Yesterday’s Review section of the Sunday New York Times carried an “analysis” piece by journalist Scott Shane, “The Moral Case for Drones,” which was really more in the nature of a news story reporting that a group of political scientists and moral philosophers believe there is in fact a strong moral case to be made for the aggressive use of drones in the campaign against global terrorism. The article did not do much to subject that point of view to analysis or sound out counter-positions, so let me attempt a modest beginning at that.
First, though, I want to acknowledge that the Obama administration has been in a tight spot, and that as a practical matter, it’s hard to dispute its conclusion that drones would seem to be the best weapon at hand. The American people plainly expect their president to protect them against any further terrorist attack but also do not want to see the country get into another prolonged conflict on the ground. So if terrorism is to be nipped in the bud, either commandos have to be sent into foreign countries to capture or kill putative terrorists, or the terrorists have to be struck from the air. Either way, the United States runs rough-shod over the sovereignty of foreign states whose citizenries are none too favorably disposed toward Americans to begin with.
Having said that, what bothers me about the Times article is the refrain running through it that drone warfare is morally superior to conventional warfare because it is so much more precise and limited. In the last paragraph, a former deputy director of the CIA’s counter-terrorism center makes reference to the fire-bombing of Dresden. Of course, he is not making a direct one-to-one comparison of a single drone strike against a terrorist leader to the destruction of a city in the context of total war, but he is explicitly arguing that we are lucky to be living in an age in which tolerance of mass slaughter is much lower, and we have the option of attacking our enemies in highly surgical ways.
The only valid point of comparison to assassination by drone is a police-style commando operation in which the aim is to capture the presumed enemy combatant with the objective of putting the suspect’s activities or intentions to some kind of legal test. Of course, the latter course is awkward, costly, risky and politically unpopular. It is not hard to see why a president would much prefer the alternative, but that does not mean the alternative is necessarily the morally or legally right way to go.