Drones: A Blessing or a Curse?

It is no secret that the U.S. increasingly uses drones to achieve its counterterrorism goals. During the recent presidential debates, there was no contention over drone usage. Indeed, much of the skepticism surrounding drones appears to have subsided as they have become the Obama administration’s primary tool for fighting terrorism. This is unsurprising considering the lack of serious ramifications stemming from their usage. [1]

There are indeed many advantages to using drones. They are much more accurate than other comparable methods due to their ability to survey a target for hours or even days. Their use does not put any American lives at risk, and some findings show that they cause fewer civilian casualties than other methods. Furthermore, they are relatively inexpensive to produce. As such, drones appear to be the ideal weapon for fighting a war that is more about abstract concepts such as ideology rather than borders or land. [2]

Yet, the criticisms of drones should not be ignored. President Obama has espoused the principle of just war whilst discussing his foreign policy philosophy. Just war dictates that force should only be used as a last resort. However, because drones are so appealing and easy to use, certain critics such as Professor Daniel R. Brunstetter of UC Irvine, fear that drones are being employed at the expense of other methods. Rather than arresting terrorists or freezing assets, for example, the government immediately turns to drones. Drones appear to be anything but a last resort, resulting in a widespread and at times, lax use of force. [3] Regulations regarding targets are relaxing, allowing for “signature” attacks on unnamed combatants, which could result in the targeting of any young man in an insurgent area. Moreover, in his recent explanation of his method for fighting terrorists, Obama gave five rules for using drones, which were exceptionally vague. As reported by the Economist, “The target must be ‘authorised by our laws’ and represent a threat that is ‘serious and not speculative.’ The need for attack must be urgent. Planners must be ‘very careful’ about avoiding civilian casualties.” However, these rules do not give any specific or useful information about how exactly the government will determine whether a threat is “’serious,’” or how it will avoid killing civilians, for example. [1]

Furthermore, Professor Brunstetter worries that drones are actually counterproductive to achieving the ultimate goal of peace. The collateral damage and civilian deaths resulting from drone strikes may end up fueling anti-American sentiment in the region, making networks like Al Qaeda all the more appealing to youths in the region. Additionally, there appears to be no perceivable end to the drone campaign, so it is conceivable that it will turn into an “endless cycle of perceived threat, drone strikes, inevitable collateral damage, and mutual animosity.” [2]

Drones are undoubtedly appealing and effective. But is the U.S. marginalizing its values of just war and sacrificing peace for the sake of convenience?

[1] http://www.economist.com/news/international/21565614-america-uses-drones-lot-secret-and-largely-unencumbered-declared-rules-worries

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/sunday-review/the-moral-case-for-drones.html?_r=0

[3] http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/07/can-we-wage-a-just-drone-war/260055/

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