That there was no serious discussion of our well-known, but secret, drone war in the Middle East and Africa during the Presidential election of 2012 was both mysterious and depressing. If the United States is indeed actively engaged in the practice of flying un-manned aerial drones over countries toward which we are not openly hostile and launching missiles at unsuspecting people on the ground, then this seems like something we should talk about, especially when we are in the process of attempting to decide who to give the power to do such a thing.
This is how the drone war appears to operate: The president and a team of advisors regularly meet to discuss the “kill list” (on “Terror Tuesday”) which is the climax of a process that seems to begin with a “disposition matrix,” a futuristic term used to describe an assessment tool that determines the extent to which a person is a terrorist threat and how best to deal with that person (Miller 2012). If someone is unfortunate enough to land on the kill list, normally the CIA will use its local “assets” in proximity to the person to “tag” a car or dwelling used by the “target” with a GPS device, at which point a drone will locate the GPS signal, fly within range, and fire a missile at whatever the GPS device is tagged to (Smith 2012).
It seems like a misnomer to call this a “war,” since it more closely resembles an assassination. However, when these actions are done at the frequency we are doing it, the term “war” becomes apt. And the term “assassination” implies a surgical strike that limits damage to the intended target, but reports indicate that this is hardly the case with drone attacks. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in Pakistan alone, including 176 children (Ponnuru 2012). Alarmingly, the President’s justification for these civilian deaths is that he “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants... unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent” (cited in Ponnuru). So if you are of a certain age that we normally associate with Islamic terrorists and happen to be in the drone’s “strike zone,” you are an enemy-combatant of the United States regardless of whether you intended to do the United States harm or not. Guilty until we can prove you innocent, after we have killed you. The moral of the story: be very careful with whom you hang out in the Middle East.
Why didn’t the drone war ever emerge as a political issue in the presidential election of 2012? Surely this was a vulnerability for President Obama, who made serious political hay in 2008 by criticizing the Bush administration’s prosecution of the War in Iraq as immoral and potentially illegal. For Obama then to prosecute his own war, though one of a vastly different variety, with little or no constitutional/legal framework for doing so would seem to make him open to criticism on both moral and legal grounds, not to mention grounds of hypocrisy. The first and most obvious answer is that President Obama and Governor Romney did not differ much on the use of drones. When Romney was asked about the use of drones in one of the debates, he responded “I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology and believe that we should continue to use it to continue to go after the people who represent a threat to this nation and to our friends” (quoted in Ponnuru). Neither candidate desires to appear passive in the age of global terrorism, and what better way to destroy that appearance than to fire missiles at “threats” every so often? Second, presidents and potential presidents desire one thing: power. It never fails. No matter how much they campaign on restraining the power of the executive, on waging a “humble foreign policy” (Bush in 2000), or on curbing past executive excesses (Obama in 2008 on closing Gitmo), presidents and potential presidents who understand the nature of the job always keep open possible methods of increasing the power of the office. To make the drone war an issue in the election is to put a spotlight on it, drawing public, moral, and legal scrutiny that can only lead to restrictions. Apparently the Obama administration has been making moves toward erecting a moral and legal framework around the drone war to restrict the power of future executives, but only time will tell if this framework will have real teeth (Stableford 2012).
Perhaps a deeper answer is in order, however. The fact that the drone war and the War in Afghanistan were essentially non-issues in this election reveals a nation that is war-weary and has little patience for complicated and emotionally-draining debates over the ethics of war. There is a deep fissure in America’s collective mindset about war. Yes, we have been at war for over a decade now, with a heavy ground presence in two countries, and many American men and women have died, not to mention many non-Americans. War-weariness results from seeing people lose their lives in a conflict that seems to be going nowhere, with no achievable and worthy objective in sight, but this war-weariness pertains only to real conflicts, to actual “boots-on-the-ground” wars where we invest money and man-power in this tragic and ancient practice. Our weariness does not extend to the idea of war. In fact, it is not a stretch at all to suggest that American society and culture, guided by a political culture with plenty of incentives to wage war, has made peace with the idea of war, the idea of killing others to achieve our goals on a global scale. We will wage war if it is in our national interest to do so, and maybe only if it is in our national interest to do so. So-called “humanitarian wars” or wars waged to spread democracy to oppressed peoples do not sit quite as well with Americans, especially if we are going to see our own die in the process. But the idea of war, well, we can generally see the merits of that.
There is a difference between Americans being comfortable with war as a hypothetical and Americans being at peace with this or that particular war where their sons and daughters are doing the fighting. But if we can come to grips with the ethics of “war-in-general,” we should do so only through the particular wars that we fight. Pragmatic necessity spurs philosophic inquiry. Over time, when we perceive the necessity of fighting this or that war and agree that it is acceptable to ask our young people to fight those wars, then we ascend to a notion that war can be morally acceptable and even obligatory at times: we develop a “theory of war.” The experiences of particular wars trigger a process of moral deliberation through which we forge a position on the morality of war in general. But herein lies the difference with the drone war: Americans never experience it. We have no skin in the game, as it were. What forces us to consider the ethics of a particular war is that we have to make the enormous decision about whether we should sacrifice some of our own people or money for this cause. With the drone war, that decision never enters the equation. The drones are un-manned, controlled remotely from sites in the United States. And a drone attack is relatively inexpensive, especially when compared to a large ground invasion. So, why would Americans ever expend the mental energy to think about whether drone attacks are morally acceptable or legal? Drone wars do not trigger moral thinking about war; we have no reason to think about “particular instances” in the drone war, because we do not experience the loss of human-capital or money.
It is possible that at some point in the future Americans will engage in a vigorous public debate about the ethics of using un-manned aerial drones to assassinate enemies or potential enemies, but we clearly have not reached that point yet. The normal trigger that forces us to think philosophically about the morality of war has been eliminated from the moral equation with the drone war. Until then, the use of drones will no doubt increase, achieving some of the goals of the CIA, while also generating an ever-mounting civilian casualty count and a host of moral and legal questions.
Geoffrey C. Bowden teaches in the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Savannah State University, with specialties in ethics and politics and political theology.
Miller, Greg. “Plan for Hunting Terrorists Signals U.S. Intends to Keep Adding Names to Kill Lists.” Washington Post (October 23, 2012).
Ponnuru, Ramesh. “Why Drones Stayed Out of Sight in The 2012 Campaign.” Bloomberg. (November 5, 2012). http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-11-05/why-drones-stayed-out-of-sight-in-the-2012-campaign.html.
Smith, Clive Stafford. “I Met a 16-Year-Old Kid. 3 Days Later Obama Killed Him.” AlterNet (June 14, 2012). http://www.alternet.org/story/155723/i_met_a_16-year-old_kid._3_days_later_obama_killed_him.
Stableford, Dylan. “‘Kill List’ rule book may be coming soon to the White House Situation Room.” The Ticket (Yahoo News). (November 25, 2012). http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/ticket/kill-list-rule-book-190528285--election.html.