Last week the Oxford Union debated the motion 'This House Believes Drone Warfare is Ethical and Effective'.
Speaking for the proposition were Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; Kenneth Anderson, law professor at the American University, and journalist and author David Aaronovitch. Opposing the motion were Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK; Naureen Shah of the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, and Jeremy Waldron, legal and political theorist of Oxford and NYU.
Hasan Dindjer makes the case for the opposition.
President Obama first entered the White House promising to end the worst excesses of George W. Bush's War on Terror. He rightly condemned extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention without trial and torture as deplorable and counter-productive. But his own administration promptly began its radical expansion of a drone programme which had been only embryonic under his predecessor. Missiles fired from drones have now killed at least several hundred civilians and have seriously injured many more, predominantly in Pakistan and Yemen. The targets of these strikes are decided upon in secret meetings between the President and his advisors. Accountability is limited in the extreme. Whilst an outline of the administration's legal position is now trickling out, many fundamental questions about the practical operation of this new form of warfare remain shrouded in a mist of euphemism and obfuscation. For those of us who had hoped, optimistically and naïvely, that Mr Obama's counter-terrorism policy would be more thoughtful and more respecting of human rights, the normalisation of drone use has been bitterly disappointing.
Still, there are many who defend the use of drones. Some defenders wish to narrow the debate so that it's not about how drones are in fact used. Benjamin Wittes argued that if there were any circumstances in which it would be justifiable to use drones, this was enough to conclude that they were an ethical and effective platform. Reducing the debate to such a narrow and weak proposition, however, risks distracting us from the more important task of assessing drone killings as an actual instrument of (predominantly) American foreign policy. That there is some conceivable use for a weapon does not mean that its systematic use in particular countries is a good idea.
Wittes and Kenneth Anderson also relied on a related argumentative strategy: claiming that drones are defensible because they are more precise than other technologies. But this is premised on the notion that the efficacy and morality of drone strikes should be judged against an imagined alternative world in which tomahawk missiles and aerial bombardment are used across Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia instead. Few opponents of drones realised they had signed up for that. In any case, it is doubtful whether these other weapons would be used given that, as proponents of drones themselves accept, drones make it politically and militarily feasible to use force where it would not be otherwise. Anderson suggested that having more military options could only be a good thing - a view that would only convince someone who already accepted that the US tends to put its drone fleet towards good ends.
So the pertinent question is whether drone warfare as actually conducted can be justified. First, it's important to try to appreciate the devastation drones cause. For the many thousands who live in targeted regions, a Reaper or Predator could be flying up above at any point, day or night. There is a constant possibility of being killed, and people are understandably afraid to leave their homes. Psychological trauma is widespread.
The Obama administration has said repeatedly that the number of civilians killed is in the single digits. This is an egregious falsehood, arrived at by presumptively classifying all military-aged males in a strike zone as 'militants' (a vague term, repeated constantly in the media, which corresponds to no obvious legal classification). The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, generally regarded as the most accurate source of drone casualty figures, estimates that the number of civilians killed may be as high as about 1,000 and is at least several hundred. That figure includes close to 200 children.
The wrong people get killed because the drone programme is systemically flawed. The CIA relies on paying on-the-ground informants who are unreliable: they are known to identify the wrong people to earn their fee, which is a safer bet than correctly identifying a member of a terrorist organisation and risking reprisals. The US conducts 'signature strikes' which target 'patterns of behaviour', not specified individuals. This seems to have led to strikes on weddings and other innocent gatherings and there is alarming evidence of attacks on rescuers. In general, as Chris Cole explained, drone warfare becomes - has become - normalised. The consequence, at a strategic level, is that there is a greater willingness to kill those who do not pose an imminent threat, whose identity is unknown, or who could instead be captured. At a micro level, perhaps because drone pilots are unusually detached and removed from the violence they inflict, there are worrying signs of over-zealous use of fire-power. And if, bearing all this in mind, one is still confident in the US's ability to pick out only the most dangerous terrorists, it is worth recalling its record in Guantánamo: it claimed to have detained the "worst of the worst", then released hundreds without charge.
David Aaronovitch argued that despite the harm done by drones, what matters is that by killing those at the top they help neutralise the terrorist threat. Yet, as James Cartwright, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recognised at a recent Senate committee hearing, killing the leaders of such groups is "of little value" because new recruits simply come up to fill the ranks. The drone strikes themselves now constitute the most potent propaganda tool for jihadists, and so long as they continue there will be no shortage of those willing to risk their lives in plotting attacks and taking up arms against the US. Moreover, as Naureen Shah pointed out, terrorists have been able to move around Pakistan itself, away from drones and into cities, where they continue to plan and inflict violence. Over the long term, drone strikes do not solve but rather exacerbate the threat of terrorism, and they destabilise and delegitimise state institutions in the nations in which they occur.
Jeremy Waldron was right to press the point that drones should not be assessed in isolation. To accept drone warfare is to accept the practices that will tend to surround it: the secret death lists, the concentration of unchecked executive power, the gradual expansion in the range of targets. The use of drones over the last few years has been immensely damaging. What opponents of drone warfare must now seek to do is ensure that this dark period is treated as an exception and does not become a rule for the future.