Foreign Policy Blogs

The Morality and Effectiveness of U.S. Drone Policy

An MQ-Reaper drone in Afghanistan (U.S. Air Force photo)

Bradley Strawser, an assistant professor of philosophy at the Naval Postgraduate School, recently (and somewhat predictably) took some flak after the Guardian published a piece in which he appeared to make a fairly unequivocal moral case in support of U.S. drone policy.

“It’s all upside. There’s no downside. Both ethically and normatively, there’s a tremendous value,” Strawser told the Guardian. “You’re not risking the pilot. The pilot is safe. And all the empirical evidence shows that drones tend to be more accurate. We need to shift the burden of the argument to the other side. Why not do this? The positive reasons are overwhelming at this point. This is the future of all air warfare. At least for the US.”

Four days later, Strawser wrote an op-ed in the Guardian to clarify his position, which he felt had been mischaracterized. But while it does appear that the passage provided above and other quotes may have been presented without much context, his subsequent elaboration will fail to win over many of his critics.

“In the contentious debate over drone warfare, it is necessary to separate US government policy from the broader moral question of killing by aerial robots,” begins Strawser in his Guardian op-ed. “The policy question deserves vigorous debate by legal scholars, policy experts, and diplomats. The moral question posed by this new form of remote warfare is more abstract and has only recently begun to receive critical examination by philosophers and ethicists.”

Strawser puts himself in the second camp of philosophers and ethicists, and goes on to explain the clean delineation he sees between policy and the broader conceptual issue of using unmanned drones in a military context: “I am not thereby defending current US drone policy. Rather, whether these killings should be carried out in the first place is the pressing question. If one believes that the current US policy of targeted killings is morally objectionable, then it is the policy that should be objected to, not this particular way of implementing it. The conflation of these two issues detracts from the debates on each.”

The “broader conceptual issue of using unmanned drones in a military context” in fact serves only as a distraction from the important question of implementation. The abstract moral issues surrounding drone strikes are of no importance when divorced from the policy that calls for their usage. Without the context in which U.S. drone policy is executed, there is no meaningful framework through which to examine these abstract questions.

In the original Guardian article, Strawser offered rebuttals to common philosophical objections to the use of drone strikes, such as that “there is something wrong or ignoble in killing through such lopsided asymmetry,” and “risk-free remote killing degrades traditional conceptions of valour,” while sidestepping the question of whether drone strikes — as they are actually being used — are morally defensible. If Strawser was not affiliated with a military institution, his compartmentalization of actual drone policy and abstract notions of drone morality would be somewhat puzzling, but less concerning. As it is, his position of influence over military practitioners (albeit mostly not direct drone policy formulators) carries a certain burden of responsibility. His insistence on staying out of the policy debate is unsurprising — voicing strong opposition to US policy is probably not the fast-track route to tenure at the Naval Postgraduate School — but still irresponsible.

Strawser himself alludes to this in the original article. Reflecting with concern on the fact that his students (senior military officers along with some civilian government officials) at the Naval Postgraduate School might use his ideas to support drone strikes in unwarranted circumstances. “It’s the thought that keeps me up at night,” said Strawser. “Because if my arguments were going to be misused…In that case you could say maybe I should just keep quiet.” In his field of specialization, it seems at best naive to think that he can happily exist in an academic vacuum, where esoteric philosophical questions concerning “just war” in the modern world are discussed without also influencing — in a small way perhaps — the drone campaigns in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

And it is those campaigns, with the ethical and legal questions that they raise, which matter. Despite assurances from John Brennan — Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism — and other U.S. officials, that U.S. drone strikes “apply [sic] with all applicable laws, including the laws of war,” legal analysis to support such claims is rarely provided by the Administration. Indeed, many experts believe the opposite, such as Christof Heyns, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, who has suggested that some drone strikes may constitute “war crimes”, or U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who has also questioned their legality. Of course the case for legality is much easier to make when the CIA is able to effectively classify all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.

In addition to the legal element, there is also the question of effectiveness in the big picture. Drone strikes fuel anti-American sentiment in the places where they are utilized, eroding the United States’ reputation (not exactly at a high point regardless of drone activity) as a global exemplar of justice and human rights. The practice in its current form is both morally unacceptable and potentially counterproductive to American security. Drone strikes are clearly stoking anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, radicalizing new extremists and making the U.S. wildly unpopular among ordinary Pakistanis. It is impossible for anyone to definitively weigh the effects of drone strikes targeting al-Qaeda and other militant groups against the unquantifiable damage done to America’s reputation and the resulting consequences, but there is a strong case to be made that the positive effects of the former do not justify the harmful consequences of the latter. There is, after all, not a finite pool of terrorists that will eventually be depleted through persistent extrajudicial killings.

Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan

Speaking about a recent drone strike in Yemen, John Brennan refused to even acknowledge that there are clear downsides to the practice. “[C]ontrary to conventional wisdom, we see little evidence that [drone strikes] are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for AQAP,” Brennan told the LA Times. “In short, targeted strikes against the most senior and most dangerous AQAP terrorists are not the problem, they are part of the solution.” I wonder how many Yemenis Brennan spoke with before reaching this conclusion. The impact of strikes targeting senior Al-Qaeda leadership figures is difficult to quantify, but it is hard to even begin a debate when the Administration refuses to engage realistically on the issues at stake.

Unmanned aerial vehicles are the future of military aviation, and the matter of how they should be used is an important U.S. foreign policy question. We need to make sure that the discourse addresses the underlying questions honestly and directly, rather than getting lost in abstract debate, wishful thinking, and delusions about eliminating civilian casualties when fighting an enemy that is able to mix in and out of the general population.



Nick Scott
Nick Scott

Nick Scott has a MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He lived in East Jerusalem before moving to New York City where he spent more than a year at the Foundation Center and currently works for Independent Diplomat, a nonprofit diplomatic advisory group.

Follow Nick on Twitter at @Nick_Scott85

Areas of Focus: Politics and Civil Society in the Middle East, Diplomacy, International Development

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