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Drone Assassinations Hurt the U.S. More Than They Help Us


Predator drone firing missile A lot of my liberal friends are bitterly disappointed with President Barack Obama's performance in the past three years. They complain that via action and inaction, he is perpetuating many of the policies of his predecessor. In one key area related to military policy, equating Obama to President George W. Bush is unfair—to Bush. Obama has proved to be far more willing than Bush to launch drone attacks in countries with which we are not at war. Just last week, a CIA-directed drone attack killed two jihadists who happened to be American citizens—Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan—in Yemen. Obama hailed the killing as "a major blow to al Qaeda's most active operational affiliate."

The U.S. military has deployed more than 7,000 unmanned airborne vehicles, or drones, security analyst P.W. Singer of the Brookings Institution reported in Scientific American last year. Drones such as the Predator, originally designed for reconnaissance, are increasingly used to kill as well as spy on targets. The Obama administration has carried out far more drone attacks than the Bush administration. The number of U.S. attacks in Pakistan alone in 2010 was 117, more than all such attacks in previous years combined, according to a report by Eric Schmitt in The New York Times last April.

A 2009 Brookings Institution report estimated that U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan had killed 10 civilians on average for every militant. The security analyst Daniel Bynam noted that "civilian deaths create dangerous political problems. Pakistan's new democratic government is already unpopular for its corruption, favoritism, and poor governance. U.S. strikes that take a civilian toll are a further blow to its legitimacy—and to U.S. efforts to build goodwill there." Drones are "a double-edged sword," former CIA official Bruce Riedel told USA Today. "It really doesn't matter how clean the strikes are," Riedel explained. "It is very hard for us to persuade Yemenis or Pakistanis that only bad guys get killed."

A 2010 United Nations report by Philip Alston, the U.N. special representative on extrajudicial executions, warned that drone attacks are "doing grave damage to the rules designed to protect the right to life and prevent extrajudicial executions." Alston added: "It is an essential requirement of international law that States using targeted killings demonstrate that they are complying with the various rules governing their use in situations of armed conflict. The greatest challenge to this principle today comes from the program operated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency...The international community does not know when and where the CIA is authorized to kill, the criteria for individuals who may be killed, how it ensures killings are legal, and what follow-up there is when civilians are illegally killed."

Administration officials, needless to say, have rejected these moral and legal concerns. Just last month, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. "has significantly increased the frequency of drone strikes and other air attacks against the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen in recent months amid rising concern about political collapse there." The Post quoted White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan declaring that the administration "does not view our authority to use military force against al Qaeda as being restricted solely to 'hot' battlefields like Afghanistan." Brennan added, "We reserve the right to take unilateral action if or when other governments are unwilling or unable to take the necessary actions themselves."

In my previous post, I argued that any benefit Americans gain by executing convicts is outweighed by the damage we do to our reputations as morally upright people. The same argument applies with even more force to remote-controlled assassinations of suspected enemies—whether or not they are American citizens—who do not even get the benefit of a trial. Our actions have practical as well as moral consequences. The Obama administration's enthusiasm for lethal drones may accelerate a global arms race that comes back to haunt Americans. In Wired for War (Penguin Press, 2009), Singer, the Brookings analyst, estimated that at least 43 nations as well as groups such as Hezbollah have deployed or are developing drones and other robotic weapons. We would be outraged if others attacked us with these weapons. But how can we expect others to adhere to the rules of law—and of common decency—when we don't?

Image: Photograph of Predator firing missile courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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