Ground the drones: Obama’s secret strikes could put the United States on a path to perpetual war

The scriptural adage that there is nothing new under the sun may not actually apply to war, particularly in an age dominated by rapid-fire advancements in technology that make the remote killing of enemies no more morally problematic than pushing a button.

The New York Times offered an analysis on a report released Thursday that clarifies some of the misconceptions about drone use in war — that many are unmanned for example, and are used primarily for surveillance — but also warns of the implications of remote killing:

The Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings using armed drones risks putting the United States on a “slippery slope” into perpetual war and sets a dangerous precedent for lethal operations that other countries might adopt in the future, according to a report by a bipartisan panel that includes several former senior intelligence and military officials.

The group found that more than a decade into the era of armed drones, the American government has yet to carry out a thorough analysis of whether the costs of routine secret killing operations outweigh the benefits. The report urges the administration to conduct such an analysis and to give a public accounting of both militants and civilians killed in drone strikes.

The report was compiled by The Stimson Center and the panel “includes a number of former Pentagon and C.I.A. officials and is jointly led by retired General John P. Abizaid, the former head of United States Central Command, and Rosa Brooks, a fellow at the New America Foundation and a law professor at Georgetown University.”

It’s no secret that the drone program is secret. And perhaps that’s a necessary evil in times of war. But the secrecy regarding the legal justifications for targeted drone strikes is only partly the issue. What does removing the moral ramifications for death and war do to our humanity? Is that a road we’re comfortable traveling? And how does this offsite power to kill manifest in how — and how many — future wars are waged?

Take it for what it’s worth, but Al-Jazeera asks some interesting questions along those lines. If you wish to know how to defeat your enemies or make them allies, it may be wise to understand their perspective:

One of the biggest problems, according to the report, is the potential for U.S. drone use to destabilize legal and moral norms worldwide. The authors warned that if the U.S. endorses using drone strikes without the consent of foreign governments, the country risks creating a kind of moral and legal domino effect that could spur other countries to use drones in legally questionable ways.

“From the perspective of many around the world, the United States currently appears to claim, in effect, the legal right to kill any person it determines is a member of Al-Qaeda or its associated forces, in any state on Earth, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret evidence … and with no means for anyone outside that process to identify or remedy mistakes or abuses,” the report said. “U.S. practices set a dangerous precedent that may be seized upon by other states — not all of which are likely to behave as scrupulously as U.S. officials.”

Until such time we can make drone warfare — and any other emerging technology used for war — work to advance the higher concepts of freedom and the sanctity of human life, we should be unrelenting in our demands that they be used with the full weight of what they do firmly on our collective conscience as a nation.

That very likely means demanding, as the report suggests, information regarding just how effective they are at targeting combatants and sparing civilians. If that forces some of the secrecy of the drone program into the light, so be it.

For the time being, we can feel safe (?) this technology is being used to protect our servicemen and women on the ground in regions of the world that have also figured out how to use technology to their own advantage.


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