliberate killing.

The so-called war on terror, as Teson shows, has added complexity to how we make judgments using this basic framework. Those who argue that confronting terrorism is equivalent to confronting crime would argue that targeted killings are always impermissible – that a liberal state has enough lawful and non-lethal means at its disposable to deal with terrorists. On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that terrorism can only be confronted through the instruments of war – that the ordinary tools of law enforcement are no match for the kind of threat that terrorists pose to innocent life. Thus, terrorists can be killed on sight, without being given the opportunity to surrender, regardless of the threat they actually represent. Members of the Bush administration, who were partial to this second view, effectively treated targeted killing as the same activity as killing in combat.

President Obama, despite his liberal credentials, seems to be operating with a similar mindset. The New York Times article describes how he now leads a top secret "nominations" process to designate terrorists for kill or capture. But the capture part seems to be more theoretical than real.

Is a middle position between law-enforcement and the war on terror possible? Teson seems to think so, though his resting place is closer to the former position. Terrorism does constitute a special kind of crime, given the level of harm it threatens and the ubiquitous nature of that threat. Therefore, there are circumstances in which targeted killing of a terrorist can be permissible, such as if, in the process, a specific terrorist attack (which threatens a large-scale loss of life) can be avoided. At the same time, however, it does not follow that the war paradigm applies. Even when confronted with terrorists, liberal states cannot be absolved from the need to respect constraints on the use of deadly force in peacetime. Capture of a terrorist cannot simply be the preferred alternative – for Teson, it is ethically required, unless it proves impossible or morally prohibitive.

This judgment about the permissibility of targeted killing rests on the belief that liberal-democratic states must try to act in accordance with the values and virtues they represent. Democratic peace theory seems to suggest that liberal democracies are in some ways exceptional. To permit a broad-based strategy of targeted, extrajudicial killing through the use of drones is to lose some of that essence.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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