In this post, I am going to ask a question that has been puzzling me for some time. It is a question that is guaranteed to evoke violent and angry comments, and quite possibly no serious or thoughtful replies at all. Nevertheless, I shall ask it, and hope that at least some of you will be willing to discuss it calmly. Let me say two things at the outset: First, this is not a rhetorical question, to which I already think I know the answer. It is a genuine invitation for reasoned discussion. Second, I will simply delete any comments that are not sober and serious. So hold your invective and scorn please. I am not interested in reading it.
The question is this: What is wrong with America's use of armed drones?
Let me begin by setting aside a question that can easily be confused with this one. I am not asking whether it is right or good that America pursue an imperial foreign and military policy. I have already expressed several times my belief that it is not. Presumably, anyone who thinks America ought not to use military force to impose its will on other nations also will be opposed to America's use of missiles, aircraft carriers, land mines, manned fighters, special forces units, and every other instrument of military power. But that is not an argument against drones per se. The drone, on that view, is simply one weapon in an armamentarium of weapons, not in itself distinguishable from any other. It is useful to contrast the use of drones with the use of torture. There are good and sufficient reasons to oppose the use of torture even if one approves of the military and foreign policy in whose service it is employed. I am asking whether the same is true of the use of drones, and if so, why.
What prompts me to ask this question? Quite simply, I ask it because a number of people on the left who in general supported the re-election of Obama consider his increased use of drones an especially black mark against him and his administration, and that fact has puzzled me.
What are the benefits of the use of armed unmanned drone aircraft, in the eyes of the military or civilian war planners? There seem to be three that weigh in the calculations of those planners who choose to use them. First, drones are much, much cheaper to build than manned aircraft, for a variety of obvious reasons. Second, they can be used without risk to American pilots. And third, they cause less "collateral damage" than bombing raids and missile attacks, and hence are less likely to increase opposition in the countries attacked to the United States. The first two of these are manifestly true, the third is at the very least debatable. There are other secondary considerations that incline military planners to use drones. They are smaller and lighter than manned aircraft, and therefore can fly slower, maneuver more tightly, and remain aloft longer. As a consequence of high tech instrumentation, they can monitor an area as effectively as manned aircraft, if not more effectively, and they can be controlled from a trailer parked in Arizona as easily as from a command post close to the target.
What are the special costs or defects of the use of drones as opposed to any other weapons? Perhaps the most obvious is that they are a cheap and easy way to violate the territorial sovereignty of other nations. Not the only way, heaven knows. The special forces raid that killed Bin Laden did not use drones. It used helicopters and a small team of armed Navy Seals. From a purely practical policy point of view, the manned attack was preferable to the use of a drone, even though it was both riskier and a much more serious violation of Pakistani territorial sovereignty, because it yielded a wealth of intelligence data and the absolute certainty that Bin Laden had been killed. But one very powerful argument against the use of drones is that by making violations of national sovereignty so much easier, they make such violations more likely.
Now, let me speculate [and inevitably incur the wrath of a good many readers]. I suspect that there are psychological and cultural reasons why there is so much opposition on the left to the use of armed drones. Mind you, I have absolutely no evidence that any such reasons are in play, so I offer these observations simply as a speculation. I suspect that many people are uneasy with the use of drones because their use seems unfair, cowardly, bullying. To hunt down and kill an enemy [assuming for the moment that you grant that America has enemies] without taking any risk to oneself seems unmanly. [Yes, I am using this loaded word because I suspect it is at play in unacknowledged ways.] The Seals, after all, risked their lives going after Bin Laden, but a Spec-4 sitting in an air conditioned trailer in Arizona is not risking anything save boredom. At least those whom we attack have rifles or shoulder-fired missiles with which they can attack the drones, but they do not themselves have drones that they can launch against American cities, so using drones is not -- fair.
Put openly in this way, the objection to drones seems fatuous. War is not a boxing contest or a pro football game. Nor is it a knightly quest out of the Chanson de Roland. Surely no one fighting a war has any obligation to take unnecessary risks just to satisfy some antique British fetish with fair play!
It is important not to confuse the question of the special objectionableness of drones with the larger question of the legitimacy of the military effort tout court. Obviously, if you think America has no business attacking members of al Qaeda, then you will also think that America has no business attacking members of al Qaeda with drones. But I am deliberately attempting to set aside that larger question in order to focus entirely on the question whether Obama's increased use of drones is somehow especially reprehensible.
Well, there it is. I would be genuinely interested in what people have to say about this precise question: Why is Obama's increased use of unmanned armed drones a special black mark against him and his administration?