America’s killing by drone program finally became frontpage news this week with the leak of a memo arguing the legality of targeting U.S. citizens suspected of being al Qaeda leaders. But the debate remains too small. Whether the president has the legal authority to order the killing of U.S. citizens is certainly an important question, but there are more fundamental issues not being given as much scrutiny. Some were touched on in the confirmation hearing of John Brennan, but much remains unanswered.
Beginning under President George W. Bush, and escalating under President Barack Obama, the United States is currently using armed drones in four countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia), has used them in two others (Iraq and Libya), and is considering using them in northern Africa. Why should we oppose this means of warfare?
Perhaps the most important reason is this. For those of us who follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace, killing other people, whoever they are, by whatever means, violates his teachings. An endless cycle of violence is not the solution to our world’s problems; we should rather actively seek peace. We cannot expect nations to live by the ethic of Jesus, as John Howard Yoder reminded us. We can, however, expect them to live by law, the standards they have set to restrain the worst of violence. From that perspective, here are some reasons for opposing drone attacks.
Drone strikes violate international law. International law prohibits a country from carrying out military attacks in or against the territory of countries with which it is not at war. In only one place, Afghanistan, is the U.S. at least arguably, legally at war. The resolution that passed the U.S. Congress and was signed by President Bush following 9/11, authorized the use of force against “those nations, organizations, or persons” that “planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons …” Whether that authorization still applies more than a decade later is questionable, but it provides at least some legal authority for the war in Afghanistan. In all other places, U.S. drone strikes are illegal.
Drone strikes violate the sovereignty of countries. Bombing another country is not a good way to build friendly relations. The government of Pakistan has repeatedly objected to drone strikes on its territory, but its concerns have been repeatedly ignored. Just this week, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the U.S. called the continuing attacks a “clear violation of our sovereignty and a violation of international law.” In addition to the official repercussions, there is evidence that the effect on civilians is a growing hatred of the U.S. that translates into more rather than fewer militants.
The drone program has no transparency or accountability.The use of armed drones in countries other than Afghanistan is an officially secret program conducted by the CIA. These drones are remotely controlled, primarily from Air Force bases in the U.S., with no clear accountability, and with the targeting sometimes based on dubious intelligence. They are essentially assassinations of specific individuals. There have been four known deaths of Americans, while according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, at least 3,000 total deaths in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; more than 500 of them civilians. Such operations designed to kill specific human targets are easily manipulated by their dependence on intelligence information. Some are politically driven, for instance, where a politician or tribal leader sees it as a way to remove one of his opponents. And decisions are sometimes made to proceed with a strike even though the targeted individual may be in the company of others – his wife and children, or friends.
The endless war on terror is a threat to our future. Following the 9/11 attacks in New York City and Washington, the Bush Administration made the decision to define it as a war on terror, rather than defining it as law enforcement against criminals. This definition allows for an endless war, across many countries, as groups using the al Qaeda name continue to spread, most of them with no connection to the original group responsible for 9/11. Do we really want a future of growing drone strikes in many countries?
Drone strikes set a dangerous precedent. More than 70 countries now possess drone aircraft. While most of them are not armed, that is clearly the next step. The precedent the U.S. is setting of launching drones against countries could come back to haunt us. How will we feel if drones were launched, for example, from bases in Mexico and guided over the U.S. by controllers in China?
Drones make it easier to go to war. One of the restraints on military action is that commanders know they will suffer casualties of their own troops. It is one reason that wars are traditionally seen as only a last resort. The use of unmanned aircraft eliminates the threat of casualties, and thus makes it easier to launch attacks.
While I fear that the proliferation of drones is already past the point of no return, it is still worthwhile to question and oppose their use and misuse. At the very least, international law, especially the laws of war, must be revised and updated to take them into account. A world with thousands of unpiloted attack aircraft, for which national borders are irrelevant and whose pilots thousands of miles away are unregulated by law, would be a world of fear and anarchy in which no one would be safe. It’s a nightmare that we can and must prevent.
Duane Shank is Senior Policy Adviser for Sojourners. You can follow him on Twitter @DShankDC.