Best Defense

Are the strategic costs of Obama’s drone policy greater than the short-term gains?

By Joseph Singh Best Defense department of remote-controlled warfare The international laws governing the use of force are fundamentally outdated, reflecting a lost age of acutely-defined zones of war and peace, according to a speaker at this week’s panel discussion on armed drones and targeted killing. Hosted by the German Marshall fund, the event was ...

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By Joseph Singh

Best Defense department of remote-controlled warfare

The international laws governing the use of force are fundamentally outdated, reflecting a lost age of acutely-defined zones of war and peace, according to a speaker at this week’s panel discussion on armed drones and targeted killing. Hosted by the German Marshall fund, the event was run under Chatham House rules, thus none of the speakers will be identified in this post.

While both panelists supported a convention governing drone usage, there are convincing reasons to suspect that new international laws enacted to reflect a changing global environment will remain wholly ineffective. Any legal framework governing drone use will confront the perennial challenge of state behavior in an anarchic system: Irrespective of the international laws and norms in place, states will disregard codes of conduct if they perceive them to be contrary to their national interests.

We know that current international rules technically prohibit targeted killings, just as the U.N. charter prohibits war. Even the federal government imposes its own ban on assassinations. Issued by President Reagan, Executive Order 12333 strictly prohibits target killings, asserting that "no person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination."

However, the expansion of drone use under the Obama administration does not result from a murky international laws. It simply proves that a new legal framework will fail to chart new norms on future drone use. Give a lawyer the task of justifying any policy "and he will find the legal regime," said one of the panelists.

The debate over the use of drones has often been misconstrued as a debate on the ethics, legality and unintended consequences of using remotely piloted vehicles to engage hostiles abroad. Yet drones have been used by nations for decades and their specific technological attributes should not be the focus of debate. Instead, killing by drone speaks to a larger question of defining the conditions under which nations should deploy such force.

Panelists noted that in Afghanistan, ISAF has been very effective at using drones as part of the larger military campaign. Strict rules govern the use of drones under ISAF command. Under no conditions, for example, are drones used to attack buildings, given the possibility that unidentified civilians may be inside. Such rigidity results not solely from a belief in abiding by the rules of war, but from a conviction that any civilian deaths threaten greater instability. In the hinterlands of Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, where ground troops are unable to help vet potential targets or engage with local populations to redress errors, drones have struck more fear and resentment in local populations than confidence, one panelist concluded.

One panelist said that new norms governing drone use are necessary to ensure the security of America and her closest allies. I am not so sure. U.S. drone activities could hypothetically be used to justify targeting American civilians by hostile states, but America’s military dominance should always deter such behavior. Instead, limits on the drone program are necessary for America’s strategy in the Middle East, in order to rectify the long-term trend towards radicalization that is seeded by short-term gains in targeted killing.

In a post-Afghanistan and post-Iraq world, the use of drones speaks to a wider unwillingness to use large-scale, high-risk military force to project American power abroad, as both panelists noted. Drone technology allows the president to remain active in the fight against terrorism without having to make unpopular and costlier "boots on the ground" commitments. Ultimately, however, the Obama administration must confront the difficult truth that what is a useful tactic in a broader military campaign cannot be substituted for an overall strategy.

While targeted killings constitute a centuries-old practice in international relations, the rapid rise in drone strikes raises important questions for the Obama administration. Are the strategic gains achieved through drone deployment sustainable given rising public outcry over targeted killings in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen? Can targeted killing programs co-exist with efforts to help support good governance, when those programs are perceived to undermine U.S. credibility? Will those nations continue to tacitly permit the U.S. to operate drones in their airspace when their public condemnations prove insufficient for satisfying domestic audiences?

In the near term, targeted killing has crippled Al Qaeda’s leadership, and may serve as an immediate deterrent to future recruits. Yet a whack-a-mole approach to confronting the world’s largest terrorist network should not be considered an effective long-term strategy. Incentives to change these norms will only follow an honest assessment of the long-term strategic benefits and drawbacks of an expansive use of drones.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1
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