Against Drone Strikes in Libya

I'm somewhat surprised there hasn't been more of a backlash following the Obama Administration announcement that the U.S. is now using Predator drones to hunt down Qaddafi loyalists in Libya. Which might be the point of using Predators: No Americans will be harmed in the making of this revolution, therefore, whatever Skynet-type weapon we use against Qaddafi, who cares?

Some people do care: Jim Fallows and David Ignatius care, and David Rothkopf (who came up with the Skynet analogy) cares. But it's a small group of commentators, warning about the various moral hazards that come into play when this type of weapon is deployed in a humanitarian mission. I, too, have serious doubts about the use of drones in Libya. It is one thing to hunt down Qaeda operatives in the high mountains of North Waziristan with drones -- there is no easy way to get in there, and the targets are men who are plotting terrorist attacks against the U.S. A direct national security threat might sometimes require the use of morally questionable weapons systems. But is the Qaddafi regime such a threat?

Here is what Fallows (and Ignatius) had to say on the issue:

"(W)ith the announcement... that President Obama has approved the use of Predator drones with Hellfire missiles in Libya, it is time to ask again: What happens then? David Ignatius of the Washington Post, no softie about the use of U.S. power (and, for the record, a very long-time friend of mine), spells out just now some of the "what happens then?" problems and complications of this step.
   Drone attacks have become an addictive tool of U.S. national security policy...My quick reaction, as a journalist who has chronicled the growing use of drones, is that this extension to the Libyan theater is a mistake. It brings a weapon that has become for many Muslims a symbol of the arrogance of U.S. power into a theater next door to the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the most promising events in a generation. It projects American power in the most negative possible way....

    [T]he problem with the Predators is that they provide too easy an answer to political and military problems.... And now the United States will use them to beef up a stalemated NATO campaign in Libya, on behalf of a rebel army that very well may include Islamic radicals who, under other circumstances, might themselves have been targets of Predator attack.

I don't find particularly compelling the argument that Muslims will turn against us over the issue of drones because, once again, we're dealing death invisibly from the air. Qaddafi has no friends in the Muslim world, and the people I speak with in various countries have been suggesting a "by any means necessary" approach to the problem of Qaddafi. But I agree that the drones represent a kind of a cop-out strategy. David Rothkopf had this to say about that:

The first hazard is that if war can be waged without apparent human cost to the attacker, it is clearly more likely to be undertaken. That such a strategy is really one that is primarily available to rich nations attacking poor ones only compounds the problem. But another moral hazard is that such attacks could easily become the first option of indecisive leaders, exactly as cruise missiles have also been in the recent past.  It allows such leaders to appear strong, to flex their muscles but to have very limited downside. That such approaches are really only good for limited purposes -- assassinations, destroying specific targets, adding a pyrotechnic flourish to a rhetorical argument -- is likely to be ignored or downplayed, as is already the case in Libya. The risk is that unlike nuclear weapons which actually are less likely to be used because the costs of unleashing them are so high, unmanned, over-the-horizon weapons are far more likely to be used because the costs are so low -- even when they are not likely to be terribly effective.

The deployment of drones in Libya underscores my first fear about the Libya intervention: That we're seeking regime change without acknowledging our desire for regime change, and without acting in a way that would bring about regime change, just stalemate. A stalemate that will not be brought to an end by the use of drones.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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