The Obama administration opened up significantly this summer about its efforts to kill suspected terrorists outside what it calls “areas of active hostilities,” like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. It released information on the number of civilians accidentally killed in drone strikes and unveiled its framework for making targeting decisions. Coming in the waning days of the administration, these measures presumably represent the president’s last major maneuver in his efforts to defend a program that will help define his legacy—and that his successor will inherit.
The administration’s defense of the program has largely focused on its legality. Top government lawyers have repeatedly made the case that in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, the program not only meets but exceeds the legal constraints on targeting those the Obama administration deems threats. But is Obama’s drone war moral?
There are two parts to this question: First, can targeted killings outside of conflict zones ever be justified? Second, is the structure that Obama has put in place over the years actually upholding those standards? The answer to the first question, according to philosophers of war, is yes, and the standards for “moral” killing allow for more civilian casualties than one might expect. The answer to the second question is harder. The intense secrecy surrounding the program not only makes it difficult for outsiders to assess the morality of targeted killings, it means the government is failing to uphold its basic moral duties to the public and the people it is targeting.