Since I wrote recently about the US drone war, the issue has once again been in the news. The reason for it coming up, as it happens, fits in with the argument I will offer as to why, I think, at certain times, drone strikes are a regrettable necessity.
Before we get to that, let’s review the objections to this unconventional form of war: that the targets are taken out without the due process; that it this is a violation of the sovereignty of the nations where the attacks are carried out; that some of the targets have not themselves carried out acts of violence, but only incited them; and last but not least, not all the victims are the intended targets, but merely people happening to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. We will go over them one by one.
The reason the drone strikes have been back in the news has the been the concern that they may happen on US soil. Except that that is not going to happen.
President Barack Obama would not use a drone to kill an American on U.S. soil, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Thursday…
“The president has not and would not use drone strikes against American citizens on American soil,” Carney said at a press briefing.
“Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil? …. The answer to that question is no,” Carney said, quoting Holder’s letter.
But the US is not the only place where there will never be any drone strikes. There are not going to be any drone stirkes anywhere in the world where there is a police force willing to apprehend terrorism suspects. Even in Pakistan, despite all the outrage in that country over the drone attacks, once the intended targets flee to the cities for fear of the drones, they get picked up by the police. And the Pakistani police have arrested some extremely nasty characters this way, that would likely be hiding to this day in a cave plotting the day of Pakistanis (and Americans) if it weren’t for the drones, even if these elements later get played as bargaining chips.
So the answer to “why are these targets attacked without the due process” is rather straightforward: because they are flouting the law by making the due process impossible. The only options are to send drones after them, or let them keep plotting more murders, as was the case with Baitullah Mehsud, the man behind assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and later drone target.
Which meshes in nicely with the next objection to the drone war: the violation of sovereignty. This is almost comical. Pakistan, Yemen and other countries where the drone strikes are carried out have no sovereignty to begin with, in their lawless areas. There would be no drone war if these areas were under control. If they care about sovereignty so much they can start by impose the rule of law over their own country.
The next objection is about the killing of individuals who are theorists and propagandists of terrorism, who do not necessarily carry out acts of violence themselves. Yet as it happens, there are precedents for imposing the same penalty on propagandists, when their incitement of violence leads to actual violence. Perhaps the most notorious such example is the Nazi “journalist” Julius Streicher, tried and executed by the allies.
The fact that Streicher was “only” involved in propaganda and did not do any of the dirty work himself is why the horrible Neo-Nazi site Stormfront says he was “martyred”. If we can agree that Streicher deserved what he got, it is hard to see why Anwar al-Awlaki didn’t deserve the same, particularly given that when killed by a drone strike he was free (unlike Streicher) and could continue his incitements of violence. (See my previous post for more on that.)
The only objection to the drone war that I find persuasive is the unintended victims. It is true, and it is heartbreaking. I truly wish that it could be avoided. Yet there is something important to remember here. These casualties could not have been avoided by sending in an armed force to capture the suspects. In the tribal areas where the suspects are sheltered, sending in a police or army unit to capture them would inevitably lead to a battle, and that would also cause unintended caualties. As much as I am disturbed by the fact that women and children are killed by drones, I can’t help asking the question: who is more to blame here? If the cowardly terrorists hide behind civilians to escape justice, shouldn’t they at least get part of the blame for such horrible outcomes?
With these objections answered, I rest my case that, as much as all of us desiring the rule of law and the due process regret the drone war, we are not living in a perfect world, and as long as it save lives in the US, Pakistan, and elsewhere, I see myself forced to excuse it.