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Time To Put Blue Helmets On Killer Hawks

 “When force is necessary, we will continue to do so in a way that reflects our values and strengthens our legitimacy, and we will seek broad international support, working with such institutions as NATO and the U.N. Security Council.”

 – President Obama (2010 National Security Strategy)


Source: United Nations Image Library

Is it time for  other nations to participate in America’s “killer drone” program? Since the Obama administration has repeatedly stated its commitment to seeking “broad international support” when force is required, then perhaps this proposal is not as indecent as it might sound.

Al Qaeda’s organizational handbook, first seized in 2005 by British authorities, includes the following partial organizational mission statement: “the overthrow of the godless regimes and their replacement with an Islamic regime.” The group, throughout its handbook for terror making, makes clear that it does not solely target Americans, but also has within its cross-hairs any government it deems to be a obstacle to its nefarious objectives. The recent lock-down of almost 20 U.S. embassies across the Middle East reminds us that the threat is indeed global and very much credible.

Contrary to popular belief, Al Qaeda and similarly oriented groups don’t just threaten the West, but commit terrorist acts mostly in non-Western states. The Global Terrorism Index (GTI), produced by the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP), lists the following nations as the top ten nations for terrorist attacks: Afghanistan, Russia, Pakistan, Somalia, Thailand, Philippines, Iraq, Yemen, India and Nigeria.  Given that extremists with an international agenda do not recognize national boundaries, is it not most prudent for all targeted nations to work collectively to counter this transnational  scourge?

A truly comprehensive multi-national approach, pulling together the energies of all affected parties, is surely the most sensible approach for  the global counter-terrorism fight. But to date, the American administration has balked at the idea of allowing even close allies (like Germany, the U.K., France) to participate in planning processes associated with its most  controversial hard power tool – the armed “Killer Drone”. It might be time for the U.S. president to internationalize the program—building a coalition consisting of  most affected nations that could contribute to making the program more effective

Time to Co-opt the Critics

Source: United Nations Image Library

Mr. Ben Emmerson Source: United Nations Image Library

Ben Emmerson, a British jurist who is currently the United Nation’s (U.N.) special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, said recently, “The claim that the United States is in a global armed conflict with al Qaeda and is entitled under the laws of war to kill its members wherever it finds them is not widely accepted.” He went further, saying, “The overwhelming consensus in Europe is that the laws of war do not apply outside of a recognized conflict zone, like Afghanistan.” His colleague, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Christof Heyns, told a conference in Geneva last summer, “President Obama’s drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, carried out by the CIA, may constitute war crimes.”

But despite the hard ball being played by the U.N., and a long list of human rights groups criticizing the program, there is no indication that  President Obama plans on pulling the plug. Armed drones are perceived by the administration as the aspirin for more than a few battlefield pain points. Drone launched  air-to-ground missiles are far more precise than other conventional means, and the remote technology eliminates the possibility of American casualties since drone operators are based in the states. However, the criticisms do sting, and are starting to do political damage to Obama—the Nobel Peace Prize recipient who promised to put an end to Bush era go-it-alone practices.

Given the growing discontent with the program,  the president should seriously ponder co-opting critics by inviting other nations to join the effort.  The arrangement could be worked  in such a way that it allows the U.S. to maintain full command and control of its airborne property while allowing other key nations to be involved in the most controversial aspect of the program – the target selection and “end-game” processes.

Yes, The U.N. Can Play Hard Ball

It is natural for many people to assume that the U.N., due to its principally global peacekeeping mission, would automatically resist joining a transnational assassination campaign. But, after getting past the initial shock of such a proposition, one might find that it is not that far out of bounds. Consider the following:

Article 42 of the U.N. charter states that, “when warranted,” one of the central obligations of member states is to “maintain or restore international peace and security.” Is it not within the spirit and intent of the charter for global hard power campaigns like the American anti-extremists campaign to be—at a minimum—judicially overseen by a designated multinational agent? Surely, the broader international community should have a say in a campaign that has very real implications (positive and negative) for the community of nations, not just the United States.

Also, multi-national military collaboration has occurred frequently in the recent past and will undoubtedly continue into the future. Libya, Bosnia and the first Gulf War all come to mind as recent instances when the U.N. Security Council placed its stamp of approval on the use of force to neutralize rogue national actors that violated international humanitarian law by targeting civilians. Indeed, the American administration might find that other members of the 15 Member U.N. Security Council, as well as the aforementioned “top ten” most targeted nations,  are ripe to accept a proposal that would permit their participation. The council has acted to use lethal force before and can be persuaded to join an effort that aims to “restore international peace and security” by eliminating the most violent transnational terrorists.

The American Lone Ranger Should Ask For Help 

To date, the United States has invested the most in the global counter-terror fight — suffering the most combat casualties and financial costs in an ongoing campaign to eradicate a network of very persistent, diverse and violent adversaries. America’s stealthy armed airborne robots are arguably the most effective tactical tools currently employed against violent actors who cannot be  reconciled or apprehended. However, the fearsome birds of war are not cheap to acquire or to operate.  It is estimated that the Pentagon now has some 7,000 aerial drones in its arsenal and that the 2012 fiscal year budget included almost $5 billion for drone research, development and procurement.  Predator and Reaper drones, the most common Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, cost about  $2,500-3,500 per flight hour to operate and armed systems like the Global Hawk cost about 10 times as much—averaging about $30,000 per flight hour. Wouldn’t it be nice to get other nations to pitch in?  But they won’t pay if they can’t play.

Also, beyond acquisition and operating expenses, there are other, non-monetary costs that burden the program. The Obama administration continues to field legal challenges to the program, not only from abroad, but domestically as well. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU ) is suing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the agency’s refusal to share documents related to the program. In a press release the ACLU stated, “The CIA cannot deny the existence of the government’s targeted killing program and refuse to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests about the program while officials continue to make public statements about it.”

Drone operators. Source: U.S. Defense of Department

Drone operators. Source: U.S. Defense of Department


Though sharing legal and operational ownership of the program with other nations would not completely stop legal challenges, the move would be welcomed by the international community as an act of genuine good-faith—a step in the right direction. Further, if the program’s membership was expanded from one lone actor to a  “coalition of the willing”, then the new players would help to justify the program to others and could help to modify procedures with the goal of reducing the instances of civilian casualties. Though American drone operators might find the modified procedures restrictive at first, the outcome would be greater support for the program and a new operational framework  that would likely make the program more effective across the board.

Critics of internationalizing this made-in-America-for-America “killer drones” program should also not forget that the targeted nations—the aforementioned top ten countries —share a huge stake in the counter-terror fight. Though they might have long-standing differences with the government of the United States, they are not likely to want to reduce the effectiveness of a  program that violent extremists genuinely fear. After all, in the 21st century, the old adage, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” still applies.

Clear Benefits

The benefits to be derived from decentralizing the drone program  are numerous. Here are a few to ponder.

1) Spreading the legal risks around. Drone strikes are naked extra-judicial killings—a fact that could place the American president in the legal hot seat at some point in the future. The U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross are only two organizations on a growing list of critics posturing to bring serious legal heat to the White House. Investigations into the impact of drone technology on civilians are ongoing and it is highly likely that the findings will not be too kind to the American administration.

2) Greater targeting process transparency . An oversight committee, established by the U.N. Security Council, could enhance operating practices, and more importantly, provide for greater transparency into the target selection process. As it stands presently, the C.I.A. serves as the sole agent responsible for the entire target selection to assassination loop. Inviting other nations to assist in drafting modified tracking, targeting and “end game” procedures that focus on hitting the bad guys and dramatically reducing  civilian casualties would only enhance the  program.  Also, participating nations will be far more inclined to share intelligence related to suspects when they perceive that they are part of the team.

3) Spreading the costs. Persuading the global community, really  a subset of most threatened nations, to pitch in for a global violent extremists eradication campaign would not be a bad idea. Newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Ms. Susan Powers could cite Article 50 of the U.N. Charter in her argument to recoup some of the expenses related to keeping America’s mechanical hawks of war flying. Article 50 states, “should any Member of the U.N. be confronted with special economic problems arising from enforcement measures taken against any state by the Security Council, that state shall have the right to consult the Security Council with regard to a solution of those problems.” There you have it—an opportunity to pass around the collection hat.

4) Demonstrates good will. Perhaps the most important payoff of internationalizing the fearsome drone program is that it would demonstrate America’s commitment to multilateralism, the preservation of human rights, and a genuine desire to conform to  international standards of conduct for the use of force. Lest we forget, these U.N. codes are ones that previous administrations had a hand in drafting.

Finally, abdicating America’s responsibility to play by the rules is not smart diplomatic practice, and hurts America’s efforts to maintain and to build coalitions for ongoing and upcoming transnational fights (e.g., illicit networks, climate change, nuclear proliferation etc.).  Cherry picking the body of law (and/or legal jurisdiction) that most suits the administration’s currently favored expression of hard power is disingenuous and sets an ugly precedent that other nations will surely follow. Indeed, if the administration is committed to a 21st century “we-are-all-in-this-together” smart power approaches, then it might be time to put blue helmets on Obama’s killer war hawks.



Oliver Barrett

Oliver Leighton-Barrett is a multi-lingual researcher and a decorated retired military officer specializing in the inter-play between fragile states and national security matters. A former U.S. Marine, and Naval aviator, Oliver is a veteran of several notable U.S. military operations, to include: Operation Restore Hope (Somalia); and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan and Philippines). His functional areas of focus include: U.S. Diplomacy; U.S. Defense; and Climate Change. His geographic areas of focus include: Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

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