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