Breakdown: The Truth about Drone Strikes.
I did say I was on pseudo-hiatus, didn’t I? Be warned that unlike most, this breakdown contains personal opinions.
What is the Drone War?
The Obama administration, and the Bush administration, use drones - unmanned, semi-autonomous aircraft - to carry out air strikes on suspected militants outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. Originally used in Yemen in 2002, they are now most commonly used in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, to attack elements of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda elements of al-Shabaab, and like-minded terrorist organizations. Drone strikes are carried out by both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the military, particularly the clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
Much of what we know is pieces from conjecture, comments, anonymous sources, and a good deal of guessing thrown in. With this in mind, both the CIA and the military have “kill lists”, and if the intelligence is adequate a drone strike may be authorized. The White House apparently approves proposed targets. According to ProPublica, some CIA strikes can be approved directly the CIA director.
The reasoning behind drone strikes is obvious: militants are killed and Americans aren’t. However, even mores than war itself, it presents a massive moral and legal quandary.
How is this legal?
It isn’t. Well, it is? In reality, that is a good question. Days after the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed a nearly unlimited act called the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), giving the president the ability to take “all necessary and appropriate force” against anyone involved in the attack or harboring those who were (propublica.org), including American citizens. You have to understand that rules don’t always govern the rulemakers; and if they do, they can be amended into a neutered form. When it comes to war, presidents have been dramatically extending their authority since George Washington himself. Though this is a topic for another day (or breakdown), the point is that though the legality is questionable, it isn’t stopping the United States. What’s more, there is no congressional oversight to the drone strikes.
What about Civilian deaths?
Civilian deaths happen. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism says that between 475 to 891 civilian deaths have occurred since the drone strike program began. The government assures the public that they do all they can to keep civilian deaths limited. Due to the extreme secretive nature of the drone strikes and the lack of public oversight, we have no idea how much that is, and just have to take the government at its word. This is a dubitable prospect at best for even the most ardent supporter. Furthermore, it has come to light that the government counts all adult males killed in drone strikes as militants, regardless of evidence to the contrary. This means that the government’s estimates - always lower than outside sources - are almost doubtlessly too low.
Is this good or bad?
That is an impossible question.
The Bad: There is massive backlash against the drone strikes. Like in all forms of war, civilian casualties occur. Sites like livingunderdrones.org document a life where innocent Pakistanis live in constant fear of the buzz of drones. The stories of innocent men, women, and children blown up by a drone strike while going about their daily lives are countless. To many, this makes the program completely atrocious and the Obama administration a demonic institution. Ravings about the terror of the drone strikes are one f the most commonly leveled reasons on the blogosphere for loathing the Obama administration.
- They work.
- Americans don’t die in the process.
According to the New York Times, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and affiliated groups have been weakened by drone strikes. The government frequently releases news that key figures Al Qaeda have been killed by drone strikes. According to Avery Plaw, a political science professor at the University of Massachussets, Dartmouth, evidence exists that other means of reaching Al Qaeda and affiliates in regions that are largely lawless could cause more civilian harm than the drone strikes do.
This moral quandary is nothing new. Nearly seventy years after the fact people are still debating the legitimacy of the atomic bomb strikes on Japan that ultimately ended World War II (seriously, read Paul Fussel’s “Thank God for the Atom Bomb”. One of the best political science articles I’ve ever read). The drone strike debate - and the questions it evokes - are shockingly similar. Do/should we have bombed? Would the alternatives be/have been any better for civilians? How many of our soldiers will/would have died, and are we/should we have been willing to risk make that sacrifice?
War is hell, and war has no easy answers. I usually try to keep my breakdowns neutral, but allow me to break character and offer my own opinion. I won’t tell you whether I believe the drone strikes are justifiable or not, because I don’t know. I will say that I find the constant stream of infographics and blog posts demonizing President Obama for the drone strikes annoying and ultimately, useless. Not because they hold the opinion that the drone strikes are wrong - that is your prerogative, and I haven’t made up my mind on this question myself - but because they are embarrassingly not thought out. If you are to criticize drone strikes, be prepared to accept the sacrifices of the alternative. Have you chosen the deaths of the American soldiers sent in to regions largely outside of government influence? Do you even know if such operations would be less detrimental on civilian lives than the drone strikes? Or do you not believe we should cary out any operation at all. If so, do not be so naive as to believe the drones are bombing nothing at all; it is known that Al Qaeda and equally nasty groups are operating in those areas. Will you be prepared to accept what may happen if they are allowed to grow unchecked? Answer me. Because until you put some substance behind your condemnation of the Obama administration, I really don’t want to hear it.
Currier, Cora. “Everything We Know So Far About Drone Strikes”. ProPublica.
Zenko, Micah. “Targeted Killings and Congressional Oversight”. The Council on Foreign Relations.
Plaw, Avery. “Drones Save Lives, American and Others”. The New York Times.
“Executive Summary and Recommendations”. Living Under Drones.
“Counting Drone Strike Deaths." The Human Rights Clinic, Columbia University.
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