Editorial: Drones must be subject to the rules of war

The Senate committee testimony of Yemeni writer Farea al-Muslimi has placed the issue of drone strikes firmly on the political agenda
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To politicians and people in Pakistan, this is not a new question.

Nor are the controversies new to the US administration; it has wrestled with them for several years. This week, though, they have been brought home to US Senators, and thence to the American public, in a way that places the whole subject firmly on the political agenda. Testifying at a Senate committee hearing, a Yemeni writer – Farea al-Muslimi – compared the impact of a US drone strike on the village where he grew up to that of the marathon bombings on the city of Boston. Such strikes, he said, only turned Yemenis against America.

There are other arguments that are routinely used against the US use of drones, whether in Yemen, or more commonly against targets in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Some are practical: the risk of harming people other than the target, including women and children. Errors have embittered relations and forced US apologies. Others, though, are legal and moral. They include the lack of an international judicial framework governing the use of such weapons; the whole concept of so-called targeted assassinations, and the secrecy that has attended US decisions about drones and targeting.

Last, but not least, comes the asymmetry of drone warfare. There are justified misgivings about the morality of a weapon whose use entails no physical risk to those ordering its use. They are presented as trigger-happy teenagers playing computer games who have – and need have – no concern for real-life effects.

None of these objections is trifling. The notion of targeted killings, in which the attacker is detective, judge, jury and executioner rolled into one, raises – and should raise – profound  qualms. So should the fact that drones are not subject to any accepted laws of war. To argue on these grounds that their use should be outlawed, however, is as misguided as it is unrealistic.

There will always be a time, with a weapon, as with all new technology, when only some people have it, but there is no point in calling for it to be, in effect, uninvented to “level the playing field”. Nuclear weapons initially gave the US the most asymmetric advantage of all. But no country will forfeit an advantage that could bring victory. This applies, in a smaller way, to drones.

As for the argument that drone technology is immoral because it sets those launching the weapons at too great a physical and psychological distance from the effects of their action and makes an attack physically cost-free, any government could reasonably ask why that is so undesirable. If a country has the capability to prevent casualties on its own side, does it not have a responsibility to use it? It could additionally be argued that accurate targeting reduces enemy casualties, too.

There are ways of meeting some of the objections. As with any new, and destabilising, capability, the use of drones needs to be codified internationally. There must be less secrecy about targeting – something President Obama has addressed by announcing that responsibility for drone strikes is to be transferred from the CIA to the military. The most effective disincentives, however, will come from the inevitable proliferation of what is relatively cheap technology – a time will come when the US will see itself as vulnerable, too – and from the long-term hostility that drone strikes leave in the communities where they kill and maim.

Until it is judged that drone attacks store up more trouble than they eliminate, however, they will be defensible as a means of bolstering national security. The alternative, it might be reflected, could look like Dresden in 1945, Hanoi in 1975, or Baghdad in 2003. Of two great evils, drones are the lesser.