More Than Just Drones: The Moral Dilemma of Covert Warfare

It's easy and maybe right to decry their use, but drones are just a tool in larger effort.

Drone Jan23 P.jpg

US Air Force handout image of a Predator drone / Reuters

Peter Singer, a Brookings scholar who has written extensively on robotics in warfare, has posed a fascinating question in the New York Times: Do Drones Undermine Democracy?

In America, our Constitution explicitly divided the president's role as commander in chief in war from Congress's role in declaring war. Yet these links and this division of labor are now under siege as a result of a technology that our founding fathers never could have imagined.

But drones are just a tool, and the real moral costs come not because they exist, but because we use them.Singer writes that President Obama is asserting a unique, new authority to use drones to kill people. However, the president is asserting the right to summarily execute people around the world in part because Congress authorized him to do so. The Authorized Use of Military Force, or AUMF, of September 18, 2001, is worded so broadly as to allow lethal operations anywhere on the planet:

(a) IN GENERAL - That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

In other words, we should be criticizing Congress, not remote-controlled airplanes, for limitless militarism. Congress ceding all authority on lethal operations to the president is indeed a grave threat to democracy, but drones are only one tool the president uses to kill people. The bigger problem is that he was given the authority to do that.

But what of the bigger issues related to the proliferation of the use of drones? This has come up in discussion before, but it's worth exploring more. Singer writes, "The strongest appeal of unmanned systems is that we don't have to send someone's son or daughter into harm's way," but he's missing another, and potentially much larger, factor in why we use drones: politics. In places like Yemen, drones are used because of political expediency on the part of the Yemeni government. The Yemenis leaders don't want troops there, but they still want to kill off al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula types (not to mention collect counterterrorism training and financing along the way). So drones are a good half-step: still lethal, but without the domestic political costs of deploying U.S. general forces to the region.

Drones cannot operate without a substantial ground presence nearby (the CIA is known to have built one such base for Yemen), which means that real people are in fact in harm's way, although they are certainly less vulnerable than combat troops. Tracking teams cannot assemble a targeting package with only remote sources -- there has to be some kind of ground presence in the country to identify people to kill.

Our current concerns over drones as a weapons system are in fact quite old. When airpower was becoming dominant, writer Dan Trombly notes, the objections to utilizing it were that it was cowardly, too remote, and too removed from scrutiny or certainty to be effective. As now, we faces similar moral dilemmas over the transition to precision weaponry, cruise missiles, and advanced naval weaponry.

Concerns that drones make war more likely are also not new. Congress passed the AUMF before today's arsenal of drones existed; President George W. Bush invaded Iraq and Afghanistan without thousands of drones firing Hellfire missiles at fleeing terrorists. Drones did not make the country more or less likely to go to war. Adam Elkus, an editor at Red Team Journal, draws an explicit comparison between these worries and HG Wells' concerns about strategic bombing. While drones might make some courses of action appear to have lower costs than other methods of striking a target, that doesn't necessarily mean that war is therefore of a lower political costs to leaders (and isn't really the case anyway).

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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