Drones: Ethics, legality and security issues

The Concordian Politics Blog

Once again Drone use overseas, and domestically, and abroad in places like Pakistan and Yemen.  The resurge of criticism stems from non-profit and non-governmental groups like Amnesty International releasing articles titled like: Will I Be Next? Amnesty International argues that drone strikes kill more innocent lives than the U.S. Government says and that drone strikes are illegal amongst other issues of legality and sovereignty. On the other hand, government leaders, like Defense Secretary Leon Panetta advocate  that support drones strikes.

The divide is understandable. From the perspective of international organizations like Amnesty International drones strikes are institutionalized killing of innocents while also representing clear violations of international law. Criticism is also being directed to other countries like Germany, which suspended a recent purchase of drones and publicly stated that drones gives Washington ‘a license to kill’. And it is certainly true, drones kill innocent people (otherwise known as non-combatants) while killing extremists and prominent extremist leaders. The biggest problem with the drone issue is the uncertainty of the body count; on one side the American Government and the Pakistani Parliament estimate the innocent body count to be 3% (or 67 casualties) of casualties since 2008, whereas other sources like the UN claim that number to be as high as 400 casualties or 17.9%.  Who can people trust as legitimate sources to verify the body count on top of the fact that most of the information about drone strikes is classified? The whole process of body counts and war statistics are, as they have always been, less than 100% and there is no reason that drone strikes will be perfectly transparent.

The problem with criticizing drones strikes is the lack of a viable alternative.  Sure, drones kill people. And yes, they probably violate a plethora of international legal norms.  But the United States, and arguably the world, has shifted the anti-terror Bush Doctrine and we cannot and will not turn back. Extremists will continue to do their work and threaten the West whether or not we use drones. Stopping drones strikes only legitimizes extremist groups as victors in the war of terror; granted the killing of innocents and violence in general boosts the legitimacy of extremist groups but nothing will destroy progress more than giving up drones will.  It is certain that any other anti-terror or counter insurgency technique, whether that is boots on the group or other missile strikes will kill the same or more civilians.

Threats and war change but how to deal with them stays the same. Leaders still have to protect their people and in the global world and the global threat of terror; the response the Presidents have taken to protect the United States is to use drones to destroy enemies within the boundaries of other states. Why repeat Iraq and Afghanistan, and possible Vietnam by invading Pakistan and Yemen to deal with extremist cells when the military can take out leaders and weaken extremists from a position of safety?

It is easy to criticize the ethics and legality of drones, but does each state not have the right to defend itself? And if that is true, does the state not have the right to defend itself against global threats? Beyond air strikes and boots on the ground, drones are equally illegal, less threatening to innocents, have less collateral damage, and protect American and Western lives. Western states will continue to take heat for their programs but will continue their drone programs. War is hell, and people will die but that is the price security demands; and until a more viable security source emerges, drones will continue to be a driving force of Western security employing the Bush Doctrine.

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  1. Taylor,

    I respectfully disagree with your essay on more or less every single point. Here’s why:

    With regard to the divergence between official civilian body counts and those of Amnesty International, there is a simple (and well known) explanation. The US government’s definition of “combatant” includes all men between ages 15 and 70. So the only people tallied as noncombatants (civilians) are women, young children, and elderly men.

    1) This highlights the first problem with drone strikes. In a war, it’s fairly easy to tell who’s your enemy, and who isn’t. Your enemy is the person shooting at you. If you’re tracking down “enemies” from thousands of feet up, it’s not so simple. Who’s a combatant? Are you a combatant if you carry a weapon? If you are a member of a militia? If you know someone who is a member of a militia? If you said something bad about the United States once?

    2) Which raises my second point. As implemented, these drone strikes are a kind of pre-crime (“Minority Report,” anyone?). We may kill people because we think maybe they might want to do something to harm us some day.

    3) Besides being in and of itself morally questionable, this fuels resentment toward the West, and is a surefire way to boost recruitment to the enemy ranks.

    Our efforts to, as you say, “destroy enemies within the boundaries of other states,” makes the War on Terror a self-fulfilling prophecy. As investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill has noted, many of the people now joining the ranks of al-Queda and similar organizations were toddlers on 9/11. They don’t know about the War on Terror. All they know is that we are bombing their neighbors and their families. Through policies like our use of drones, we’ve done a better job of demonizing ourselves than any radical cleric ever could.

    4) Can we really say that we need to go to any and all lengths to “defend ourselves” against resentful people in the poorest regions of the world? Does terrorism really pose an existential threat to Westerners?

    If you think it does, look up the statistics for terrorism-related deaths since the turn of the century, and compare them to statistics for vehicular deaths and Americans killed by other Americans with handguns. Then tell me we should stop at nothing to protect ourselves from foreign terrorists.

    5) Drones make it far too easy for us to wage war on people we’ll never have to meet. Your comparison of drones with “boots on the ground” illustrates this very point. It lowers the barrier for intervening in conflicts we don’t understand. I think the Germans understood this, and I think that was why they decided to cancel their order for drones. Once you have them, the temptation to act rashly and irresponsibly may become too severe to suppress.

    6) Finally, the notion that “Stopping drones strikes only legitimizes extremist groups as victors in the war of terror” is preposterous. First off, if we stop being the foreigners who drop bombs from the sky, it might be harder to recruit people to the cause against us (see (3)). Second, and perhaps more importantly, how, exactly, besides a Western retreat, do you reckon the War on Terror could end? Do you think we’ll win a decisive victory by stomping out every person in the world who finds us disagreeable? Is that even possible? How long would it take?

    1. Author


      On your first point, I agree. The changing nature of threats and war blur the lines between enemies and casualties. Again, the problem arises that most of the information regarding the strikes remains classified, but it is doubtful that naysayers are not among those being targeted. Certainly the threshold would be affiliation and imminent threat which are difficult to predict which continues to your second point. Preemption has always follows analogous to ‘minority report’ but against states when imminence is easy to recognize like mass mobilization at your borders. For extremists and non-state actors there is no such visual representation of imminence. As such, the nature of preemption changes and as I mentioned in my article, it changed in less than preferable ways. Of course it would be preferable to have more traditional justice systems but no such systems exist, notwithstanding the fact that traditional justice systems would have to work up hill to convict these people in foreign states and in time to prevent future attacks. The problem is that our security structures are still adapting to new threats while coping with other problems like: Presidents will do anything to not have Americans die-unmanned aircraft solve this problem and that the Pakistani will not be able to adequately deal with extremists groups in anytime soon-especially in regions like Waziristan. States will do what they can to contain chaos and prevent damage to themselves and drones provide the US a route to do so.

      I agree with your third point, killing people fuels American resentment. The problem, which I briefly touch on (alas the limitation of 600 words) is that the drone problem is a catch-22. Sure killing people fills extremist ranks, but so does victory; if the US was to give up their drone policy it would signal a spiritual defeat. The other problem is that other methods of counter insurgency like boots on the ground or other air strikes spiked recruitment in groups like Al-Qaeda. Stopping drones strikes doesn’t stop extremism and it certainly removes a surgical tool to take out leaders for groups. It only fosters time to rebuild and reorganize for these groups.

      The point of my article was to discuss how drones represent the manifestation and a point of no return for the Bush Doctrine. Of course more people die from hand guns and car crashes but that’s an entirely different subject. Leaders of extremists groups have vowed to and have killed innocent Americans-a crime not to be taken lightly. The other issue is that the globalizing world creates possibilities for extremists to use an array of weapons to hit states where they are weak. Certainly more concerted efforts towards reducing gun violence and car crashes should happen but this doesn’t preclude the fact that extremism and non-state threats are going to be the main sources of harm to the global world in the future.

      Your fifth point is right on, with unmanned weaponry the possible losses are nil, and the possible gains will almost always be greater than that. I think that more transparency and guidelines need to happen since unmanned weaponry are proliferating. But this stems back to states and self-defense, if you can potentially take out a ‘threat’ with no potential loss of countrymen/women, there is the shift of war calculus which is dangerous for the future security system.

      I disagree, I aforementioned this (and added it to the discussion on your 3rd point once I got to this point). Stopping drones strikes does not stop recruitment. We may stop dropping bombs but there will always be, or at least in the near future, hatred of both. We will never forget 9/11 and they will never forget Afghanistan and Iraq. I do not believe that either will change the other from the identity of ‘enemy’. Stopping strikes signals a spiritual defeat of the United States and a spiritual victory for the groups while also giving them time and safety to rebuild and reorganize in the safety of other borders. We have already ventured past the point of no return in the war of terror: presidents will zealously adhere to the Bush doctrine and extremists will continue to see the United States as the enemy, and the United States will see extremists as the enemy. Traditionally, when the enemies were closing in on your capital or you were running out of resources, that was the time to surrender. Extremists can get resources from anywhere in the globe and can move to anywhere; I don’t see the war on terror ending unless the idealistic goal of all states rigorously crack down on all extremist groups. And given the impossibility of that goal, I doubt that there will ever be an end to ideological warfare. I also don’t think that we will ever ‘stomp out’ every person who poses a potential threat. I agree that there is a lot of framework that needs to be done in regards to the legal and ethical issues brought up in drone use as well as much greater oversight and transparency to their use. The problem is that there isn’t a more viable mechanism to crack down on extremism. Like I said, and as you demonstrate, it is easy to criticize drones but difficult to propose viable alternatives. Other methods of counter insurgency will kill the same or more as Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate; ideally the United States could bunker down and morally tackle the issue but that creates opportunity for enemies to strike. Of course, with any radical change like that of non-state actors to the traditional security paradigm, there will have to be fine tuning (a lot in this case) but it isn’t likely that the United States will willingly give up drones until it has a viable alternative to keep itself safe.

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