Lost: Moral Reasoning on Drone Attacks

Yesterday President Obama gave a speech defending drone strikes and “targeted killing” as part of a comprehensive defense strategy against terrorism (a full transcript of his speech is provided here).  Now, on political matters I’m not usually dogmatic, but here I must forcefully disagree with the President’s defense of “targeted killing” as presented in the speech.  I would not normally use this blog to advertise a disagreement over American policy, but since almost all drone strikes occur in the Middle East, policy decisions on that subject are immediately relevant to Middle East affairs and the perception of the US in the Middle East.

But let me first say that I applaud much of this speech.  President Obama rightly highlights the impact of ideas and the importance of doing what is right, both as an instrumental means of achieving national security and as a matter of consistency with the democratic and constitutional values of American governance.  Thus he said, “In an age in which ideas and images can travel the globe in an instant, our response to terrorism cannot depend on military or law enforcement alone. We need all elements of national power to win a battle of wills and ideas.”  Even more directly, “Force alone cannot make us safe.”  And he highlighted the greater cost-effectiveness of foreign aid to give the lie to the notion that America is against Islam: the defense budget for foreign wars far exceeds the value of foreign aid, and yet foreign aid more effectively persuades real people that America is not evil, thus reducing the effectiveness of jihadi recruiting.  These are good things.

Nevertheless I do disagree with President Obama’s reasoning about drone strikes, even as some news sources present the President as seeming to argue with himself.  I will summarize my thoughts under three headings, moral arguments, legal arguments, and effectiveness arguments.  Although I recognize that there is widespread disagreement on the nature of moral reasoning, I do regard the moral arguments as both the most straightforward and the most important, and so today’s post will focus on the moral arguments, while the arguments from law and from effectiveness will await another day.  I also realize that in condemning all drone attacks outside of active battlefields, I am parting company with the majority of political voices in the US (whether red or blue) and the majority of legal experts.  That fact does not make me doubt the positions I argue for here.

Moral Arguments

It is conspicuous that President Obama raises the question of morality but does not adduce any moral reasoning in his speech.  He indicated that new technologies of warfare raise questions of morality, and later he said, “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”  Thereafter he avoided all reference to morality except in two instances.  He asserted the moral obligation to carry out “targeted killings” through his statement, “I would have been derelict in my duty had I not authorized the strike that took out Awlaki,” referring to Anwar al-Awlaki, the US citizen and Yemeni terrorist.  In the context he does not indicate which presidential duty he has in mind.  Finally, he asserted the dubious morality of alternatives to drone attacks: “So neither conventional military action, nor waiting for attacks to occur, offers moral safe-harbor.”  In the immediate context he was indicating that more civilians were killed by conventional military action than by drones, and that conventional military action exposes more American lives to danger.  It is conspicuous that this sentence is the only place where he alludes to “waiting for attacks to occur,” and he probably included it here only to give the illusion of considering all alternatives.  The reasoning seems to be that the alternatives to drone attacks are just as morally questionable as “targeted killing” itself, so get over the moral qualms.  This exhaustive summary of President Obama’s appeals to morality are why I must disagree with the Christian Science Monitor reporter who referred to “Obama’s moral arguments“; there were none.

Now, some people will argue that moral reasoning is impossible, either because (1) everyone knows deep down in their heart what is right and wrong, or (2) morality is merely a pious Victorian smokescreen for who you like and who you dislike (although it was that most affable and least sententious Victorian Oscar Wilde who put in the mouth of one of his villains, “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.  You dislike me.  I am quite aware of that.  And I have always detested you.” — Mrs. Cheveley, An Ideal Husband, Act 2).  Yet the branch of philosophy identified as “ethics” challenges the presumption of inability to reason about moral matters (even if the divergence of opinions expressed will not give us much confidence in sophistic arguments, so I will keep my arguments simple).

Governments very rarely seem to appeal to the nearly universally recognized moral principle that it is obligatory to treat others as you would wish to be treated.  In the Christian tradition (which of course has no monopoly on the sentiment) the “golden rule” was expressed as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Most governments seem to operate by the modification in the style of Richard Rorty, “Do unto others what you can get away with,” and some have even adopted the dangerous principle, “Do unto others before they can do unto you!”

Now I do not believe that the golden rule is absolute in every instance, so I am not arguing that we should treat criminals and terrorists as we would want them to treat us (although I do think due process is morally obligatory).  But what about the many innocent people in the countries where drone strikes take place?  Raining death from the skies with impunity necessarily creates an environment of fear under which the people have no choice but to live.  This is a form of widespread psychological harm for which they are receiving no recompense.  The argument may be that these attacks only target terrorists, and their home countries are better off without them.  That may be so, but the attacks sometimes miss (and the so-called “signature strikes” target anyone who “acts like a terrorist,” which in the minds of many Americans would include direct religious profiling to target any Muslim who prays too often in a mosque!).  President Obama’s assertion that “Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces” provides scant comfort to the people of areas where drone strikes occur.

Turning the tables can reveal the moral lapse beyond all of our clever self-justifications: how many Americans would appreciate it if a Russian drone flew in and killed an American while he was at home, even if it was a widely acknowledged extremist such as David Koresh?  Can you imagine the uproar if a Cuban fighter jet, without violating US airspace, destroyed a warehouse at Houston airport while flying over Mexico?  The fact that either of these scenarios is presently unlikely does not change the sense of outrage and personal affront which the American people would feel at the violation of our national sovereignty and domestic security.  These scenarios, and the real-life scenarios on which they are modeled, reveal the emptiness of appeals to “legitimate defense of national interests” when one country’s “national interests” conflict with another country’s “national interests.”  The moral discourse of rights can sound dangerously like it is might which makes them.

Obama asserted in his speech that drone strikes “are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty” (emphasis added), yet he acknowledged that “Any U.S. military action [including drone strikes] in foreign lands risks creating more enemies, and impacts public opinion overseas.”  Speaking of the Special Forces raid which killed Osama bin Laden, he acknowledged that “the cost to our relationship with Pakistan [of the raid that killed bin Laden] – and the backlash among the Pakistani public over encroachment on their territory – was so severe that we are just now beginning to rebuild this important partnership.”  This acknowledgment also highlights the boldest lie uttered in the same speech: “Our alliances are strong, and so is our standing in the world.”  Pakistan in particular has repeatedly and publicly objected to US drone strikes, even if the same government occasionally admits it has authorized strikes, and US-Pakistani relations have been very strained in the last few years.

The Pakistani people hear the government’s protests which seem to be ignored by the ruthless overseas aggressor, the US, and thus the drone strikes contribute, as one retired Air Force general put it, to “creating a recruiting poster for Al Qaeda.”  The point here is not about the effectiveness of the strikes (that issue will be addressed later), but that the Pakistani public clearly feels wronged by the drone campaign.  The fact that it is hard to imagine the US public not feeling even more violated and outraged if the tables were turned, including vocal demands for immediate military response against the country which sent the drone, reveals that this is a moral issue, and drones are on the wrong side of the moral calculus.  (The irony, of course, is that some of the most vocal supporters of the drone program in Washington today would be, if the tables were turned, some of the most strident voices calling for military response to a drone strike on US soil, but politicians have very rarely been noted for a strong moral compass.)

The US government, CIA, and military seem to feel that at present they can act with impunity in the drone program, because no one else has the capacity to send a drone to the US.  But this may change at any time.  The inability to be forcefully brought to account for an action does not mean it is morally legitimate, as Obama himself noted by his remark that “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”

A sharp distinction must of course be drawn between the use of unmanned aircraft in a battle situation and their use off the battle situation.  The use of unmanned aircraft in an active battle situation is clearly no more objectionable than the use of tanks (and although I am almost a pacifist, I am not convinced that war is the worst possible evil, and so I believe there are situations in which tanks and battles on one side can be justified).  As several commentators have remarked, the use of targeted killings in the “War on Terror” treat the entire world as a constant battlefield, and various voices have called upon the President of the United States to repudiate the “global battlefield” doctrine.

I think ridicule might be a more effective approach: everyone knows that the whole world is not a battlefield all of the time.  Although the locations of battles of the “War on Terror” are difficult to predict, they are not everywhere all the time, and it is sheer idiocy or willful neglect of reality to believe otherwise.  Any particular place may become a battlefield, but it does so precisely when some party initiates violence there, as happened at the finish line of the Boston Marathon last month, and happens every time a drone strike attacks someone who is not actively committing violence.  Note that it is the drone strike which transforms a place into a battlefield which was not a battlefield before.  Plans to commit violence do not make a battlefield (as all army generals know, as they usually wish to avoid seeing direct combat), and surprise attacks as often as not will catch terrorists thinking about the weather and their worries about their social standing (provided the drone strike is actually targeting terrorists and not merely people having a social gathering).

My conclusion is therefore that drone strikes are always immoral when not used in a context of active combat between opposing armies.  This seems to be readily apparent to everyone who has been nearby a drone strike, or where a drone strike is thought a real possibility.  The obfuscation of this moral point to those who defend the “targeted killing” approach is merely a result of humans’ universal ability to fully exonerate themselves in their pursuit of their desires, whatever they happen to be.  On the moral scale, yesterday’s speech by President Obama (although admirable at many other points) was simply bankrupt.


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