Drone Strike on Democracy

My first piece for the New York Daily News, "A Drone Strike on Democracy," has posted.

My first piece for the New York Daily News, ”A Drone Strike on Democracy,” has posted. The central part of my argument:

Most problematic, though, is the fact that drone policy is so shrouded in secrecy that it’s essentially impossible to accurately assess the costs and benefits. Because it’s run covertly by the intelligence and special-operations communities, only a handful of people are privy to the details of the drone war — and almost all of them are prohibited from sharing what they know.

What we do know is from the combination of dogged reporting and selective (and quite probably self-serving) leaks. Back in May, the New York Times described the painstaking process President Obama and his national security team allegedly use to decide who goes on its kill list. We were told that the President personally ensured that each strike would “align . . . with American values.”

More recently, The Times reported that, in the weeks leading up to the election, the administration began “pushing to make the rules formal and resolve internal uncertainty and disagreement about exactly when lethal action is justified.”

Apparently, it occurred to the White House that it might be a good idea to have some structure in place in case a President Romney were to take office and inherit the drone program. As one official put it, “There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands.”

Of course, Obama easily won reelection; consequently, the enthusiasm within the Obama administration for defining and reining in presidential power is likely to wane. And given the acrimony on Capitol Hill, it’s hard to imagine that the President is eager to have congressional Republicans weigh in on something as sensitive as a kill list.

More at the link.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, National Security, Published Elsewhere
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Geek, Esq. says:

    Congress is the real culprit here. Democrats were unwilling to challenge a President of their own party, and Republicans generally don’t object to any kind of blowing people up on the other side of the planet.

  2. Tsar Nicholas says:

    The Constitution is not a suicide pact, too much democracy is very dangerous to a democracy, and when it comes to a nation’s fundamental security the ruling class needs to make the omelette, even if that means breaking eggs.

    Plus what’s ironic about this sort of post on the Internet is that the liberal national media and the liberal academe are far worse threats to our democracy than us not knowing the details of a technology program for executing foreign terrorists. A dumbed down public that can’t make rational decisions is a lot worse than an educated and rational public that sometimes has to be kept in the dark on a few key topics that relate directly to the nation’s ability to defend itself and to destroy is external enemies. We used to fall into the latter category. But ever since the left took over the media and the academe we’ve most definitely slid into the other category.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @Geek, Esq.: I think that’s largely right, although very few in Congress are even privy to enough information to make rational decisions. But, yes, Republicans seem reflexively okay with blowing up people who might be bad guys and Democrats don’t want to appear weak by objecting.

    @Tsar Nicholas: It’s not even “the nation’s ruling class” making these decisions: it’s essentially one man.

  4. Geek, Esq. says:

    @James Joyner:

    Largely where my thinking is, but I would add that Congress doesn’t need intelligence briefings to produce governing guidelines, principles, and processes. The executive is generally going to have the immediate and ultimate say on particular targets, but that doesn’t mean the executive should be left to make it up as they go.

    This should be the kind of thing that Congress would address in a serious manner. But, foreign policy is now just another piece in the domestic politics game.

  5. Rob in CT says:

    Good stuff, James. Sadly, it’s hard to see things changing much for the better.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Rob in CT: Alas, I’m an outsider on this one. Even the likes of Zbieg Brzezinski are drone enthusiasts.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    There’s another issue WRT the use of drones not mentioned in your op-ed, James, that I think is worthy of some consideration. Use of any weapons of war against individuals rather than states when not at war with the country in which those individuals reside is an assault on the Westphalian system. When states connive against the Westphalian system it further undermines that system and makes it rather difficult to argue that there’s something basically wrong with non-Westphalian actors like Al Qaeda.

    What’s the legal or ethical basis for making war against individuals in rural Pakistan via drones that doesn’t also argue for the legitimacy of Al Qaeda attacks in downtown Chicago? That we’re the Good Guys and they’re the Bad Guys?

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: Yes, a very important point. I’ve seen legal scholars argue that the strikes are legal because of the broadness of the post-9/11 Authorization to Use Military Force. But I don’t see how it jibes with international legal norms. Then again, most of our wars in the postwar era have been in contravention of the UN Charter, since they weren’t authorized by the Security Council.

  9. Gustopher says:

    Drones give us an option short of boots on the ground or missile strikes.

    Without the drone program, I have no doubt we would be lobbing a whole lot of cruise missiles throughout the middle east, with a greater level of collateral damage. If we weren’t blowing things up over there, Obama would have been called “soft on terrorism” and likely would have lost the election, and then Romney would blow things up over there.

    The lack of oversight is disturbing though. Have we given Obama the power to order a drone strike against Boehner? It would definitely change the fiscal cliff negotiations…

  10. Rob in CT says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s easy to understand why. Gustopher lays it out pretty well: lots of folks figure it’s either this or “boots on the ground.” And, in some cases at least, I’m sure that’s really so.

    Thing is… I’m in a minority probably even smaller than yours, James. I want neither more boots on the ground nor more drones. I want to pull back on both. Ten years ago this made me a traitorous/self-hating American liberal peacenik appeaser. Now? Now nobody even bothers flinging that stuff around. Partly because it backfired, but partly because there’s no reason for them to worry that people like me might actually win the argument. We lost, rather decisively, ~10 years ago.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    What’s the legal or ethical basis for making war against individuals in rural Pakistan via drones that doesn’t also argue for the legitimacy of Al Qaeda attacks in downtown Chicago? That we’re the Good Guys and they’re the Bad Guys?

    I think our principal on this is pretty simple: is there a competent government to which we can appeal for enforcement of international norms? No? Then bombs away. We don’t blow up terrorists in London because they have a competent government that can be relied upon to put down terrorists. There is no such government in Afghanistan or Yemen or Pakistan. A so-called country can’t just assert sovereignty, it’s required to exercise actual sovereignty. They don’t get the benefits without the responsibilities. The principal is, “Take care of your own mess or we’ll take care of it for you.”

  12. Just Me says:

    I agree this is a problem with congress and I think it because the democrats aren’t going to question Obama (although some would probably question a republican) and in general the GOP isn’t going to do tons of objecting to using drones to kill the bad guys.

    I am not 100% opposed to using drones to kill the bad guys, but I am not comfortable with the president having this much power with this much secrecy and believe there should be congressional oversight.

  13. michael reynolds says:

    Hmm, no idea why that was bolded.

  14. stonetools says:

    I think that now that the election is over and the prospect of President Romney has vanished, there is more room for liberals to begin to pressure the President on this.
    I think the better approach for liberals is not the approach that “Drones are evil, we should abandon them.” That’s a non-starter. Some sort of ” Rules of Engagement” are what’s needed here, and I think that outside pressure and Congressional Democrats will work together to produce something over the next few years.

  15. stonetools says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    What’s the legal or ethical basis for making war against individuals in rural Pakistan via drones that doesn’t also argue for the legitimacy of Al Qaeda attacks in downtown Chicago? That we’re the Good Guys and they’re the Bad Guys?

    Look, that whole Westphalian framework ship has sailed. Al-Queda has declared war on the USA.Most Americans agree we are at war wiith al-Queda. Most Americans don’t give a d@mn whether that squares with the Peace of Westphalia or not. They just want to kill the folks who are trying to kill us.

  16. Dave Schuler says:

    @stonetools:

    Look, that whole Westphalian framework ship has sailed.

    Should I infer from that that you oppose our membership in the United Nations? Or entering into accords within the context of international organizations like the WTO?

  17. anjin-san says:

    believe there should be congressional oversight.

    In a rational world, sure. In a world where the top priority of the party that controls the house is to damage the President by any means possible, not so much…

  18. Brummagem Joe says:

    Actually I think the entire drone program is a deeply suspect enterprise whether it’s operated by Republicans or Democrats. Basically it’s being used to commit extra territorial murders without due process. As a firm believer in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Iron Law of Emulation it’s only going to be a matter of time before China, Russia or anyone else who can come up the ante to buy the technology starts using it to whack people they don’t like in jurisdictions other than their own.

  19. stonetools says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Should I infer from that that you oppose our membership in the United Nations? Or entering into accords within the context of international organizations like the WTO?

    Nope, I’m 100 per cent OK with us acting like nations when we are dealing with other nations. But, let’s face it, in 1648 you couldn’t have 19 people being directed from a country across the world carry out a plan to crash planes into US cities and kill 3000 US nationals.That’s a brute fact that any theoretical framework of international relations has to deal with.

  20. stonetools says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    it’s only going to be a matter of time before China, Russia or anyone else who can come up the ante to buy the technology starts using it to whack people they don’t like in jurisdictions other than their own.

    This is likely to happen whether the USA stops using drones or not, unfortunately.

  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I don’t see drones as anything other than another tool in our national security handbag. I happen to feel that the constraints on our uses of a carrier task force, an F-15, or a battalion of Marines should be the same constraints on our use of drones. Unfortunately, I am one of the few who feel that way.

    They are cheap, easy to deploy, and precious little blowback from the folks back home if one gets shot down. American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines aren’t dying in these strikes and that makes them very politically palatable to the American electorate. Innocent men, women, and children dying?

    Who? What? Did you say something?

  22. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: That’s essentially the opening paragraph of my op-ed. The problem is that the same constraints and conditions don’t apply, for a variety of reasons.

  23. anjin-san says:

    extra territorial murders without due process

    deeply suspect

    God only knows how many innocents we slaughtered in Viet Nam & Iraq. Though going after people who do threaten us in the highly surgical manner dones allow for presents both moral and practical conundrums, I will take it over mass death from above.

  24. Brummagem Joe says:

    @stonetools:

    But we opened the pandora’s box and it will be no use whining about it when the time comes.

  25. Brummagem Joe says:

    @anjin-san:

    This is something of a tu quoque rationalisation. Because we engaged in mass bombing in Vietnam over 40 years ago this make committing extra territorial murders without due process where innocent women and children often die also just fine. Using the same logic why draw the line at Vietnam, why not take it back to the air offensives against Germany and Japan.

  26. Rafer Jander says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I think our principal on this is pretty simple: is there a competent government to which we can appeal for enforcement of international norms? No? Then bombs away

    Well hey, by that standard, anyone can start bombing us….

  27. Rafer Janders says:

    @stonetools:

    But, let’s face it, in 1648 you couldn’t have 19 people being directed from a country across the world carry out a plan to crash planes into US cities and kill 3000 US nationals.

    Well, sure you could, in a slightly different manner. In 1532, about 160 Spanish troops sent from a country across the world massacred over 2,000 Inca soldiers in less than an hour. In 1520, a few hundred Spanish soldiers also from across the world overthrew the entire Aztec empire. In 1648, a privateer warship armed with cannons had enough destructive power to sail into a port and reduce it to rubble and kill hundreds if not thousands, and then sail away again with no one the wiser.

    The world of 1648 was a world of explosions, mercenaries, warlords, freebooters, foreign threats, repeated incursions into Europe by Ottoman and Tartar raiders on land and North African pirates by sea, etc. etc. We like to think we face unprecedented threats, but in many ways it’s just the same as it’s always been.

  28. stonetools says:

    @James Joyner:

    James, I understand that we may be in the Stage One part of drone war critique, which is to point out that drone war isn’t perfect. I get that. I’m sort of looking for Stage 2 now.
    What kind of safeguards and constraints would you suggest to guard against abuse?
    Or are you saying, a la Greenwald, that this type of war is just immoral and unworthy of the USA?

  29. stonetools says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    But we opened the pandora’s box and it will be no use whining about it when the time comes.

    I’m afraid Pandora’s Box was opened up when Westerners decided that there was a better use for the Chinese invention of gunpowder than fireworks.

    using the same logic why draw the line at Vietnam, why not take it back to the air offensives against Germany and Japan.

    Well yeah. The point is that twentieth century air warfare sucks , and that it generally involves the killing of innocent civilians. Drone war is really no different. The only way you escape killing innocents is not to engage in war, period.

  30. Rafer Janders says:

    @stonetools:

    The only way you escape killing innocents is not to engage in war, period.

    Apropos of that, Andrew Sullivan today noted a Telegraph obituary for Major-General Tondy Deane-Drummond, who had been a British commando in WWII. Among his exploits is listed the following:

    Deane-Drummond was one of 34 officers and men dropped by night [into Axis Italy]; a third of a ton of gun cotton was placed against the piers of the bridge and detonated. The party now had to get back to the (Italian] west coast, 60 miles distant, as quickly and secretly as possible to rendezvous with a submarine. After pushing their way through almost impenetrable ravines and fields knee-deep in mud, they were challenged by a man with a shotgun. A crowd of women, children and unarmed peasants quickly gathered, and the commandos were forced to surrender to avoid causing civilian casualties.

    Reading this, it really does feel almost like a dispatch from a different time. The British troops put enemy civiliain’s lives ahead of their own and surrendered to the enemy rather than fight their way out. I simply can’t imagine contemporary American soldiers doing the same, since we as a society seem to have decided that a threat to our own soldiers’ lives outweighs anything else, even innocent women and children.

  31. stonetools says:

    @Rafer Jander: @Rafer Jander:

    Well hey, by that standard, anyone can start bombing us…

    Yup. Your point? The reason the USA isn’t being bombed for whatever reason isn’t because of international law or because we are the most morally pure of all. Its because we have these things called F-15s and the these other things called USS Whatevers and because we have a lot more of them than anyone else .
    Instead of sending planes to bomb us, they send suicide bombers. Our response has been to try to kill the suicide bombers there before they get over here. Hence drone war….
    If we didn’t have drones, we’d be sending commandos, cruise missiles, or manned aircraft. But we would be sending something.

  32. stonetools says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    simply can’t imagine contemporary American soldiers doing the same, since we as a society seem to have decided that a threat to our own soldiers’ lives outweighs anything else, even innocent women and children.

    We didn’t really do it much then. Google “bomber offensive ” , “fire raids”, and “the decision to drop the atomic bomb”.

  33. Rafer Janders says:

    @stonetools:

    Yup. Your point?

    My point was that it was a joke, considering the reference to having “a competent government to which we can appeal for enforcement of international norms” after Senate Republicans rejected the UN disability rights treaty…..

  34. stonetools says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    OK. I see your point.

  35. Brummagem Joe says:

    @stonetools:

    Chinese gunpowder?…..reductio ad absurdum…..in fact there are weapon systems that have essentially been outlawed internationally notably poison gas and virus borne weapons both of which were available in WW 2 but which even the Nazi regime shrunk from using. It’s also probably fair to now include both tactical and strategic nuclear weapons in this category. Saying that just because something has been invented we’re free to use it and are absolved from any moral or more important considerations of long term strategic self interest to carefully weigh its use is rather short sighted to put it mildly.

  36. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    I simply can’t imagine contemporary American soldiers doing the same, since we as a society seem to have decided that a threat to our own soldiers’ lives outweighs anything else, even innocent women and children.

    This has long been one the less attractive implications of American exceptionalism……one American is worth 20 gooks, ragheads, of any age or gender, etc etc. It was the central tactical impetus of the Iraq occupation. It’s this complacency combined with our moral hypocrisy that accounts for much of anti American sentiment around the world even in Europe. Over the years I’ve listened to lengthy lectures on the topic from Brits, Germans, Arabs, Russians, Frenchmen and others.

  37. anjin-san says:

    The only way you escape killing innocents is not to engage in war, period.

    Yes. And we are not getting out of the killing business any time soon, so let’s deal with the world we live in, not the world as we wish it was.

  38. Brummagem Joe says:

    @anjin-san:

    “Yes. And we are not getting out of the killing business any time soon, so let’s deal with the world we live in, not the world as we wish it was.”

    It’s not a question of vague abstractions like this but strategic self interest. The Bush torture extravaganza for example has permanently eliminated any moral standing we had on this subject. Sure we’ve tortured people in the past but we were always able to hide behind the figleaf of it being an abberation but Bush essentially made it a de facto instrument of US policy. There is a huge difference.So now regimes can cheerfully torture their citizens or American citizens and they can say but the US does it.

  39. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @stonetools:

    We didn’t really do it much then. Google “bomber offensive ” , “fire raids”, and “the decision to drop the atomic bomb”.

    My old man took part in the Tokyo fire bombings. He knew what he did. He knew there was no taking it back. He also knew what it took to take Iwo Jima(one of my uncles was there). And that the taking of Iwo jima allowed him to live (crash landed there twice if I have the stories right).

    Can we stop comparing today’s world against yesterday’s world? It is not the same.

  40. Pharoah Narim says:

    Look. Drones are a tool in the national toolbox to get a job done. It will take time to build the controls around it just as it took time to build controls into warfare that developed as a result of new technology in the 20th century. You want to start reducing our footprint in foreign countries? This is a step in the right direction. Frankly, I get sick of people confidently asserting that innocents are being killed as if that’s the purpose of the drone program. In fact, its the opposite. There are a lot of mom’s apple pie, “God and Country” types building the targeting packages for the drone program. These guy/gals actually believe in America as as honest broker, despite the fact that they may be tools for a higher-level more sinister agenda. They aren’t woman and baby killers and want nothing to do with that. The bottom line is that there are some really bad actors out there who are bad for us, bad for Islam, and bad for the regular people of the countries they live in. They are straight up nut cases who would do another 9-11 style attack in a heartbeat. We lament the lack of human rights in the middle east and rightly so. Who do you think are the types perpetuating this in these cultures? If I were king for a day–I probably wouldn’t have a drone program. But I aint going to sweat that these monsters are reaping their rightful due either. They kill far more arabs than Americans–there IS a good story to be told here.

  41. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: I am not surprised. I did not have the time to click on thru.

  42. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Pharoah Narim:

    Who say’s killing innocents is the purpose of the drone program? However, a lot of innocents are getting killed. Now imagine if several members of your family had been killed in a drone attack what do think your attitude to the US would be and the attitude of your extended family and all the people living in the area where the attack occurred. You think they would regard this as a good story?

  43. Sejanus says:

    ” In reality, though, the U.S. uses drones differently than it uses traditional weapons. Because they’re small and cheap, they’re in constant operation in parts of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia — and thus much more likely to be used to deliver lethal strikes. We’ve gone from a policy of firing only on high-value targets, such as senior terrorist leaders, to one of engaging groups of young men who present the mere “signature” of militant groups.

    Not only has this increased the percentage of noncombatants killed but, according to at least one major study, it has bred fear and resentment among the civilian populations in those societies — potentially creating more terrorists.”

    Can somebody please explain to me why is this guy continuing to vote for Republican candidates?

  44. Just Me says:

    I’m afraid Pandora’s Box was opened up when Westerners decided that there was a better use for the Chinese invention of gunpowder than fireworks.

    Westerners didn’t use Chinese gunpowder to create weapons, the first cannons were used by the Chinese as weapons-so they turned their own invention into a weapon first. The west just always seemed the most determined to perfect the weapons.

    Also, it has long been the way of war in any culture to accept that some innocent people are going to die in order to protect your own country’s soldiers and inhabitants.

    Back when Romans had nothing but swords and sling shots they would sack entire cities and kill or enslave everyone in it. War has never been altruistic and it is ridiculous to think that it has. Doubtful even now with more precise weapons it is going to become so-the first rule of war is to do what you can to protect the people on your side.

  45. Pharoah Narim says:

    @Brummagen Joe

    No one explicitly said that. But when its said the program should end because of indiscriminate killing–the inference is that its objective is to kill first and let God sort ’em out after. But to address the claim that “alot” of innocents are killed. Who’s done a study or collected the data to make such a claim? Otherwise its just talk. Innocent people are killed–no question. As long as humans wage war–the “wrong” person will unfortunately be on the business end of bullets and ordinance. But to say its “alot” means people have a firm grasp on the percentages. I don’t think people do- Local media nor Al queda media in areas drones are operating corroborate such a narrative.

    Let me just say that if the shoe was other foot–I’d put as much distance between my family and the troublemakers as possible. Everybody knows who they are–that’s how we find them. It’s no different that not being a Crip–yet hanging out or associating with them. You’re going to get either shook down by the police or caught in a crossfire with some Bloods. We’re 12 years into this–everyone knows the drill.

  46. stonetools says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    Now imagine if several members of your family had been killed in a drone attack what do think your attitude to the US would be and the attitude of your extended family and all the people living in the area where the attack occurred. You think they would regard this as a good story?

    Look, your heart is in the right place, but with all due respect we really can’t base military strategy on whether civilians associated with enemy combatants will like the results .
    Sherman’s march through Georgia caused bitter memories in the South that last to this day- but the Union won the war.
    You seem to imagine that there is some perfect way of fighting this kind of war that won’t result in the loss of innocent life. So far as I know, there isn’t-we’re not in Happy Gumdrop Fairy Tale Land.
    Leaving jihadist groups alone in countries that won’t or can’t restrain them would endanger innocent American lives. We know that, because we left al-Queda alone in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. How did that work out for us?
    We can talk about better rules of engagement for the drone war that would limit the loss of innocent life. But there ARE going to be innocent casualties in any kind of drone war campaign, and so far, drone war is the best way of striking at terrorist groups in foreign countries. Them’s the facts.

  47. Whitfield says:

    “Mr. , you’re going back pig or pork ! Now make up your mind !!” US Marshall Matt Dillon – “Gunsmoke”

  48. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @James Joyner: Or it could be that the notion of “international norms” is the same kind of fiction that allows a nation such as ours to engage in a “war on terror” in the first place. Constructed reality is really quite liberating.

  49. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @stonetools: “I’m afraid Pandora’s Box was opened up when Westerners decided that there was a better use for the Chinese invention of gunpowder than fireworks.”

    You should watch more Chinese historical movies–you missed the part where they also used gunpowder to make artillery shells and missiles.

  50. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Rafer Janders: @stonetools: But, but, UN…foreign bureaucratic overseers…Kenya…liberty…

  51. Janis Gore says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: Good Lord. Is that Drew dressed as the Tsar? Sounds about right.

  52. Andre Kenji says:

    Two points:

    1-) Drones are bad for the United States because they mean that the President not only has no need to ask Congress to declare war, he can wage war without telling anyone. Maybe there is a CIA Drone flying around my city, no one knows. No one knows precisely in how many countries the United States is waging war.

    2-) It´s just a matter of time before some Terrorist group manages to acquire it´s own drones. That would be nightmare scenario, a drone could kill thousands of people in Manhattan or in London before anything could be done.

  53. Pharoah Narim says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    Completely agree with Point 1. We need the drone program pulled into the existing rules of engagement. Point 2 not so much– a drone operation in a 1st world country against the host nation permission would MAYBE kill tens. They can’t carry enough ordinance (or heavy enough ordinance) to be weapons of mass destruction. Its not a threat. Frankly, it’d be a one an done type operation like 9/11. The next time they tried to fly one–we’d see the radio signature and be all over them.

  54. Whtifield says:

    @Andre Kenji: What we need is a defense weapon that will track, lock on, and destroy the drones before they can do any damage. That will protect this country from possible drone use by terrorists. This system will also trace the origin so that the US can strike quickly and remove it. Do we already have something like that ? If not, we need one and soon, even though most terrorists have the capabilities to only hit something in their back yards.

  55. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Pharoah Narim:

    Actually unless you’d noticed the US govt is regularly apologising for civilian casualties in these drone strikes. Like the invasion of Iraq this is ultimately counter productive because we’re creating more enemies than we’re killing.

  56. Brummagem Joe says:

    @stonetools:

    Do stop talking in cliches. My attitude is not based on heart or gum drop fairy land whatever that is but on it’s long term consequences and self interest. I’m not going repeat them all over again you can read them above. Simply put we’re creating more enemies than we’re killing and long term we’re giving a free pass to anyone else in the future who want to use drones against domestic enemies outside their own jurisdictions.

  57. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    Exactly my point. It could be a terrorist group attacking a city or individuals or it could be a sovereign state whacking its own internal enemies in another country. Suppose some terrorist group or sovereign state decided to target the Israeli embassy in ……well pick a place Since we’ve been cheerfully committing extra territorial murders what our objection?

  58. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Whtifield:

    Suppose the drones were launched from Mexico or Canada…….we’re going launch drone strikes on locations which might be in population centers? This is a very dangerous slippery slope that is not remotely simple.

  59. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Pharoah Narim:

    Oops sorry Canada/ Mexico we just killed 25 of your citizens while taking out Ali Baba and his cell…….sorry we’ll try and do a better job next time…….LOL

  60. michael reynolds says:

    Analogies that involve other powers randomly bombing us fail. The better analogy goes like this: One day some crazy right-wing militia in Montana drives up to Canada and blow up a building. Canada calls up the State Department and says, “What the heck, eh?”

    And we say, either:

    A) We are on it, the FBI is already closing in, we’ll have them in custody in 24 hours and begin extradition immediately.

    Or,

    B) Sorry, we have no control over Montana, plus quite frankly we think you canucks had it coming.

    If the answer is (A) then Canada has no business bombing a redneck compound in Bozeman. If the answer is (B) then it’s dial up the Canadian Air Force and we deserve whatever is coming our way.

    This is not really that hard to understand. Are you participating in international norms and controlling terrorists within your country? Fine, then we won’t blow you up.

    As for the death of innocents, stonetools and Pharaoh have dealt with it very well, so I’ll just add: if you don’t want your innocent civilians blown up then don’t play footsie with terrorists. Let’s cut the bullsh!t here. Pakistan is half in bed with Al Qaeda. That’s why we have drones flying around over Pakistan. You don’t want our drones? Get rid of your terrorists. Simple.

  61. john personna says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I think Michael has nailed the Realpolitik. I may wish we lived in a kinder and gentler world, but that is the one we have.

  62. john personna says:

    (I think I can agree with Michael while still wanting a viable peace movement. We don’t want our leaders to be too free with air strikes. We want the choice to be hard.)

  63. stonetools says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    Exactly my point. It could be a terrorist group attacking a city or individuals or it could be a sovereign state whacking its own internal enemies in another country. Suppose some terrorist group or sovereign state decided to target the Israeli embassy in ……well pick a place Since we’ve been cheerfully committing extra territorial murders what our objection?

    Your concern is appreciated but misplaced. Drones work against countries with no or primitive air defenses. They don’t work against countries with satellite look down capability, anti-aircraft missile defenses, radar, and advanced fighter defenses. Any drone crossing into US airspace will most likely be met by a pair of F-16s.

    Michael lays out why we don’t have to worry about countries randomly attacking us with drones, We can be relied on to act against any terrorist groups that would attack foreign countries.

  64. Andre Kenji says:

    In theory, it´s not so difficult to build drones that could escape even the most advanced radar systems. You could build a very small drone that emits no heat and that uses carbon fiber instead of any kind of metal. And once your drone is inside a heavily populated area there is little that you can do, without killing more people than the drone. And there are easy targets outside the area of any major defense systems, like airlines over the Atlantic, Cruise ships, embassies in Foreign countries, etc.

    That´s a very dangerous path, specially because we are seeing drones doing all kinds of defense work in all kinds of countries.

  65. john personna says:

    FWIW, a fictionalized version of all these concerns:

    “Kill Decision – a thriller” by Daniel Suarez

    spreading drone technology … hijacked drones … autonomous operation … a novel of our times.

  66. Rafer Janders says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    And given miniaturization, drones will get smaller and smaller. Right now they’re the size a small airplane. In ten, twenty years they could be the size of a hummingbird, or a bumblebee. You can’t exactly use anti-aircraft defense against that.

  67. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Analogies that involve other powers randomly bombing us fail. The better analogy goes like this: One day some crazy right-wing militia in Montana drives up to Canada and blow up a building. Canada calls up the State Department and says, “What the heck, eh?”

    Remember, though, that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Consider this analogy: one days some Tibetan activist shows up in Sweden and asks for political asylum. China tells Sweden they consider him a terrorist and demands they arrest and extradite him. Sweden refuses on the grounds that he’s a peaceful activist and would be persecuted if returned to China, and China, responding that Sweden is refusing to abide by international norms and control terrorists within its own country, then blows the Tibetan up via a drone. While he’s attending a wedding in downtown Stockholm, unfortunately, so several dozen other people die, but hey, if Sweden didn’t want its innocent civilians blown up then it shouldn’t have plain footsie with Tibetan “terrorists.”

  68. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    As for the death of innocents, stonetools and Pharaoh have dealt with it very well, so I’ll just add: if you don’t want your innocent civilians blown up then don’t play footsie with terrorists.

    Similarly, if we didn’t want our innocent civilians blown up in the World Trade Center we shouldn’t have played footsie with the dictatorial Saudi royal family and had American troops in the same country as Islam’s holy sites of Mecca and Medina, right? Same logic. Just do what the hostage taker wants and no one has to die, but hey, if you fail to comply with all his demands and he has to kill the hostage, that’s on you, not on the guy pulling the trigger.

  69. stonetools says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Just do what the hostage taker wants and no one has to die, but hey, if you fail to comply with all his demands and he has to kill the hostage, that’s on you, not on the guy pulling the trigger.

    The realpolitik of the situation is that we’re doing drone warfare because we can, and because there is no better alternative.

    When you ask the drone war opponents what’s the alternative, the answer is essentially , “nothing” , just unconvincing talk about how especially unethical drone war is.

    Please come up with an ALTERNATIVE to drone war, because scolding ain’t working and we can point to 3000 dead as the result of trying the “do nothing” option.

    Now if you want to discuss better ways of regulating the drone war, then I’m ready to discuss that.

  70. john personna says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    I have always been critical of “minimum civilian casualties” as a SOP, because I think it is corrosive. It must be policed, to ensure that it is an authentic minimum, and not a blithe acceptance.

    Obviously 9/11 was not a military strike with minimum civilian casualties by any rational measure.

  71. Rafer Janders says:

    @john personna:

    Obviously 9/11 was not a military strike with minimum civilian casualties by any rational measure.

    No, of course it wasn’t, but I was addressing the “if you don’t want your people to die don’t do anything we don’t like” logic.

  72. john personna says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    I think these things go together. If we were not maintaining a “minimum civilian casualties” regime then we would be a “terrorist state,” and the world would respond to our strikes quite differently.

    As it is, they tacitly accept our right to self-protection, and that our operations are “military”

    For contrast, see the push-back on Israel for not being quite so “minimum” in their response to missile attacks.

  73. michael reynolds says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    No, not the same logic at all. We don’t use drones against nations with whom we disagree. See: Burma, Cuba, Venezuela. We use drones in countries where no law exists as a recourse for cases of terrorism. Drones are used against individuals within failed states or complicit states. Drones are not used against Hugo Chavez or someone who votes against us at the UN or someone who irritates us.

    You are straining to position yourself on a moral pedestal. But the analogies fail because they are not on point. And if you are ascending that moral pedestal then it is incumbent on you to do as stonetools suggests and rather than just posture and don a hair shirt explain in practical terms what policy you would prefer.

  74. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    We don’t use drones against nations with whom we disagree. See: Burma, Cuba, Venezuela.

    Sure, currently we don’t. But that doesn’t address the issue that someday other countries might have less scruples than we do, and once we’ve established the general principle, they will justify themselves with it.

    We use drones in countries where no law exists as a recourse for cases of terrorism. Drones are used against individuals within failed states or complicit states. Drones are not used against Hugo Chavez or someone who votes against us at the UN or someone who irritates us.

    Again, sure, right now, by us. But other countries which will eventually have drones, such as Russia, China, etc., may be a little more fancy-free, and if we object, they’ll just point out that we’ve already made plain that countries are entitled to use drones against other sovereign countries in self-defense and necessity, and hey, their defintion of self-defense and necessity is just a little bit different than ours.

    And drones are not used by President Obama against someone who irritates us. But President Chris Christie, or President Rubio, or President Bristol Palin? Their trigger fingers may be little itchier.

  75. Rafer Janders says:

    @stonetools:

    Please come up with an ALTERNATIVE to drone war, because scolding ain’t working and we can point to 3000 dead as the result of trying the “do nothing” option.

    Well, sometimes nothing is the alternative. Drones have the satisfaction of seeing an immediate and public result, but we can’t know what the long-term consequences will be, and if those consequences will ultimately be more harmful to us. Is it worth killing an enemy now if by doing so we create ten enemies for the future? Hard to say.

    But nobody is really advocating doing “nothing” — instead we’re advocating doing unglamorous and relatively hard to see things, like more focus on intelligence, tracking, working with local authorities where possible, sending in commandos where not, etc. And sometimes even using drones, but as a last resort, not as a first, and with far stricter accountability.

  76. anjin-san says:

    other countries might have less scruples than we do, and once we’ve established the general principle, they will justify themselves with it.

    That seems like a reach. I suspect countries in that group will do what they will do regardless of what position we occupy on the road to moral high ground.

  77. Andre Kenji says:

    @michael reynolds:

    We use drones in countries where no law exists as a recourse for cases of terrorism. Drones are used against individuals within failed states or complicit states.

    No, drones are only used in very remote areas of certain countries because them no one can film or take pictures of the attacks. The victims are normally poor peasants, that no one knows or cares. It hard to send any reporters to the areas that are affected, and in some cases the governments of those countries that have “no law” arrested reporters( http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/03/white-house-stands-by-obama-push-for-yemeni-journalist-to-remain-behind-bars/http://www.thenation.com/article/166757/why-president-obama-keeping-journalist-prison-yemen#),

  78. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    No, not the same logic at all. We don’t use drones against nations with whom we disagree. See: Burma, Cuba, Venezuela. We use drones in countries where no law exists as a recourse for cases of terrorism. Drones are used against individuals within failed states or complicit states. Drones are not used against Hugo Chavez or someone who votes against us at the UN or someone who irritates us.

    Michael, I know you’re a very smart guy with the ability to imagine yourself into alternate scenarios. I’d ask you to take a look at my Tibetan dissident in Sweden analogy, above, and imagine a Chinese official justifying himself the same way:

    “We don’t use drones against nations with whom we disagree. See: Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam. We use drones in countries where no law exists as a recourse for cases of terrorism, which is the case with Sweden refusing to arrest and extradite this terrorist. Drones are used against individuals within failed states or complicit states, and while Sweden is not a failed state, by giving this man asylum and putting him beyond the reach of China’s law it is complicit with his terrorism.”

    How would we have standing to object? Could we object? Would other countries listen to China and think hey, they’re not really doing anything the US isn’t already, and come to think of it, we have some disside…er, terrorists of our own we’d really like to get our hands on?

  79. Rafer Janders says:

    @stonetools:

    Please come up with an ALTERNATIVE to drone war, because scolding ain’t working and we can point to 3000 dead as the result of trying the “do nothing” option.

    In general I have a great distrust of the “do something, anything!” argument, because it was this same kind of logic that was used to push the Iraq War. Republicans used to say the exact same thing, “please come up with an ALTERNATIVE to invading Iraq, because scolding ain’t working and we can point to 3000 dead as the result of trying the ‘do nothing’ option”, and when we answered “our alternative is nothing” there was a lot of hand-waving that we weren’t “serious.”

    Sometimes your people get killed because you didn’t do enough. Sometimes they get killed because you did a lot, but it was the wrong thing to do. It’s hard to know in advance, but that means that “do something” isn’t necessarily always the preferred default to doing nothing. Sometimes that something gets you a worse result than the nothing, when all is said and done.

  80. Rafer Janders says:

    @anjin-san:

    I suspect countries in that group will do what they will do regardless of what position we occupy on the road to moral high ground.

    Of course they will, just as countries now will abuse dissidents and suppress free speech. But when they do so, it’s generally good for the US to stand on the side of right and to be able to appeal to law, public opinion and international practice to stop them. Nations, even rouge actors, feel themselves constrained by what others think of them and what others do.

    Put it this way: suspect countries will torture prisoners too. Was our effort to stop them doing so hurt or helped when it turned out that we were torturing helpless prisoners as well?

  81. stonetools says:

    At this point on the thread, a couple of things seem clear.

    1. there is no good alternative to drone war.
    2. There are no good ideas as to how to regulate conduct of the drone war.

    Now James in his article, doesn’t agree with this. All he does is call for a public debate, and I think that would be a good thing.As I said above, I think that liberals will start to push Obama on this, now that the second term is assured.It won’t be now, however, chiefly because Obama and the Democrats will have to fight the Tea Party morons over the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling ( Score one for James’ team!). These battles are likely to take up most of the winter , and will consume the efforts of the liberals. Assuming that some other foreign policy crisis doesn’t boil up in the meantime ( a big frickin’ assumption) , we can expect liberals to push for a debate on this some time in the spring of next year. Unfortunately, that’s the best case scenario.

    I honestly don’t know what we can end up with.The best we can hope for is regular reports to, and oversight b y, the Congressional intelligence committees. The Star Chamber approach to picking and prioritizing targets will probably continue.
    What’s interesting about this is that its taken for granted by everyone that the Republicans have nothing to offer on this debate. Its going to be a debate between liberals and the Obama Administration. James’ team has nothing to offer but obfuscation and reflexive support for the status quo. And oh yeah-BENGHAZI!

  82. James Joyner says:

    @Sejanus: You realize that the guy who’s been leading this policy is a Democrat, right? Obama has escalated this light years beyond where it was under Bush and, by all accounts, has substantially loosened the constraints on killing.

    @Andre Kenji and @Rafer Janders:: If you’re just using them for surveillance, yes, drones can and will get much smaller. If you’re using them to shoot missiles, they can’t get much smaller.

    @stonetools: Right. As i note at the outset of the piece, I’m not anti-drone. Drones are a tool with some substantial advantages over other tools. What I’m leery of is a policy of routinized killing of people on vague suspicion of being bad guys–and that includes simply being a Pashtun militant, not even an al Qaeda terrorist—via black ops under the loose control of the president.

    We apparently blew up another senior Taliban commander this morning using a drone. With few caveats, I’m pleased we did so. I’m much more leery of simply blowing up young men who might be with the Taliban.

  83. michael reynolds says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    If a Tibetan in Sweden is actively plotting a terrorist attack on China and Sweden fails to take action then, yes, China has a right to take action. Of course there’s a very good reason that won’t happen: Sweden will not allow residents to plot terrorism.

    Should China grow sufficiently irritated with Sweden, China has a number of legal moves it can make. This is not the case with us and the Pashtun non-state.

    Which is why this analogy is irrelevant. We are not talking about Sweden, or China for that matter. We’re talking about a handful of countries that are either failed states or actively involved in supporting terrorism. Would either of those categories contain Sweden? No.

    Apples and oranges. Sweden has actual sovereignty, not just a hollow assertion of sovereignty. Sweden abides by international norms. Sweden does not tolerate terrorist cells in its territory. China may want, for purposes of propaganda to hype the matter, but China will not strike Sweden because, again, Sweden is neither a failed nor complicit state and China knows it perfectly well. China knows that no buildings will blow up in Beijing as a result of what is done in Sweden.

  84. stonetools says:

    @James Joyner:

    Thanks for the reply.

    What I’m leery of is a policy of routinized killing of people on vague suspicion of being bad guys–and that includes simply being a Pashtun militant, not even an al Qaeda terrorist—via black ops under the loose control of the president.

    You see,one of the difficulties of sorting out exactly who the bad guys are is that to do so, you have to capture and interrogate folks in the network-and that opens up its own can of worms.
    I’ve heard people say that one of the reasons Obama escalated the drone war is that it gets around the whole capture/rendition/interrogation dilemma-you just blow ’em all up and let God sort ’em out. No need for Guantanamo Bay, discussion about interrogation techniques, and any pesky trials. In my most cynical moments, I half-believe it.
    Frankly, I think there are no good options here-just less bad ones.

  85. Andre Kenji says:

    @James Joyner: You don´t need to be much smaller to avoid detection even from advanced radar systems, and a drone don´t need to have missiles to provoke mass killings. A drone armed with a machinegun is more than enough.

  86. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    If you’re just using them for surveillance, yes, drones can and will get much smaller. If you’re using them to shoot missiles, they can’t get much smaller.

    Except they don’t have to shoot missiles. A self-piloting hummingbird sized drone packed with explosives that is set to go off right next to the subject’s head? You don’t need that much ordnance to kill someone if you get it close enough. It’s science fiction now, but it will be reality in our lifetimes.

  87. Rafer Janders says:

    @stonetools:

    In my most cynical moments, I half-believe it.

    In my ordinarily cynical moments I believe it.

  88. Rafer Janders says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    A drone armed with a machinegun is more than enough

    .

    I tell you what, this is really going to revolutionize the divorce industry.

  89. michael reynolds says:

    A lot of this thread is wishing for a different world where we could kill just the top level bad guys with zero error and zero innocent deaths. Everyone wishes for that. In fact, that’s why we spend incredible amounts of money on designing these very accurate weapons. If we didn’t give a damn we could just wipe out all of Pashtunistan with some relatively inexpensive nukes. That’s what Genghis or Attila would do if they had the nukes and the irritation. That’s not what we are doing. We are attempting to defeat these bad guys while doing the absolute minimum collateral damage, and aiming for zero collateral damage.

  90. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: Some collateral damage is inevitable. And, frankly, I’m not all that concerned about those who, to coin a phrase, pal around with terrorists. So, if AQ #3’s buddies get killed in the process, I can live with that.

    What I’m much more skeptical of is the so-called “signature strikes,” where we target groups of young men whose identities we don’t know but fit some vague profile. I think the potential for blowback there likely outweighs the gain.

  91. Rafer Janders says:

    And, frankly, I’m not all that concerned about those who, to coin a phrase, pal around with terrorists. So, if AQ #3′s buddies get killed in the process, I can live with that.

    What if you, to coin another phrase, family around with terrorists? He’s in the car, and so is his wife and daughter?

  92. James Joyner says:

    @Rafer Janders: I feel bad for the kids; the wife presumably knows who she’s married to. The nature of terrorists is that they’re not out on a battlefield among other combatants but ensconced in a civilian community. While due diligence should be taken to minimize civilian—and especially innocent—casualties, it’s impossible to just kill the bad guys.

  93. stonetools says:

    @James Joyner:

    So James, I ask again what would be your preferred protocol for deciding on drone strikes?

  94. James Joyner says:

    @stonetools: Based on what I know now, I’d:

    -End signature strikes, shifting back to high value target strikes only

    -Take the mission away from CIA and JSOC and put it under traditional warfighters at CENTCOM or AFRICOM and integrate into their overall strategy

    – Have substantially better Congressional oversight.

  95. stonetools says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    What if you, to coin another phrase, family around with terrorists? He’s in the car, and so is his wife and daughter?

    This isn’t unique to drone strikes. I can easy see a commando raid in which a firefight breaks out and the wife and child die in the cross fire. Of course, in a commando raid, the commandos’ lives are at risk. You might consider that an improvement somehow: I don’t.

  96. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:

    Well, if I had a high degree of confidence in the CIA’s capacity to accurately profile these signature groups. . . well, I’d have had to be asleep for the last 50 years. The CIA missed the rise of Khomeini and the fall of the USSR, I suspect they can’t really pinpoint “Totally acts like a terrorist in some society we know basically nothing about.”

    I agree we need oversight, and I agree we need something like a rule book. I like Obama but the next president might be an idiot (Santorum) and even smart presidents can use some oversight and should be required to explain their thinking. It would help if Republicans didn’t turn their Congressional foreign policy portfolios over to bitter old men and random imbeciles. I’d trust Dick Lugar. . . oh, wait.

  97. stonetools says:

    In Googling signature strikes, I came up with this:

    Citing the Long War Journal, a website that tracks drone operations, the Post said there have been an estimated 27 strikes in Yemen since 2009 — killing 198 militants and 48 civilians.

    The CIA’s proposal to expand the drone campaign has been presented to the National Security Council, officials said.

    Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/04/19/cia-wants-to-use-ignature-strikes-against-terror-suspects-in-yemen/#ixzz2EOthFq7I

    Seriously , 246 people? Just about any bomber raid in WW2 killed more people than this. I sympathize with the civilian victims, but we aren’t talking mass slaughter here. And yes, numbers matter.

  98. stonetools says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I agree we need oversight, and I agree we need something like a rule book. I like Obama but the next president might be an idiot (Santorum) and even smart presidents can use some oversight and should be required to explain their thinking. It would help if Republicans didn’t turn their Congressional foreign policy portfolios over to bitter old men and random imbeciles. I’d trust Dick Lugar. . . oh, wait.

    One of things that inhibits reasoned debate on this is that the Republican Party is so batsh!t crazy. Its hard for the liberals to really pressure Obama on anything when they know he has to defend against the loonies on the other side.

  99. michael reynolds says:

    @stonetools:
    The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence includes Michelle Bachmann. ‘Nuff said.

  100. James Joyner says:

    @stonetools: The most reliable estimates are an order of magnitude higher. See my recent TNR piece. But the truth is that we really don’t know and have an official policy of undercounting.

  101. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    I feel bad for the kids;

    Oh, well then. I’m sure that’s some comfort.

    the wife presumably knows who she’s married to.

    Good point, and especially true in Afghanistan, or fundamentalist Muslim circles generally, where women have a great deal of autonomy to choose who they will and will not marry and are quite free to leave at any moment.

  102. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    While due diligence should be taken to minimize civilian—and especially innocent—casualties, it’s impossible to just kill the bad guys.

    Oh, c’mon. Impossible? Hard, yes. Incredibly hard, yes. But impossible? No such thing.

  103. stonetools says:

    @James Joyner:

    I read your TNR article . The Pakistan estimates are higher. Still, even at the high end of estimates, you’re talking 3200 over eight years-that’s 400 per year. That’s not rainbows and sugar plum fairies, but it ain’t Dresden , either.
    Still, I’m OK with limiting strikes to high value targets. . Even then, we aren’t going to achieve the drone war opponents’ target of zero innocent casualties.
    As your article points too, if Obama cuts back on the drone war, the Republicans (your team) are going to attack Obama and the Democrats for being “soft on terrorism” and “putting the lives and safety of Americans over those who pal around with the terrorists” . If you are going to urge that Obama dial back on the drone war, you need to also say why he should risk taking the political hit from your team.

  104. Sejanus says:

    @James Joyner: A couple of months ago Doug mentioned Obama’s expansion of the power of the executive as reason not to vote for him. To that objection he received the following response:

    “So because you don’t like that Obama has brought somewhat more doucherock to radio stations (bear with me here, this analogy is going places) you are not going to vote for him even though Romney is going to make every radio station play Nickelback 24/7?”

    @stonetools: Instead of asking James to provide a reason for Obama to take a political hit from the GOP, you should ask him why he is still voting for that party to begin with.

  105. stonetools says:

    @Sejanus:

    Instead of asking James to provide a reason for Obama to take a political hit from the GOP, you should ask him why he is still voting for that party to begin with.

    Its down to sheer, tribal loyalty, I think. Maybe his wife, parents, and siblings are all Republicans. These things happen. Hey, that’s why some people like Nickelback.

  106. Andre Kenji says:

    @stonetools:

    Seriously , 246 people? Just about any bomber raid in WW2 killed more people than this. I sympathize with the civilian victims, but we aren’t talking mass slaughter here. And yes, numbers matter.

    No, that´s the problem. No one knows exactly how many people are being killed by drones. Officially, there is no drones. It´s an invisible war, with no borders.