The Obama administration argues that the U.S. drone program is legal and moral. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday of the administration’s policy, “These strikes are legal, they are ethical and they are wise.” Legally, they cite the congressional authorization of force in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the president’s ability to authorize covert operations.
Morally, they cite Just War Tradition (JWT). St. Augustine never imagined a world in which unmanned aircraft could kill people from the skies. But these ancient moral codes can still provide guidance in robot war.
JWT is a centuries-old guide to thinking about when and how it can ever by morally justifiable to violate the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” JWT holds that we retain our moral compass even during warfare. It is on this basis that the U.S. military can court martial soldiers for murder or massacres even during wartime killing. War is not an excuse that lets us “off the hook” of our obligations to protect human life and dignity. JWT stakes out the middle ground between pacifism, which never allows war, and realpolitik, which always allows war.
Before entering combat there must be a just cause such as self defense. Only a right, public authority can determine this, guided by the right intention of protecting peace and the common good. Force can only be used as a last resort, when success is possible, and the harms of war will not be disproportionate to the reasons for going to war. During war, force must be discriminate and proportional. Civilians must not be targeted, must actively be protected, and any unintended harms and civilian casualties must not outweigh the protection of life to come from using force.
Proponents argue that drone warfare is just, and meets all these criteria. They argue that using drones is more moral than sending in ground forces, “boots on the ground,” or large scale aerial bombing campaigns, which would kill more people. The U.S. must kill enemies to defend from imminent al Qaeda and insurgent attacks. Drones are the best means of killing those clear and present dangers, that best protects both U.S. soldiers and non-combatants.
But drones are not being used instead of “boots on the ground” to better protect civilians. Drones are used where the U.S. would never send in ground troops (Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan), where wars have not been declared and where the U.S. would otherwise not intervene conventionally. Thus drones are extending, not limiting killing.
Further, drones are only useful against enemies that have no air defenses. Drones are slow and vulnerable to both conventional attack and cyber hacking. Thus they can only be used against militarily weak targets. This calls into question whether using drones is militarily necessary, or politically expedient, against weak targets.
Questions about the military necessity of drone strikes rise the further down the kill list the U.S. descends. CIA and Pentagon officials testify that al Qaeda is in disarray, on the run, and not able to strike the U.S. homeland, despite recent activities in Africa by splinter groups. The justifications for the expansive drone program would have been much more plausible shortly after the September 11th attacks. But as we enter the 12th year of war, the imminent threats to the U.S. homeland that makes drone strikes militarily necessary are harder to defend.
Like medical triage, JWT offers an ethic of risk that requires protecting the most vulnerable first. Thus soldiers must take on more risk than civilians. We cannot save U.S. soldiers’ lives at the expense of foreign civilians. JWT notes that all lives are sacred and applies to all, not just Americans. We cannot use drones to protect the lives of U.S. soldiers by endangering the lives of foreign civilians.
Yet while some drone uses today may be questionable, this does not mean drones never meet JWT. Unlike some types of weapons, such as nuclear weapons, which never meet just war criteria, the morality of drones depends on the context. If they were used within a just war, they could be a more discriminate and proportional way to protect against civilian casualties.
Intelligence gathering drones also can be used to gather information to save lives and build peace. For example, United Nations Peacekeeping Operations are considering using intelligence drones to monitor violence against civilians in Eastern Congo, where millions of civilians have been killed.
As we invent new ways to kill, the old rules still apply. But they are not sufficient to build peace and protect against terror. Just War Tradition may help limit the killing in war, but it tells us nothing about how to build peace.
Dr. Maryann Cusimano Love is Associate Professor of International Relations in the Politics Department of The Catholic University of America. She is also a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research, and serves as a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on International Justice and Peace issues.