Game of Drones

The debate over the use of drones falls into three paradigms:  legal, practical and moral. The panel hosted on Wednesday by the Bi-Partisan Policy Center (BPC) followed this pattern.

John Bellinger, a lawyer and former adviser to the Department of State, said legally, it is permissible to use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to kill leaders who plot against the United States. Under international law, use of force is permissible under an imminent threat or during ongoing hostilities.

Hina Shamsi of the ACLU replied that the United States does not conduct drone strikes under those guidelines. No evidence is required that a plot is taking place. During wartime, Thomas Kean, the co-chair of the BPC’s Homeland Security Project, we may suspend civil  rights and take otherwise illegal actions, but the US drone program is going beyond that and conducting actions illegal even in wartime.

A crucial problem is lack of transparency.  The Obama administration needs to prove that what they are doing is lawful. So far they have not succeeded.  Who is making the decisions?  What are the legal standards?  Who are the targets and why?  Restricted access to White House legal memos on the drone program inhibits Congress from constructing an adequate legal framework and from conducting oversight. Bellinger posed the question, once meant to be a controversial joke, now an impending reality: “Will drones be Obama’s Guantanamo [controversial legacy]?”  Shamsi warned that transparency is necessary for a healthy democracy.  The drone program threatens our democracy’s health.

Philip Zelikow, former counselor at the Department of State under George W. Bush, presented a defense and explanation of how the administration approaches the use of UAVs. The argument centers on how to conduct warfare with a group like Al Qaeda, a non-state actor, spread out over multiple nations.  First, he explained, you need to define a doorway that once entered allows you to kill people. Having passed through the doorway, you ask ‘which people can I kill?’  You have to set standards. Zelikow  advocated a:  “rule of law” approach. The doorway should be public, debated and discussed, to ensure a healthy democracy. Who you can kill should be defined carefully as someone who directly participates in hostilities.

Bellinger pointed out that the rest of the world operates within a human rights paradigm. The drone issue heavily affects international response and regional blowback.  No other nation has publicly agreed with our drone program.  To others, the US appears indifferent to civilian casualties. The perception of America as ruthless undermines our legitimacy as a world power. Shamsi added that America needs to be concerned about the precedent it sets for the rest of the world. Sooner or later, other countries and non-state actors will get drone technology. “We need to consider,” she added, “if we want to live in the world that we are currently defining.”

Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times posed the question of how and why drones are used in countries where American is not at war. Is the bar different for targeted killings in Yemen or Pakistan? What does this new style of war mean for regional repercussions and blowback? Drone strikes gone awry, in these areas especially, generate fear and hatred.  They also lead to increased radicalization and motivate extremism.

The time has come for a renewed debate on the use of military force, including drones.  The enemies are not conventional ones. We need public discussion on what is permissible, legally, practically and morally.

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