Troubling questions about Obama’s drone warfare

REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt
Undated handout image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force showing a MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft.

My last post argued that, in the wake of his election victory and on the eve of his second term, President Obama stands at what could be his “Truman moment” as a “post war” president. More than a decade of war consumed the two terms of the Bush administration and Obama’s first term. He now faces an historic opportunity to articulate the doctrine and design the framework for an imperfect but lasting peace.

The post stirred up quite of reaction of a number of you. Some readers trashed my interpretation of the past and the present. One reader remembered that long, long ago, I was an aspiring poet and pacifist.

Several readers took me to task for not mentioning Obama’s third war. He has withdrawn from one conventional war in Iraq and promised to complete the withdrawal from the second — the war in Afghanistan — by the end of 2014. He is not relenting from a third, highly unconventional war: U.S. drone warfare against suspected terrorist targets in the Middle East and South Asia.

The drone warfare campaign threatens to cost the president much of his political capital abroad. Last week, the PEW Global Attitudes Project released a report with mixed news for Obama. The good news confirmed that world public opinion cheered Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney in the election. The bad news lay in the increasing and widespread disapproval of his foreign policy in general, and especially his use of drone attacks.

World criticism

Criticism of Obama’s drone warfare campaign stands at 80 percent in Egypt, Turkey and Jordan; 75 percent in Spain and Japan; 63 percent in France, and 59 percent in Germany. His personal popularity gives Obama valuable political capital abroad that he should spend wisely to build support for his diplomatic initiatives, especially in the Middle East, and not waste it to vindicate drone warfare that generates more enemies than it kills.

Our recent presidential campaign largely ignored a serious discussion by Obama or Romney on foreign policy. Drone warfare was a point of agreement between them. In the third and final presidential debate, Romney replied to CBS News’ Bob Schieffer’s question about drone warfare as if he was cheering for Obama.  “I support that entirely,” Romney replied when asked about the president’s increased use of drone attacks.

Romney was realistically acknowledging that public opinion polls indicate that 62 percent those polled in the United States (including 74 percent of Republicans) approve of drone warfare.

Romney’s enthusiasm for Obama’s drone warfare left many on the left scrambling to put some distance between Obama and Romney on the issue. Blogging live during the debate on The Dish, Andrew Sullivan drew the line between Obama and Romney by asking:  “You think Romney would be as scrupulous in drone warfare as Obama?” A bad choice of an adjective, “scrupulous” is a poor characterization for the dramatic increase in drone attacks on Obama’s watch.

Writing in The New York Times last week, Scott Shane reported that the possibility of a Romney victory had prompted the Obama administration in the weeks preceding the election to hasten its efforts to develop clear and strict guidelines for drone warfare.

In 2002, the Bush administration implemented the first targeted killing by an unmanned drone. Under the first Obama administration, drone deployments expanded to over 300 strikes conducted and 2,500 killed. The casualties include four U.S. citizens.

Within the Obama administration, the policy has pitted the Defense Department and CIA, advocating for wider leeway, against the Justice Department and State Department, arguing for restraint. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed lawsuits. Next year, the U.N. may start an investigation.

Key issues

Our policy on drone warfare stands or falls on the answers to three questions. The first – the question of legality — was asked and answered a decade ago without any public discussion. Bush established the legal precedent that Obama inherited. The United States, the administrations argue, is at war with terrorists and has the legal right to defend itself by striking at Al Qaeda and its allies wherever they are found.

We now face a second question. There are hints that the public may be invited to this discussion. As implied by Shane’s reporting, White House sources are discussing the issue with The New York Times. Obama has discretely raised the issue in interviews on CNN and “The Daily Show.”

Eric Schwartz, dean of the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota and longtime veteran of the State Department, has given the second question considerable thought. Last Friday, I had the pleasure of joining Schwartz for a discussion of foreign policy on MPR’s “Friday Roundtable.”

The second question involves, according to Schwartz, how “extensive” is the use of drone strikes, are the drone strikes “sufficiently discriminate” and is the United States “targeting carefully enough” to assure against the killing of innocent civilians?

Unfortunately, the third question is not when we will bring an end to drone warfare. Obama’s third war built the architecture of unmanned, remote drone attacks without judicial or legislative oversight, expanded its use beyond Afghanistan to Pakistan and Yemen, and presided over the expansion of drones into the arsenals of Britain, France, Israel and Iran. In the United States, we (or at least 62 percent of us) have approved. The “war on terrorism” may be coming to an end, but drone warfare is expanding.

The third question, therefore, is: Will drone warfare be the long-term legacy of the “war on terrorism”?

World War II left us the legacy of the “A-bomb” and the inevitability of a nuclear arms race. The “war on terrorism” has left us a mode of war exercised without legal safeguards, transparency, accountability or legislative oversight. What is more, the technology of drone warfare is far easier for other countries to obtain than the resources to build nuclear weapons.

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 12/03/2012 - 10:30 am.

    “…wherever they are found”

    What this column lacks is a clear statement that the U.S., by its drone policy, asserts sovereignty over the territory of any and all other nations. Our country has clearly stated that it will send its drones across any international borders, “wherever they are found” if we feel the pursuit of some terrorist or other is justified.

    The questions posed above about drone warfare, i.e., how “extensive”, “discriminate” and whether used “carefully enough” are not the real questions to be asked, or at least not until prior questions are answered, namely,

    – Who, exactly, is a terrorist – and who is not ?

    – Whose point of view will make the determination of identity of a terrorist ?

    – If we are entitled to send our military devices across the borders of other sovereign nations, do we really recognize their sovereignty at all ? Are we prepared to recognize the validity of the exact same behaviors by other nations ?

    – Finally, drones in the air are surely just the beginning in terms of unmanned weapons. Is there any reason our military will see to pause development here, before proceeding to develop further unmanned weapons ? Do we really want to go there ?

  2. Submitted by Jeff Kline on 12/03/2012 - 10:44 am.

    Not addressing…

    We have not even yet touched on the reasons of needing these drones on US soil. What do they expect to do with them and discover by using the drones in US cities and municipalities. Who and what are they looking for??

    Oh; and make no mistake about it, There are “armed” drones being used; with operators behind them at all times ready to hit a button and fire..

  3. Submitted by Dave Okar on 12/03/2012 - 11:12 am.

    Asymmetric Warfare

    The US takes on people armed with home-made bombs with unmanned drones – then complains about the “terrorists” employing asymmetric warfare.

    What will happen when another nation decides that they also have the right to fly assassin drones into the US and starts picking off our politicians?

    Like landmines – these weapons should be banned by international decree.

    • Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/04/2012 - 06:51 am.

      The Predator drone is the closest thing to a silver bullet in the War on Terrorism.

      It has decimated Al Qaeda leadership. And more importantly it is a psychological tool which keeps them paranoid, sleepless, uncertain, off balance, in hiding, fearful in daylight and dreading the night.

      If Terrorism is asymmetrical warfare to confound and defeat an army. Drone attacks are asymmetrical weapons to confound and eliminate leadership.

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 12/04/2012 - 02:31 pm.

        “…a psychological tool…”

        …when turned against our own domestic populace, could product the same “… paranoid, sleepless, uncertain, off balance, in hiding, fearful in daylight and dreading the night.” world that you praise for its impact on Al Qaeda.

        BTW, now that Al Qaeda and its leadership is decimated, apparently down to about 200 or so in Afghanistan, is it not necessary to come up with new excuses, new targets for the drones ?? Al Qaeda simply won’t do anymore.

        The current use of the drones is not about Al Qaeda at all, at least not anymore. It’s become about searching for new targets to exercise these machines.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/03/2012 - 11:28 am.

    The technology is within reach of virtually every government in the world. What will be the reaction if China sends drones over Tibet? How about Russia over Georgia? How about Spain over Basque region?

    On and on…

    A very largo can of worms was opened with little oversight and few questions with the initiation of the GWOT.

    Patriotism, constitutional conservatism, and national sovereignty were all subsumed into the black hole of “security at any cost”. So we now have the absurd situation of one party that is frothing about the creeping socialism of a national approach to health care, but yet has not not one word about the fascist stain of extraordinary renditions, indefinite detention, torture, black sites, blanket recording of virtually every digital communication in the US by the NSA, unilateral, unlitigated and uncontested death sentences from thousands of miles away. Meanwhile, the other party sits in uncomfortable silence and hopes for the best.

    But hey, we’re still able to eat Cheetos and watch football.

    It has always worked this way. Extraordinary measures are taken in response to extraordinary events, and no-one really cares because the trains still run on time. Great evils rise in response to banal desires.

    We worried in retrospect about JE Hoover’s file cabinets of 3×5 cards of secrets. We should worry more now.

  5. Submitted by David Frenkel on 12/03/2012 - 11:30 am.

    complicated topic

    Drones, or more correctly UAS (unmanned aerial systems) are now being used by an estimated 74 nations. The US DOD because of budgetary issues is scaling back on the development of new systems while the CIA is probably ramping up. The FAA is under pressure to let law enforcement use UAS in the US but the FAA has serious concerns about crash avoidance systems on UAS. The concept of unmanned vehicles is expanding within the DOD to vehicles, aircraft and navy ships/subs. The biggest military adversaries of the US are China and Russia who would have no problem shooting down these slow moving UAS. UAS have worked extremely well against countries where we have complete air superiority, probably not as well against a country with an air force or groud to air rockets.
    The well held secret of these UAS is how often they crash. It is estimated they crash as often as another military aircraft which is scary considering the track record of aircraft like the Ospry.

  6. Submitted by James Hamilton on 12/03/2012 - 03:57 pm.

    If you oppose the use of drones,

    what do you propose as alternatives?

    This is not a rhetorical question.

    We’ve seen the result when other nations are asked to take action agains those within their borders who mount actions against the U.S.

    We’ve used missile strikes.

    We’ve tried “boots on the ground”.

    We could always hire the Israelis for their expertise in assassination.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 12/03/2012 - 09:29 pm.

      Alternatives to drones ?? Or alternatives to violating…

      …the sovereignty of other nations ??

      • Submitted by James Hamilton on 12/04/2012 - 11:37 am.

        Take your pick.

        My question related to the use of drones, but certainly implicates sovereignty.

        On the issue of sovereignty, what would you have had the U.S. do with respect to Osama bin Laden, ask Pakistan to arrest and deport him? It pretty clearly had no interest in doing so or in impeding his activities in any way. At what point does refusal to act for another’s protection become an act of war?

        • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 12/04/2012 - 02:37 pm.

          At NO point is refraining from doing U.S. bidding an act of war.

          But we have become so accustomed to calling the shots in our drunken arrogance of power, we start asking questions like this.

          At some not-so-far-future time, the shoe is going to be on the other foot. Is it really in our interest to set precedents such as we are now setting with respect to our relation to nations – i.e., imperious, violent, openly threatening their sovereignty ??

    • Submitted by Tom Genrich on 12/05/2012 - 12:50 pm.

      Yours is a cost benefit analysis that ignores the cost

      No doubt there are some pretty elusive targets out there who have evaded and will continue to evade death by drone. A battlefield nuke would be a surer way to take out those targets than a drone. Certainly that would appeal to your “a more effective tactic where others have failed” rationale of tactic selection.

      But likely you’d recognize and acknowledge a host of short and long term costs of a “death by nuke” anti-terrorism strategy. And likely you’d reject that strategy on the weight of those costs . That is, you’d do the cost benefit analysis of a “death by nuke” anti-terrorism strategy and conclude (rightly, of course) that the costs would outweigh the benefits of that policy.

      Have you performed a similar cost benefit analysis on our “death by drone” anti-terrorism policy? You’ve filled in a portion of the benefit side of the ledger. But the benefit side alone cannot carry the argument. That is, yielding on your “drones are an effective killing method” point doesn’t require that one affirm a “death by drone” policy. Because after filling in the costs side of the ledger, one might conclude that, one the whole, the debits exceed the credits – i.e. that all policy benefits AND costs considered, just as our national security interests are better served if we reject a “death by nuke” anti-terrorism strategy, so too are our national security interests better served if we reject a “death by drone” terrorist policy. Even if that means there are more terrorists running around in the short or even long term.

  7. Submitted by Stan Hooper on 12/03/2012 - 09:29 pm.


    Two comments regarding the esteemed Dr. Hayes’ comments. First, there was a time when it was considered inappropriate to stop using horses in warfare (tanks eventually replaced them), with the French most aggrieved at the loss of that military strategy. Now we face the use of drones in warfare and are concerned that it is not to be used to replace older, comfortable methods of making war.

    Second, It would seem that the argument about killing the innocent civilians is not something that we have managed successfully in the past: civilians are and have often been the ancillary casualties in war. With the drones’ more accurate attack modes, it would seem that fewer innocent civilian casualties will result, albeit not perfectly. Yet, we’re even farther from perfect with our more conventional, historical modes of warfare.

    That, for me, leaves only one more comment: when it is time for war, we ought to be extraordinarily clear about why we make such heinous decisions, and know exactly why we are intent on going to war, what purposes it has, what justification there is for the decision, what we’re getting into, whether the accusations against the “enemy” have accuracy, whether we picked the real enemy, what it’s going to take to get the job done, and much more. We haven’t been very good at doing that in our recent past, either.

  8. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/04/2012 - 06:49 am.

    It may take longer than the

    It may take longer than the visionaries think, but the pilot in the cockpit is already an endangered species.

  9. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 12/04/2012 - 10:05 am.

    Totally unacceptable…there will be consequences

    Drone is a simple name to a form of aircraft with so many possibilities in a society trying to survive its own creative endeavors. In order to gain power beyond borders; borders as in nations great and small. Borders as in spy craft international national, domestic.

    Drones beget clones and the race is on…and then come traffic control?

    We need to define these birds-of-prey by what other name? Heavens above, they will they will soon be multiplying and what will China or Iran or Canada call their copy-cat models?

    Other birds of prey:
    Owls are called “a parliament of…” when they evolve and multiply. Ravens, “An unkindness of…”

    Our new ‘bird’ needs a distinct name as it grows and multiplies…even the crow becomes a ‘murder’ of crows. That has possibilities but whatever, give them dignity of title in their multiplying madness…as a murder of drones flies beyond our vision and traffic problems rising?

    Consider if a ‘watch’ of drones meets a ‘murder’ of drones and a congregation’ of drones collide as more drones clone themselves with questionable intentions…who will survive?

    We need a board game to play out as time evolves into overt ‘droniness’ and a plague of drones awaits us. Give it a better name. Ask the poets.

    Who initially called them drones… and as they reproduce beyond our control – there already I assume – boomerangs will soon be coming back to haunt us. Ours and theirs now.

    From surveillance to dehumanized warfare…to domestic use in industry, targeting lost humans as positive watch dogging or for penetrating our privacy for whose sake; what purposes?

    A parliament of owls, a watchdog of nightingales. A cover of coots. A kettle of hawks, a dole of doves and here’s a cute one…a congregation of plovers or a deceit of lapwings? A gaggle of geese.

    Ignore”fleet, flight, parcel” etc….when drones embrace and cover the skies all intent on spying and killing and competing like courier control freaks…call them anything; something better? Call them a congregation, a conflagration, a curse of courier clones? The race is on.

    The world-is-watching..totally unacceptable…there-will-be-consequences?

    Footnote; If a predator drone meets a domestic drone searching for a lost child in the north woods, will predator reprogram its mission to save a lost child?
    That will be the day. Primary mission accomplished,roger over and out…

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