Can We Wage a Just Drone War?

The New York Times devoted considerable space last Sunday to a story called, "The Moral Case for Drones," which argued that lethal "offer marked moral advantages over almost any tool of warfare." We reached out to a political scientist Daniel R. Brunstetter, whom the piece quoted as a critic of the nation's drone policies, to offer a full rebuttal.



Drones have been an increasingly important fixture in foreign affairs, but not without controversy. Military and intelligence personnel, robotics experts, and some academic have argued they remove the risk to U.S. personnel. Moreover, their ability to undertake limited, pinprick, covert strikes significantly reduces civilian casualties compared to other weapons platforms, as well as the costs and risks of waging a larger war to curtail the terrorist threat, thus leading to what the Obama administration sees as a more humane type of war. Among the critics, some legal experts challenge the legality of CIA-controlled drones to undertake targeted killings across sovereign borders, while journalists and human rights organizations have brought to light concerns about the efficacy of CIA-drones in avoiding civilian casualties and the impact purported civilian deaths have on fueling terrorist recruitment. Finally, other scholars, myself included, have begun to examine the extent to which the lack of transparent decision making processes related to the never-so-secret CIA-led drone operations might lead to unjust uses of force or undermine democracy.

In response to this public debate, the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, John Brennan, gave a speech in April 2012 officially recognizing, for the first time, the administration's use of drones to undertake targeted killings. Brennan defended them as legal under domestic and international law, ethical according to the standards of war, wise because they limit risk to U.S. personnel and foreign civilians, and subject to a complex and thorough review process. He identifies the advantages drones as helping the U.S. to satisfy the "principle of humanity", which "requires us to use weapons that will not inflict unnecessary suffering." The problem is that accepting drones as a default strategy to be used almost anywhere relegates other alternative to the backburner, and in turn, may undermine the prospects for a just peace in the long run. Indeed, Brennan's speech has done little to calm the waters, and the controversy surrounding drones remains rife.

Even though the threat posed by Al Qaeda must be recognized, as must the truth that U.S. leaders and officials face difficult dilemmas when thinking about whether to employ drones (or any use of force), important concerns remain regarding the standards described by Brennan. Notwithstanding possible objections that drones are, in fact, legal and wise, I want to focus here on the ethical and procedural justifications outlined in Brennan's speech, and raise two key questions: Are lethal drone strikes a last resort, that is to say, have all feasible alternatives really been exhausted? Can the use of drones lead to a lasting and just peace?

Working through the answers highlights serious discrepancies regarding the Obama administrations' use of drones and the justifications laid out in Brennan's speech, which is cause for serious concern. My fear is that the Obama administration has become so seduced by the advantages of drones - to keep U.S. soldiers out of harm's way, to limit (but not eliminate) non-combatant casualties, to deny Al-Qaeda safe havens - such that, de facto, the administration now acts as if the threshold of last resort no longer applies to drone strikes. The current drone policy thus challenges the notion of 'just war' President Obama outlined in his 2009 Nobel Prize Speech.

Obama, the Bush Doctrine, and the Notion of 'Last Resort'



Drones are not simply a moral issue. Like debating the legitimacy of air strikes, ground invasion or cruise missile strikes, deliberating on the use of drones is a use of force question. To the extent that their use is supposed to follow the moral standards of war, the first question we have to ask ourselves is: under what conditions is their lethal use legitimate? To gain purchase on the ethical dilemmas posed by drones, one needs, first, to know the moral and historical context during which the use the drones emerged as the weapon of choice of President Obama. This is linked to a partial transition away from the Bush Doctrine.

Early in his presidential campaign in 2008, Obama stated he wanted to repudiate the "mind-set that got us into [the Iraq] war in the first place." That mind-set included Bush's willingness to snub allies, such as France and Germany, and undertake a pre-emptive war, or what is sometimes now distinguished as preventive war, against Iraq in the name of self-defence. Obama's rhetoric thus sounded a more cautious tone that emphasized the importance of last resort and multilateralism.

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 2009, Obama referenced the importance of the just war tradition in guiding the use of force: "And over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers and clerics and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war. The concept of a 'just war' emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort and in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence." The 2010 National Security Strategy - the document that outlines the foreign policy threats facing the U.S. and how the administration plans to deal with them - echoes this cautious war philosophy. The language of pre-emptive war that predominated Bush's national Security Strategy of 2002 and 2006 was removed, and a more cautious language that echoed the notion of last resort was employed: "While the use of force is sometimes necessary, we will exhaust other options before war whenever we can, and carefully weigh the costs and risks of inaction." The document goes on to emphasize the importance of using force in ways that "reflects our values and strengthens our legitimacy" and stresses the need for "broad international support."

Presented by

Daniel R. Brunstetter is a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, where he teaches political theory. His areas of research include just war theory, early modern political thought, and the historical roots of how we think about diversity in society.

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