It is discouraging that in a country that justly prides itself on producing great scientific minds and creative thinkers, that on a few key substantive issues we fail to ask—much less answer—crucial questions. Drone strikes are one of the most glaring and egregious examples of this.
These acts—which are sometimes called targeted killings, UCAV (unmanned combat aerial vehicle) strikes, or precision targeting—are at their most elementary level, killing human beings via remote control at a great distance from the target. In that sense, they are no different than an infantryman firing a rifle at an enemy combatant from three hundred meters away, a tank gunner destroying an enemy vehicle and its crew from four kilometers out or firing an artillery piece at enemy troops from a distance of over thirty kilometers. The justification for using drones, however, can be radically different from the standard we apply to ground combat.
The Laws of War govern the behavior of ground troops, airmen and sailors in armed conflict. The laws were designed to keep otherwise violent and bloody wars from descending into barbarism, which sometimes strips victors of their humanity. The Department of Defense has strictly enforced these laws on our troops during Desert Storm, the long Iraq conflict and the ongoing struggle in Afghanistan.
When troops are caught violating the strict DoD-crafted Rules of Engagement, they are punished, sometimes severely. That high standard seems to evaporate, however, when the violations are carried out from aerial platforms, controlled from a secret, remote location. The unwillingness to apply the same rules of engagement and standards of conduct to the use of drones is damaging America’s hard-fought reputation and, emotional arguments aside, is ineffective in accomplishing U.S. objectives. In fact, it is usually counterproductive.
Chas W. Freeman, one of America’s most experienced living diplomats, gave a speech at The Center for The National Interest last week stating that the decision to begin expanding the use of drone warfare in 2002 was one of the nation’s greatest strategic blunders since 9/11. He remarked, “This turn toward robotic warfare has evolved into a program of serial massacres from the air in a widening area of West Asia and northern Africa. It is a major factor in the metastasis of anti-Western terrorism with global reach.”
Freeman added that “The terrorist movements U.S. interventions have spawned now have safe havens not just in Afghanistan, but in the now-failed states of Iraq and Syria, as well as Chad, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Sinai, Somalia…and a toehold among Muslim Americans…We are creating more terrorists than we are killing.”
The application of any element of national power—whether it is the use of the military, an aggressive diplomatic effort or providing humanitarian assistance—must pass three tests. First, a successful outcome of the action contemplated must advance American strategic interests; second, the action must have a plausible chance of accomplishing the objectives sought; lastly, the application of the military must not violate American law or ethical standards. If a contemplated action cannot pass all three tests, it must be abandoned.
Based on an analysis of United States’s actions abroad during the last fifteen years, it appears a different standard has been applied. In practice, our leaders have asked these three questions before deciding to take action: first, do we have the resources and technology to actually do it; second, can it tactically hurt our opponents or help our allies; third, how will this play politically at home and diplomatically with our allies? The decision to use drones to conduct targeted killings can pass all three of these tests; it utterly fails the three-question test that actually matters.
Drones are very effective. They can see, be piloted, and attack targets effectively from the other side of the world. Killing enemy targets no doubt tactically damages some terror network’s ability to function for a time. Sometimes the attacks help domestically, as it makes the leaders who ordered it look tough on terror and gives the impression they are not standing idly by.
But it is now clear that even successful drone strikes do not advance American strategic interests, they almost never cause more than temporal harm to the enemy, and usually result in hardening their resolve and making them more violent. Finally, they unequivocally damage our reputation and prestige, especially in quarters of the globe where we seek to influence people away from using violence.
America is a country filled with remarkable people who have done much good around the world for decades, sacrificing our own blood and treasure in the defense of others. We have some of the brightest minds and kindest hearts. But until we begin reigning in our use of technology that do not advance American interests or values, we will continue doing more harm than good to our own national security.
Daniel L. Davis is a widely published analyst on national security and foreign policy. He retired as a Lt. Col. after 21 years in the US Army, including four combat deployments. The views in these articles are those of the author alone and do not reflect the position of the US Government. He tweets at @DanielLDavis1.
Image: “An MQ-9 Reaper sits on the flight line at Hurlburt Field Fla., April 24, 2014. The MQ-9 Reaper is an armed, multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft that is employed primarily as an intelligence-collection asset and secondarily against dynamic execution targets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. John Bainter/Released)”