Drones strikes are a necessary element of US foreign policy. Discuss.

Sam Bright – for

The policy of using unmanned drones to target terrorists and insurgents was pioneered by President George W Bush’s administration in the years following 9/11, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. President Obama has since adopted and significantly extended this policy, in what to many is the most controversial and damnable decision of his presidency.













Drones have also been used extensively in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as against Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula in Yemen, and against militants in Somalia (amongst others). There is, unfortunately, no question that these strikes have killed hundreds of civilians over the years. There are also real questions over the legality of such strikes. My suggestion, however, is that opponents of strikes have to provide a plausible alternative.

Militarily, there are perhaps two main alternatives to drone strikes. There is the use of more conventional military force; and there is the ‘do nothing’ option. (Built into the drone-strike option is, of course, the opportunity to reduce the number, and increase the accuracy, of such strikes – discussion of this point, however, is beyond the scope of this short post.)

Following the 9/11 attacks, the US and its allies invaded first Afghanistan and then Iraq. There is little doubt that despite some creative legal argumentation, as well as creative use of the facts, the invasion of Iraq was illegal. It has also been hugely costly in terms of its human impact, with over 600,000 people – mostly civilians – killed in the chaos and anarchy that followed the invasion, from 2003-2007.

The invasion of Afghanistan is generally seen as being somewhat less controversial. Yet in the debate over the legality of drone strikes, it should not be forgotten that the action in Afghanistan really pushed the limits of what was permissible under international law, probably to breaking point. Under Article 51 of the UN Charter, States may use force in self-defence only as a response to an imminently-threatened ‘armed attack’, and only in accordance with the customary principles of ‘necessity’ and ‘proportionality’.

The Afghan campaign was the first time that the international legal right to self-defence had been seen to justify invading a State which was not itself responsible for an ‘armed attack’, but rather was simply providing shelter to a group that was so responsible; and the extent of the US-led action, involving the removal of the Taliban government and an attempt to construct a newly democratic state from scratch, almost certainly went beyond what was ‘necessary’ and ‘proportionate’ to the goal of stopping al-Qaeda.

Indeed, al-Qaeda themselves proved somewhat difficult to get hold of. Many drifted across the border into Pakistan’s mountains: if they weren’t hiding in already remote areas of Afghanistan. Conventional military force was never going to be successful in removing their threat. Which is one reason why the US turned to the use of unmanned drone strikes.

The goal of drone strikes is to prevent terrorists and insurgents carrying out often indiscriminate attacks in the West and elsewhere. The strikes themselves are not indiscriminate: yes, distressing numbers of civilians are killed – certainly in the hundreds in the past few years – but they are targeted not at civilians: rather,at specific militants. And in fact, there is little question that the use of drones has a vastly lesser impact on civilians than does the use of conventional military force, and poses much less of a threat to a state’s infrastructure and survival – not to mention being a much smaller drain on the resources and people of the intervening states.

The ‘do nothing’ option may therefore appear the most attractive. Without full access to the intelligence upon which the US (and others) operate, it is of course impossible to properly evaluate and balance the relative risks of doing nothing and using drones. But from Obama’s perspective, the choice to be made is surely this: do I continue to allow avowed enemies of the West to continue building bombs that they are still trying to put on planes and in public places, or to continue launching ‘insurgent’ activities in troubled and failed states such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and the Yemen, to operate as they wish? Or do I take some decisive action in an attempt to prevent such activities?

A difficult, if not impossible question for us to answer in the abstract, without the intelligence at our fingertips. But we should not be so quick to condemn Obama as a failed President simply due to his continuance of Bush’s drones policy. It may well be the least costly means (in terms of lives lost) of continuing to target those who are actively planning, and often carrying out, illegal and hugely destructive military and terrorist operations around the world.

Sam Hawke – against

The most prominent of Sam’s arguments centres on the claim that we have little or no alternative in the ‘war on terror’. Sam claims that to criticise Obama’s actions requires the suggestion of concrete and feasible alternatives, the lack of which not only excuses but permits – or may even require – the use of drone attacks.

Consider the following. It seems plausible to think that introducing the death penalty for speeding, drunk driving, and similar offences would result in fewer road accidents. After its enforcement was publicly undertaken and knowledge of the executions well-known, the threat of state execution would very likely improve everyone’s driving. Suppose, then, that introducing such a policy would actually result, even factoring in those executed, in fewer overall deaths each year than without. Unless you are a consequentialist, you will find this idea horrifying: as with dismembering thieves or torturing tax evaders, we rightly think that the goodness of the consequences would be outweighed by the wrongness of how we brought those consequences about.

So replace every reference in Sam’s article to drone strikes with ‘summary executions’ or ‘torture’. Would it be a generally plausible justification of torture that there is no alternative in the ‘war on terror’? Or that we have no other way of stopping attacks against us than by going to villages which we suspect harbour terrorists and rounding up a quarter of the male population and murdering them? It would seem not – at least as a matter of general policy. So how can it be a plausible justification for drone attacks?

What we’ll want to know at this point is the extent to which these kinds of horrible scenarios bear morally-relevant similarities to drone attacks. Think about any run-of-the-mill bombing campaign. If I know there are militants within a city whom you’re wondering how to kill, you’ll know with a sufficient degree of certainty that launching a bombing campaign to kill them will lead to a considerable number of civilian deaths. And, as with any military strike of this kind, the attack may be morally permissible if the cost of killing of those civilians is proportionate to the good that destroying the militants will bring. But, again, this is contentious: it may seem to many that, very often, the killing of the civilians is so wrong as to outweigh whatever good may come of the deaths of the militants. But if this is difficult, how much more so the situation of drone strikes: that is, where we don’t actually know whether whom we kill were in fact permissible military targets at all.

Even after the 7/7 attacks, the New Labour government continued to face outrage at the possibility of extended extra-judicial detention. Suppose we have credible reports to show that Leamington Spa houses a group of terrorists planning for an attack in Birmingham. Whilst this may legitimately result in the deployment of massive police forces, perhaps even some kind of (brief) extra-judicial detention, there’d be no suggestion that the Royal Air Force could fly over parts of the town levelling buildings it suspected to contain those whom it suspected to be terrorists. This kind of approach is nonetheless acceptable when it’s across the other side of the world in places like Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan. How can this be so?

We grimace and squirm when considering lengthy extra-judicial detention or torture, even in the face of a not insubstantial domestic terrorist threat, we’re told. A fortiori, we tend to reject the use of lethal force. In general, we accept the view that, where necessary, it is only justifiable in response to what we can know with a sufficient degree of certainty to be an imminent threat and in respect of those whom we can know with a sufficient degree of certainty to be responsible for that threat. No one thinks that any kind of ‘shoot-first-ask-questions-later’ counterterrorist approach should be adopted as a matter of policy in the UK. In 1942 the U.S. extra-judicially detained around 100,000 of its Japanese-American citizens and other Japanese in concentration camps so as to counter what the domestic threat they were thought to pose. Such a policy is deplorable for its appalling racism and inhumanity, certainly, but also for the fact that it represents the same kind of consequentialist reasoning that permits the violation of one group of individuals’ rights for the protection of those of some other group. We’ll jail people first, ask questions as to their true security status later. This seems obviously unjustifiable. And so why do we accept this with drone strikes, especially where they involve a far more grave violation of human rights, the violation of the right to life? Again, this is the morality of summary executions.

This is then aside from more fundamental questions. Do we know that the drone strike policy is actually stopping any attacks, rather than generating more through the radicalisation it causes or by virtue of the fact that it may be killing few who have the capacity to launch attacks on the US or elsewhere? But more fundamental still is the following question: even if we accept that drone strikes do stop terrorist attacks against US or other civilians, who said that we’re permitted to make these kinds of trade-offs between groups of civilians? Do we accept a priori the permissibility of killing some Pakistani or Yemeni civilians to save those of the US? Does the US have the right to be carrying out this trade-off?

Think about a comparable example with non-state actors, such as the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine, a Palestinian military organisation famous for attacks against Israeli military targets and Israeli civilians, including a number of highly publicised attacks in the late-‘60s and early ‘70s and during the Second Intifada of the early 2000s. It could have similarly claimed that its killing of civilians was ultimately a consequentialist trade-off between the lives of Israeli civilians and the Palestinian civilians it (for the sake of argument) successfully protected through such attacks. In fact, I think plenty of terrorist attacks would have precisely this kind of justification: this would be a fairly good way of convincing yourself, as you plant a car bomb next to a market stall, that what you’re doing is ultimately permissible in the eyes of morality. Would this make it acceptable? Most would think not. But why do we take the chronically state-friendly view that state action of this kind is permissible?

Whatever Obama knows or doesn’t know about the security situation in the countries in which he’s undertaking his drone strike policy, I think we can come to a pretty compelling view as to the morality of his conduct. To claim otherwise, I think, is to take an extraordinarily casual view of the morality of counterterrorism and what is needed to justify killing, whoever does it and in whatever form.

Sam Bright – a (brief) reply

My argument above is premised on the supposition that President Obama has access to intelligence suggesting each of those targeted by the strikes is intentionally working to bring about the deaths of tens, or even thousands, of other people – be they Somali, Afghan, Yemeni, American, Pakistani, or other. Additionally, it is supposed that these persons are operating in territories that are either totally ungovernable, and thus not capable of control by local (or international) police, or are governed by an administration sympathetic to their terrorist/insurgent goals.

This means that whilst the thought experiments above are interesting, they somewhat miss the point. The difference between a drink-driver: yes, he might accidentally kill someone. But there is no evidence that he is intentionally plotting the deaths of many people. Equally, there are other possible deterrents/preventative measures: such as taking a person’s driving licence away, or locking them up, if they are caught drink-driving.

Similarly, the Leamington Spa example falls short of being a true comparator. Imagine that it were the case that significant sections of Leamington Spa were utterly ungovernable, there was no internal police force capable of preventing terrorist acts, and there was no possibility of inserting police from elsewhere. Then, if there were clear intelligence that those terrorists were plotting the destruction of, say, the Bullring shopping centre on a Saturday afternoon, then a targeted strike, possibly risking the lives of civilians, in those lawless areas of Leamington Spa might well be justified.

In ungovernable territories such as the Afghan/Pakistani border areas and parts of Somalia, detention and other preventative measures are not even remotely feasible. The US (or other) administration is left with only two options: to use probably lethal force, or to do very little whatsoever. My argument is not that it is always right to use lethal force: but rather that in many situations, this could save countless numbers of lives, and certainly many more than it directly threatens.

Sam’s most fundamental objection to my position is that of rejecting consequentialist reasoning. On this approach, killing is always wrong. Personally, I do not believe that many people seriously adopt this perspective. Bernard Williams famously argued against consequentialism using the following argument. Jim, in a South American jungle, is presented with 20 Indians captured and bound by the local military Captain. The Captain tells Jim that either Jim must shoot one Indian, or the Captain will shoot all 20. Bernard Williams considered the consequentialist result – that Jim would be acting morally in killing the one to save the other 19 – to be morally incorrect, that there was a distinction between an act or an omission. Better, he suggests, to allow 20 people to be killed by someone else, than to kill one person yourself.

I’m afraid I do not agree with Professor Williams’ conclusion any more than I do with Sam’s. For me, there is only a limited difference between acts and omissions: and that, as horrific a task as it may be, it is not only possible but sometimes necessary to weigh up the cost in human lives, not just of an action, but of an inaction.

As I have stated above, without access to the intelligence relied upon by President Obama (and others), I will not come to a firm and conclusive position as to the morality of drone strikes that unintentionally kill innocent civilians. However, I think it is eminently possible (whilst being far from certain) that such strikes are in fact the correct moral response in a very difficult situation.

  1. Joe said:

    President Barack Obama should resign from the Presidency ASAP.

    • josephmarkus said:

      If he resigns, don’t we get Romney (at least, in a few months time). If we get Romney, won’t this (probably) get worse? This is the problem of trying to be idealistic in US politics: it’s always a lesser-of-two-evils approach.

      • Biden would initially be no different in this department. And he would probably lose to Romney in November. Who – if we are to go by his book (“No Apology – The Case for American Greatness”) – would be much, much worse…

  2. Josh M said:

    Why don’t we just wipe out the populations of all countries except America? You know, as a kind of defence against potential future attack. That way Americans will definitely be safe – it’s a sure thing.

    The key question is WHY do people want to attack America et al. If you start here, you’ll probably realise that continuing to bomb them probably isn’t going to help matters.

    The best defence against attack is to make friends, not enemies.

    p.s. Jim should probably shoot the Captain.

    • Except, I think there is quite a big difference between drone strikes and wiping out all populations outside of america. Suggesting that the former is at least potentially defensible is some way short of saying the same for the latter.

    • Also yes, I think you’re right about Jim. Unfortunately, Bernard seems not to have contemplated this possibility…

  3. Sam – some comments on your reply.

    Nothing of what I have said outright denies the importance of consequences and the need for consequentialist reasoning. In general, I think it would be crazy to suggest that consequences are irrelevant to moral reasoning. Moreover, I’d certainly agree that there are some situations in which straightforward consequentialist reasoning about life and death is not just permissible but obligatory: if you could sacrifice 100 people to some all-powerful bloodthirsty god who would stop the Holocaust from occurring as a result, I’d think you’d be required to sacrifice those unfortunate 100 people. In the same way, I think terrorism is sometimes justified: again, as I suggested, it may have been justified in apartheid South Africa, or similar circumstances.

    Part of my point with the examples I gave is to isolate a fairly obvious double-standard. We’re usually very good at refusing to accept justifications for terrorism. This is obviously for good reason, given the serious evil of terrorism. In my view, the core evil of terrorism is the fact that it involves the use of force (either as a direct aim or as a foreseeable side-effect) against the innocent. This isn’t the only thing about terrorism that may make it so wrong, but I think it’s the chief thing. Something’s being terrorism, in addition, gives it a strong presumptive wrongness, and so to justify terrorism you need to discharge a heavy burden of proof that that wrongness is outweighed by the moral force of whatever other reasons you may have in favour of committing terrorism. We rightly hold terrorist actions to a very strong burden of proof in this regard, and I can think of comparatively few examples of individual terrorist actions or campaigns which seem all-things-considered justified. The reasoning that permits terrorism is consequentialist in nature, directly demanding the trading-off of a set of innocents’ rights against some other goal. The goal may well be another, perhaps even larger, set of innocents’ rights that it may be the intended effect of the terrorist action to protect.

    By now it’s obvious that I think Obama’s drone campaign fits this template, and I think you’d be hard pressed to say otherwise. You could obviously dispute the definition of terrorism I’ve given: you could claim that Obama’s actions may fit my definition but my definition nonetheless fails to correctly model real terrorist action. It doesn’t really matter either way. What seems clear is that Obama’s actions share something with terrorist actions sufficient to make his actions seriously presumptively wrong in more or less the same way: they involve the trading-off of some innocents’ rights against those of others. This may sometimes be justified, no doubt, but the circumstances in which this will be so are rare.

    You seem either to deny that Obama has a burden of proof of this kind to discharge, or that the burden is so weak as to be discharged, in our eyes, simply by an invocation of our lack of access to his intelligence sources. I think a very strong case can be made for Obama’s mass killing of the innocent through drone strikes to be at least presumptively wrong in precisely the sense I outlined – and this is simply in virtue of the fact that it’s a mass killing of the innocent. This is why, I think, we can say with total confidence that his actions are gravely wrong, even from our limited vantage point. Of course, I agree that his actions may be all-things-considered justified. But I’ve seen nothing to suggest that this is the case, or at least nothing in the least bit sufficient to outweigh the significant presumptive wrongness of his actions. In fact, a good deal of evidence goes the other way: as the previous commentator suggested, American foreign policy of this kind has always seemed a significant cause of anti-Western hatred and violence.

    Just think of how appalling this kind of laxity would seem anywhere else. When our government’s actions kill someone at home, we rightly hold that government or those operating under its auspices to a very stringent burden of proof. Moreover, we place a very strong burden of proof on the justification of killing even where we think the overall terrorist cause is a just one – terrorism in apartheid South Africa would rightly still need be very stringently justified, if justifiable at all. I don’t claim that a policy such as Obama’s that has the foreseeable side-effect of the mass killing of innocents might never be justified, but rather that he hasn’t come close to (to even thinking about attempting to) properly justifying it. And that you’s think he’s been able to discharge this high burden seems to me pretty extraordinary.

  4. Josh M said:

    Hawke is right, though I still believe his argument is based on an incorrect logical starting point.

    Sam Bright, your problem is that you identify too much with the United States vis-a-vis ‘the West’, who feigns that it suffers from a terrorist threat, whereas for most of the world the United States itself is the threat. If you look at US aggression throughout the past 60 years almost none has been defensive. I cannot think of a single case. Vietnam? No it was to prevent them ‘toppling like dominoes’ (copying an economic system we don’t like). America had already been droning Afghanistan for at least 3 years prior to 9/11, so the Afghan invasion should be seen as an escalation of existing policy rather than a ‘response’. In any case, the attacks provided no justification for invasion of the country, whose authorities offered to extradite anyone believed responsible. IN ADDITION, Al Qaeda units, who the US blamed for the attacks, are terrorist units they themselves trained and have consistently used to destabilise other countries in the name of ‘jihad’ – inc. Syria and Libya now. The ‘terrorists’ they talk about are people they themselves trained! Isn’t it obvious who is really responsible? Isn’t it obvious that such discourse is a cynical cover for duping ‘useful idiots’ (those who unthinkingly lap up this rubbish) in order to more smoothly enact desired policy? Similarly, it was them who armed Saddam and supported his installation in Iraq for the main purpose of invading Iran and destabilising the region. They then funded both sides throughout the war, as is well known! Standard imperial divide and rule tactics. And who calls the shots across the Middle East now again the will of the majority of the population?

    In short, I think your arguments are based on a massively warped (almost back to front) view of America’s role in the world. Go and ask Chileans, who had their democratically elected president overthrown in a US backed coup and a dictator installed (Pinochet) what they think of America’s commitment to democracy and ‘security’. I suggest you examine the historical record again from a more neutral position.

  5. It’s always regrettable to omit the US’s record of aggressive war and terrorist action, not least of all for the memory of its millions of victims. But I would take issue with the suggestion that I was being diplomatic, I suppose. Rather, I wanted to highlight how Obama’s actions are at least prima facie impermissible even on the premises that those seeking to defend US actions (in the way you rightly condemn) usually accept. It’s a very conservative argument, and so I think all the more powerful for it. Attacking the US for its historical and current atrocities is key to undermining its claims of democracy promotion and human rights protection – particularly when getting to grips with the likely aims and effects of humanitarian intervention or preemptive strikes, to take the most relevant of examples. But I think this kind of critique may well be tangential to a more powerful critique from foundational, uncontroversial moral principles that in my view fairly quickly make at least prima facie impermissible Obama’s drone policy.

  6. That is not what Williams was saying – he was suggesting that there is a personal component of moral decision making that is not captured in consequentialism.

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