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Have U.S. drone wars opened a Pandora's Box?


When American unmanned aircraft fly over foreign countries, attack and kill people there, that doesn't necessarily constitute "war," President Obama argues. Tom Ricks says that when U.S. drones kill bad guys in third nations, it's more akin to police work in a rough neighborhood than war. But hang on, argues Sanjeev Miglani at Reuters' Afghan Journal blog -- are Americans ready to handle the blowback from carrying on a perpetual drone campaign around the world?

Writes Miglani:

The idea that the United States can arrogate to itself the right of life and death of people around the world can set off a dangerous precedent. What happens if India decides to do a bit of police action of its own in next door Pakistan. Unlike the CIA, India has actually built up a legal case against the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hafeez Sayeed, for involvement in the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai. Given the lack of action by Pakistani authorities, should India take the law into its hands and target Sayeed and his associates for the assault ?

Or as Greg Scoblete says in the Real World Compass blog, what if Iran develops the capability to fly drones of its own and blows up the suburban Virginia home of a CIA official that is suspects is instigating violence in Iran, how will America react ? Surely it is not going to say this is police action, but an act of war, or at the very least a terrorist strike on the homeland.

The U.S. leads the world in the use of unmanned aircraft for warfare by a distance, but it can’t be very long before other nations scale up their capabilities in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) as they are also known.

The drone technology may be sophisticated, but it can be reverse-engineered and replicated (the Chinese are reportedly already doing it). Forty countries already have UAVs in their arsenals, as do reportedly non-state actors such as Hezbollah. Today the U.S. is able to fly its drones over Waziristan and Yemen, but it is not inconceivable that in the future others too might be able to fly their drones over New York and Washington.

Not inconceivable at all, but this argument misses the point: When the U.S. conducts drone attacks, it does so with authorization from the local host government, not as an attacking power -- or so we open-source normies are told. (When we can find out anything at all.) And in the case of Libya, American Predators are part of the multi-national force that Obama spent weeks assembling, and they're following attacks by manned American warplanes. If Iran approached the U.S. government and asked for permission for UAV orbits over Washington, it would be disappointed with the response -- so if it tried them, that would be an old-fashioned act of war.

The broader idea here is worth considering, and it dovetails with this summer's scuffle over the War Powers Resolution: Do presidents now have the authority, in perpetuity, to conduct low-level attacks anywhere in the world? The U.S. will never run out of enemies. When they pop up in Western countries, American officials can call allies in, say, Germany, and ask that they be arrested. But when terrorist suspects hide in lawless failed states such as Yemen and Somalia, can American presidents just order their deaths, then the deaths of the ones that come after, and so on -- forever? Many Americans might say yes, that they still subscribe to President Bush's argument that we've gotta fight 'em over there so we don't have to fight 'em here. What's extraordinary is that we seem to have arrived at this point without realizing it.

Congressional lawmakers and the president apparently consider this matter settled, that Bush's drone campaign in Pakistan, which Obama has intensified, proved the point that the U.S. has to to be able to act decisively. Maybe Bush and Obama both believe they've addressed this issue when they've included vague lines in their speeches about "taking the fight to the enemy" or "doing whatever we have to do to protect America." But doesn't it seem as though this expansion in presidential power happened almost without debate? Although Congress picked a fight with the White House over Libya and the War Powers Resolution, most lawmakers have remained silent about the larger questions on America's drone wars, apparently satisfied about the president's authority to commit these attacks.

That, in turn, could be why Obama was so dismissive about congressional arguments that he has violated the War Powers Resolution. Not only has Obama been "consulting," on Libya as the law requires, he might argue, Congress years ago conceded the president's ability to conduct UAV attacks as he sees fit, which is part of what the U.S. is doing in Libya. No politician wants to be seen tying the hands of American counter-terrorism, which is why the House's actions on Libya were structured to embarrass or criticize the president, but not actually affect the U.S. campaigns already underway -- and no one mentioned Yemen or Somalia.

So as for Miglani's fear "that the United States can arrogate to itself the right of life and death of people around the world?" That, for America's top leadership, apparently is a done deal.

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