Thirteen months ago, during a speech at the National Defense University, President Barack Obama promised greater transparency and new guidelines for drone use as part of his counterterrorism strategy.
So much for promises.
An authoritative, bipartisan report released last week by the Stimson Center charged that the U.S. use of drones threatens to destabilize legal and moral norms worldwide. It also chastised the Obama administration’s failure to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of drone use and questioned drones’ effectiveness.
The Stimson Center report’s recommendations demand attention.
They strongly urge that the Obama administration bring more transparency and oversight to its drone program. They call for the establishment of internationally recognized standards for use of lethal force outside traditional battlefields. And they recommend that the responsibility for carrying out lethal drone strikes be transferred from the CIA to the military.
The authors of this report are not pacifist human rights crusaders. They include retired Army Gen. John Abizaid, the former commander of U.S. Central Command; Philip Mudd, a former deputy director of the CIA’s counterterrorism Center; and John B. Bellinger, a legal adviser to the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.
They found that drone attacks cause fewer civilian deaths than has been charged, and they saw no evidence that the use of drones was creating a video-game mentality toward war. But they did find reason to fear that “increasing use of lethal drones may create a slippery slope leading to continual or wider wars.”
The chief concern is that other nations — China, Russia, Iran — will see the U.S.’s use of drones at will and start carrying out their own lethal attacks. Unlike, say, nuclear weapons, drone technology is not especially sophisticated.
The authors of the study suggest a scenario in which, for example, Vladimir Putin decides to use drones to attack individuals in Ukraine whom Russia has declared “enemies of the state.”
The logic essentially would be the same as the United States’ justification for killing targets in Pakistan whom the Obama administration believes to be members of al-Qaida.
The use of any new instrument of war that changes the playing field requires the establishment of new norms for how and when to employ them. Use of drones to make strikes outside declared war zones falls into that category.
Obama, in that speech to the National Defense University, pledged to make U.S. drone use “consistent with long-standing U.S. commitments to democracy, accountability and the rule of law.”
The president is not honoring that commitment. Congress should hold him to it, and consider canceling funding for the drone program until he does.