Being older than my mid-20s I can remember when drones – the popular term for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – were considered somewhat controversial. Since, let’s face it, using little planes without pilots to watch the world and kill people is a bit edgy.
However, since Barack Obama became president US use of killer drones has expanded enormously in prosecution of what used to be called the Global War on Terror (GWOT: which is now very Old Think and perhaps needs to be replaced by a nifty symbol – where’s Prince when you need him?). I won’t delve into partisan politics here except to note that
the left would be beside itself if any GOP president, especially George W. Bush, had standing Tuesday “kill” meetings where the West Wing Kool Kids congregate to decide who’s getting vaporized this week. I’m never gonna join the ACLU and I customarily err on the side of killing terrorists, and the whole thing creeps me out.
None can deny that UAVs are a valuable weapon in the GWOT/whatever, and in places like Waziristan and the back-of-beyond of Yemen they are probably the only real option we have. And – let me say it – blowing away enemies of mankind like Al-Qa’ida fighters is a good and necessary thing.
Certainly the bad guys get the message. They are terrified of drones – so much so that the meme has reached comedy films about the mujahidin (yes, there are such things) – which they call the “Hand of Allah.” Because, let’s face it, it’s way creepy and upsetting when, all of a sudden, for no reason – because you can’t see or hear that Raptor way up there – the fifty-foot radius around you explodes in a wall of flame interspersed with metal shards. That kind of thing can ruin your whole day.
The bad news is that UAVs kill civilians. No matter how hard we try – and we surely do – to avoid what we nicely term “collateral damage” it cannot be avoided. Our intelligence, impressive as it is, will never be good enough to rule out the deaths of people, kids even, who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And locals understandably feel differently about their own dead kin than we do. Debating whether this is worth the political cost is something America has largely punted on over the past decade, as drone kills have become an utterly routine thing. Certainly the current administration has accepted the costs of the drone campaign without real reservation and without any public debate.
But is it, well, moral? The New York Times in a new piece says it is, so I suppose that is the current bien-pensant position. The article is actually worth a read and points out, in an important-if-true moment, that even drone skeptics concede:
a notable drop in the civilian proportion of drone casualties, to 16 percent of those killed in 2011 from 28 percent in 2008. This year, by the bureau’s count, just three of the 152 people killed in drone strikes through July 7 .
NYT goes further down the road of drones-are-now-officially-cool by citing Bradley Jay Strawser, a junior professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, a sister institution to my own, who asserts that using UAVs to blow people up is a-ok with the statement, “using them to go after terrorists not only was ethically permissible but also might be ethically obligatory, because of their advantages in identifying targets and striking with precision.”
Really, Brad? This seems to me the sort of thing you need to have a Ph.D. to believe. I don’t doubt for a second that using Predators and Raptors against mujahidin is ethically ok, generally speaking. I’m questioning whether, strategically speaking, it’s worth the political cost. In real-people speak: Is it smart?
Analysts of our drone war in Pakistan say that the “collateral damage” (AKA “we killed the wrong people” ) rate ranges between four and 20 percent. Which seems low, especially when compared to the recent Israeli operations against HAMAS, using more traditional methods of delivering high explosives, which 41 percent of the time killed innocents. Furthermore, the Pakistani military took out non-combatants a whopping 46 percent of the time in its operations against domestic terrorists.
So drones are totally awesome and even nice by comparison, right?
In a very bean-counting way, they are. But the cool, numbers-based analytic approach beloved by many academics and defense wonks leaves out two critical facts which are well understood by people on the receiving end of the “Hand of Allah.”
First, our enemies view drones as sneaky, nasty, and deeply unmanly. We may laugh at this, but it is true. Blowing up people from 10,000 feet, remotely (in every sense) is viewed by Pashtuns and many others as simply creepy and girly. Especially when they blow up kids – your kids. Drones inspire a special kind of rage in much of the world.
Second, when the Pakistanis kill their own people it inspires a lot less Pashtun rage than when we – yes, we interlopers, foreigners, and infidels – do it. Outsiders doing the killing always goes down worse, even when we’re frankly soft-touch compared to the bumbling and sometimes brutal local government. This is universal.
The drone campaign is clearly going to continue as long as Obama is president, and perhaps well beyond. We’re going to keep using them to kill bad guys. But it’s time to have a public debate about using UAVs as the default weapon of choice in counterterrorism. Particularly before other countries, including some we don’t like and they don’t like us either, have their own impressive UAV capabilities.