The Problems with Justifying Drone Strikes

The United States of America has been carrying out a covert war including drone strikes in countries around the world since 2001.  These strikes have been taking place in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq and have resulted in anywhere from 2702 to 4316 dead as a direct result of the covert war, as estimated by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.  This series of strikes around the globe has been justified by the US government as necessary to fight terrorism.  The government further claims these strikes are legally backed by Congress’ 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force and also claims that the international law of nations’ right to self-defense provides sound legal basis for targeting individuals affiliated with Al Qaeda or “associated forces,” even outside Afghanistan. That can include U.S. citizens.  Based on my research and understanding of the subject, however, their justifications of this strategy being legal, ethical and effective all fall far short of the bar I would measure these important issues by.  Through an examination of these different issues, this post will clearly demonstrate how drone strikes are failing in each instance.

The first way in which we can see how the US drone strikes fail to justify the amount of destruction and the number of deaths they incur is by examining the legal basis of these drone strikes.  As previously discussed, the US justifies these drone strikes domestically through the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed after the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The statute empowers the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force” in pursuit of those responsible for the terrorist attacks.  This is an interesting way of tiptoeing past the official ban on Peacetime assassinations, which were officially banned by the United States starting in 1976.  Internationally the US claims they have a right to defense based on the UN charter Article 51, which they say allows them to carry out targeted killing of persons who are planning attacks on the United States both in and out of declared theaters of war.  This includes the prerogative of pursuing and striking targets in states without prior consent.

Although the US uses a lot of fancy words while attempting to justify its actions, in my opinion most of this is just semantically making excuses.  These acts are clearly illegal domestically and internationally when one takes into consideration the ideas behind these laws, and not the legal circumspection done by the US.  Domestically, the US’s positions on peacetime assassinations is clear–they are banned and the US is not supposed to carry out killings and strikes while the US is not at war.  Attempting to classify these strikes as something else is nonsense.  Internationally, Article 51 was based on removing threats to a nation while at war and is supposed to go through a UN authorization process.  Simply put, if any other country or multiple other countries took the same lenient position on this Article, national sovereignty would mean little to nothing internationally as any perceived threat to any country could be eliminated anywhere at anytime.  In my opinion, then, legally the US drone strikes fail to meet the standard for justification of the amount of destruction and death they incur.

An additional way in which we will examine how the US drone strikes fail to justify the amount of destruction and death they incur is through an exploration of the ethical basis of these drone strikes.  Ethically drone strikes have received a lot of debate.  This is largely because of the proven civilian deaths incurred under this policy, including several highlighted events in the news such as the killing of 15 Pakistani wedding guests.  The use of “signature strikes,” where the United States profiles people based on surveillance and kills them because of the probability of them being terrorists is also ethically debatable.  The proposed ethical justification for these strikes despite the deaths of civilians argues that the removal of terrorists that pose such a threat is worth the civilian deaths.

In my opinion, however, no policy which has been proven to have killed several hundred innocent children (at the lowest estimate), while removing individuals who are only sometimes proven to be terrorists can be ethically justified.  When one considers that the standard for when these strikes are launched has been proven to make mistakes, and has received very little discussion, oversight, or legal precedent, it becomes clear that we are allowing a military organization to simply make ethical decisions formed in war without even the citizens of the United States exerting any moral authority over them.  In these ways, then, I find it very difficult to argue that this program of drone strikes around the globe can be morally justified–especially by a nation that claims to be the best in the world and morally motivated.

The final way in which we can examine how the US drone strikes fail to meet the standards that would justify the amount of death and destruction it incurs is by examining the effective basis of these drone strikes.  The United States military maintains that these strikes are essential to national security and that we must continue the removal of terrorists planning attacks against the US around the world.  Since these drone strikes were launched they have killed at best about 4,000 terrorists.  The organizations they have targeted, however, have shown no sign of degradation and are still operating and maintaining their terrorist activities.  Additionally, the backlash internationally has been far greater than the gain in my opinion.  This has resulted in deeply unpopular reactions in the regions where these drone strikes happen and spark frequent protests in the countries where they hit.  There is also a deep concern that because of this hatred of drone strikes and the civilian casualties that the US is in fact simply making more enemies then they are taking out.  At best, the US is creating an image for itself internationally as a killer of innocent civilians, and not as a force for good.

For these many reasons, then, it is my opinion that the current US policy of drone strikes is completely unjustified for accomplishing the stated benefits.  Although one cannot argue that they have indeed taken out terrorists abroad, the cost in civilian lives, international relations, and the possible consequence of actually creating more fighters against us–a threat which is nearly impossible to quantify–simply leaves no room for the present strategy to be continued.  In all these ways, then, drone strikes are not under any of these criteria justified.