In May, as an intervention that was slated to last “days, not weeks” approached its third month, President Obama quietly authorized the use of unmanned Predator drones against Libyan government troops. This news was greeted with indifference by the American press and public, suggesting that many Americans have stopped asking questions about how the costly, deadly, unpredictable wars their government regularly leaps into are waged.
Apparently, it is no longer a notable event when heavily armed, remote-controlled planes hover over and occasionally fire missiles at targets in the Third World — unless your village is among those in the crosshairs. But Americans could benefit from a vigorous public debate about the ethics of drone warfare.
The United States introduced drone warfare to the world in 2002, when the first armed drones appeared in the skies above central Asia, targeting Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters as part of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the war’s “covert” counterpart in Pakistan. The drones are remotely piloted aircraft that can hover for up to 24 hours without refueling, circling around potential targets until the pilot — often a young American sitting safely in a simulator in Nevada — pulls the trigger to strike.
Though they have been with us for several years, the drones still seem unreal, as though they were lifted out of the pages of a science fiction novel. This sense of unreality was bolstered by several years of denial by U.S. and Pakistani officials that the drone campaign in Pakistan even existed.
Rather than wrestle publicly with the difficult questions posed by the U.S.’s deployment of the drones over Pakistan — questions related to Pakistan’s sovereignty and Pakistanis’ overwhelming opposition to use of the drones, and questions about how the new technology fits into ethical and legal frameworks of war — policymakers found it easier to simply lie and pretend that the drone attacks were not happening at all.
The American public has so far allowed this silence to continue. Few have questioned the ethics and legality of drone warfare, and there has been little public debate about the drones. Drone attacks began under President Bush, but they have been significantly expanded under President Obama. In addition to using drones in Libya, Obama has also increased drone attacks in Yemen and even lent unarmed drones to the Mexican government for surveillance purposes in their fight against drug cartels.
Presidents Bush and Obama have seen drones as a tempting way to target adversaries without putting American soldiers at risk or going through the headaches of nation-building and legal process. But in the long run, it is rarely in any country’s interest to brush aside concerns about the ethics and justice of their conduct in war.
If China or Russia were to deploy drones against adversaries (domestic or foreign), American policymakers would undoubtedly express outrage and consider such behavior a major threat to global security. But every U.S. drone strike further normalizes and legitimizes the use of drones, making it almost inevitable that other countries will adopt the practice to pursue their own foreign policy goals. Some of these goals, no doubt, will run counter to U.S. interests and preferences.
There are situations in which drone strikes may be the most efficacious method of meeting a vital national security goal. But in the Libya war, there is not only no vital U.S. security goal at stake, but also no apparent security-related goal at all. The very expediency of drones makes it all too tempting for governments to use them frequently and carelessly, brushing aside the ethical questions they raise and ignoring the long-term security consequences their use could entail.