The United States of Drones: Why Do Americans Support An Arguably Ineffective, Immoral And Illegal Policy?

by John Haltiwanger
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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, have become the primary tool in the fight against terrorism since President Barack Obama took office. Originally used for purposes of surveillance, drones have evolved into elite killing machines.

Drones are often used to target and kill individuals suspected of involvement in the planning and execution of terrorist attacks, but many of these strikes have occurred in countries with which the US is not currently at war:

Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. Thus, the use of drones by the US in these countries is arguably a violation of their sovereignty and is illegal by international law.

Furthermore, there are conflicting reports on the number of civilian deaths drone strikes have caused and there is a general lack of transparency from the US government on this issue.

As the Scottish Global Forum think-tank highlights, "It has been argued that the use of drone strikes is extrajudicial and illegal, as the strikes often occur outside of the combat zone and ignore due process."

Accordingly, some argue that the US drone program does more harm than good and could perpetuate, rather than help end, the War on Terror. As Audrey Cronin notes, the picture is mixed.

“…Drones are killing operatives who aspire to attack the United States today or tomorrow. But they are also increasing the likelihood of attacks over the long term, by embittering locals and cultivating a desire for vengeance,” Cronin says.

Likewise, a recent report from Human Rights Watch has argued that the US violates laws of war with its current use of drones.

According to Notre Dame University Professor of International Dispute and Resolution Dr. Mary Ellen O'Connell,We are killing people with drones and other means outside our conflict zones, in Yemen, in Pakistan and in Somalia

In these three countries, everyone we kill is a civilian and the only number that matters is total numbers."

Needless to say, drones are quite a controversial topic. We began using them for targeted killings under President Bush, but this policy has increased exponentially under President Obama. In fact, the first drone strike under President Obama took place just three days after he took office.

Since Obama’s inauguration in 2009, the CIA has launched 330 strikes on Pakistan — his predecessor, President George Bush, conducted 51 strikes in four years.

Moreover, Obama’s drone program recently reached its fifth anniversary and it is estimated that it has resulted in the deaths of at least 2,400 people.

There is also heavy criticism of the criteria the US employs to select targets for drone strikes, especially for the practice of “signature strikes.”

Signature strikes involve targeting groups with drones who appear to be behaving like militants in insurgent controlled areas. Cronin argues the indiscriminate killing of some civilians will be inevitable as a result of this loosely defined practice.

One might also question how the US defines a target as an imminent threat or a high-value target, as "Only 58 known militant leaders have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, representing just 2 percent of the total deaths."

Despite these facts, the US government has relied heavily on the use of drones and drone strikes in its counterterrorism efforts. Moreover, the government has the public’s backing, as a majority of Americans support the use of drones and drone strikes.

According to a Gallup Poll, 65 percent of Americans support drone attacks on terrorists abroad. It is also notable that there isbipartisan support for this policy. As Gallup notes,

"A majority in each party says the US government should use drones to launch airstrikes in other countries against suspected terrorists, Republicans (79 percent) are significantly more likely to say so than are Democrats (55 percent) and Independents (61 percent)."

The US Public And Drones

Although Americans have often signified a concern and disdain for the loss of foreign civilian life in war, they are even less fond of risking their own troops’ lives.

Having experienced the disastrous results of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are quite war weary and not fond of putting American soldiers in danger, or “boots on the ground.”

In many ways, despite many questions about the morality of drone strikes, it is easy to understand their appeal. Drones offer a push-button approach to warfare, in which we can eliminate enemies without risking American soldiers’ lives.

Obama has leaned toward drone strikes to simultaneously pursue a forceful foreign policy and allay anti-war opposition. Basically, due to the fact that drones are an ostensibly quicker and cleaner means of combatting terrorism, they are less likely to experience opposition.

The US government’s lack of transparency on this issue also helps reduce opposition, as the public doesn’t have a clear picture of when and why drone strikes are executed.

Moreover, it is also very difficult to report on drone strikes, given they often occur in remote and hostile areas. As a result, the American public is not very informed the prevalence of drone strikes.

Many Americans have actually admitted that they are not following news about the government's use of drones. Thus, it is disconcerting that a majority of Americans support such a controversial policy.

In May 2013, President Obama promised to scale back drone strikes in order to reduce civilian casualties. He also promised greater transparency on this issue.

The US has reduced drone strikes in Pakistan, but in spite of this, the program has still received criticism. While a majority of Americans do support drones, there are still many who don’t, but it seems that everyone is advocating for increased transparency.

The US And Drones: What Next?

Drone pilots sit in trailers thousands of miles away from their targets, where they are in no physical danger. This presents questions about the morality of firing at an enemy that cannot feasibly fire back, particularly when the logic used to define the "enemy" is often quite dubious.

At this point, only time will tell what the long-term consequences of drones might be. What is clear, however, is that the American public might reconsider supporting a policy that has limited transparency and thus, there is no substantial accountability in place.

Americans should consider the precedent that this practice is creating and that other actors may consider using drones to target Americans at home, traveling, or in the military abroad.

Terrorism is a huge threat to Americans and drones feel like a practical and effective response to this. Americans are not fond of “boots on the ground” because they realize that it not only puts soldiers in danger, it doesn’t necessarily work, either.

We do not like civilian casualties because we value human life. Given that drones have been framed as a solution to this, it is plain to see why they are appealing.

Reports of the limitations and downside of drones have arguably received less attention in the US compared to the rest of the world, as civilian causalities are downplayed.

Moreover, there has not been much discussion or debate about how drone strikes are perceived globally. One obvious concern is that drone strikes catalyze the radicalization of the population where they are being actively used and deployed.

Perhaps Americans aren’t as worried about the drone program as they should be. Quite simply, this issue needs to include more transparency.

Citizens should make a concerted effort to follow coverage of drones in the media and from more than just American sources. A more engaged public will ensure the longevity of the democratic process, as well as prudence in future wars, should they arise.

The United States is not alone in this world, but it often presents itself in a way that conveys such an image. The drone debate allows for a reevaluation of this image, which in turn, could foster improved relations between the United States and the rest of the world.

This work draws heavily from my Master of Science thesis entitled:

"The Use of Drones and Drone Strikes by the United States: The New American Way of War?"

Source: independent.academia, Photo Credit: Shutterstock