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).

Drones are, however, a synecdoche for a bigger issue: the very counterterrorism mission undertaken after the September 11th attacks, of which drones are just one part. Accountability is a major concern that Singer is correct to raise. In the 1990s, the use of cruise missiles and air-launched precision weapons created a lot of concern for how they'd be employed. President Clinton famously hesitated before launching a cruise missile attack on an Al Qaeda camp near Khost, in eastern Afghanistan, in 1998. His concern was over civilian casualties -- U.S. intelligence about the base wasn't good enough to know for certain that no civilians would be harmed. Because of that delay, Osama bin Laden escaped the missiles.

In 2012, however, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Now, there seem to be relatively few restrictions on the use of drones and other forms of remotely-delivered death -- both because the 2001 AUMF allows it and because norms have shifted. While there remains a heated and somewhat opaque discussion over program administration (thanks to the many intersecting layers of control and reporting built into the drone system), the bigger question is not whether drones are good or bad, but whether we should be asserting the right to summarily execute people anywhere on the planet.

But even while we contemplate the expansion of drones, we should keep in mind that drones are not operating on their own. They require lots of people to make them effective, not just back in the piloting booths in the U.S. but also in the countries where they're deployed. In Yemen, there are estimates that the number of U.S. troops on the ground (working under JSOC) is in the 300 to 500 range. Some of them train Yemeni counterterrorism forces and some of them go after terrorists. The CIA, for its part, built up a 3,000-man militia to target militants in northwest Pakistan.

There are many more countries where Special Forces and Special Operations Forces are conducting either lethal operations or training local proxies to carry out lethal operations than there are places where American drones orbit overhead dealing out missile death from the skies. The global counterterrorism mission is far bigger than these drones, and it poses moral conundrums far larger than whether or not it is okay to have a robot holding the weapon when a person pulls the trigger.

The debate over drones needs to be raised by several levels of analysis to focus on the social, political, and bureaucratic environment that allows for drones. Doing so will reveal a far larger enterprise, with far less oversight, than a single program carrying out a narrow portion of the counterterrorism campaign. It is only at that level that we can begin to properly frame the moral and ethical questions of carrying out such a mission.