Obama and Romney's shallow thinking on drones


DroneOne thing Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agree upon, we know from the foreign policy oriented third presidential campaign debate, is the use of unmanned drones in anti-insurgent, anti-terror operations.

Obama has overseen an intensification of the use of this technology in the region of Afghanistan, Pakistan and southern Yemen. Romney commented in the debate that he would not depart from this policy, that he supported it 'entirely', that 'the President was right to up the use of that technology', and that Americans should continue to use drones 'to go after the people who represent a threat to this nation and to our friends'.

Romney did not volunteer how he had arrived at this position or how he might understand the moral rules by which he would govern application of this policy. 'I believe', he said, 'that we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world.'

The practice of using drones demands a less complacent approach than this, since it raises difficult questions about the conduct of war.

Some who support their use argue that collateral damage caused by drone strikes is far lower than that caused by conventional weapons like missiles or artillery. Thus, some have suggested drone strikes would have been a preferable response by the Israelis to threats from the Gaza Strip in 2008.

According to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, of the 1390 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip during the January 2009 Operation Cast Lead, 759 had not taken part in the hostilities. In other words, although the operation was conducted by a modern, technologically sophisticated army, it caused over 50 per cent collateral damage.

But in a densely populated area, neither can drones isolate the targeted individuals. Moreover, the drone program is ongoing, and we cannot yet tally its full casualty list.

There are other issues raised by Obama's published guidelines for drone usage: for example, how do we define a serious as opposed to a speculative threat? Does that mean a military aged male spotted from several thousand feet digging a hole in a suburban roadside?

Well, perhaps. As Noah Schachtman at the Brookings Institution has pointed out, throughout the US drone campaign in Pakistan and possibly in Yemen, targets have been chosen for elimination based on their intelligence 'signatures' — that is, 'their behaviour, as captured by wiretaps, overhead surveillance and local informants'.

Earlier in the year when these issues were raised in a New York Times article, Obama's close oversight of the drone based targeted killing program was alluded to as motivated, in part, by a moral concern derived from classical just war theory:

Aides say Mr Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal counterterrorism operations. A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions.

This comment was taken by various academics and commentators to imply that Obama was a student of 'classical' just war theory and that its tenets guided his decisions. Perhaps, but it also pays to recall a 2007 interview in which Obama stated that he was an admirer of Reinhold Niebuhr's Christian realism — a philosophical position that takes a different approach to warfare from classical just war theory.

To confirm the influence of Christian realism on Obama's worldview, look at his 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech which reflected key Niebuhrian themes: evil resides in the world and, tragically, force is often required to check evil where it arises. It is interesting to explore Obama's oversight of the targeted assassination program in light of his allegiance to Niebuhrian Christian realism.

Just war theory as outlined by Saints Augustine and Aquinas understands the waging of a 'just war' (for example a war in aid of a neighbour) as a moral imperative. It begins with an acceptance of the role of force in the world, a recognition that we live in what Simone Weil described as a 'kingdom of force'.

However classical just war theory sets strict moral limits to how force is employed. A 'just war' must not only be fought in a 'just cause'; it must be fought in a 'just manner'. But the important point is that classical just war theory begins from the premise that in some cases war is permissible. The Christian realism of Niebuhr begins with the admission that violence and war are intrinsically evil.

Christian realists join pacifists in their understanding that killing in war is morally equivalent to murder. But where the pacifist concludes from this that wars must never be fought, the Christian realist concludes that sometimes an imperfect world forces us to commit murder in order to preserve 'greater' goods like equality or justice. In other words, we sometimes have to contradict the teachings of the Gospels in order to realise good ends.

Unlike classical just war theory, Christian realism implies that when we fight any war, we cross a moral threshold. But here is the difficulty: if we have already crossed a threshold, if we've already dirtied our hands, does it matter if we dirty them a little further in order to secure victory? We've already committed an evil by waging war, does it then matter how we fight it?

What guidance does Christian realism offer here? How does it help us set limits to the use of drones?

Moreover, if the war we are engaged in is understood as a 'just war', then, if we are guided by Christian realism, doesn't it become easier to argue along utilitarian lines for the use of any means to achieve a 'just victory'? The moral question is whether to go to war or not — but once engaged in a 'just' war, the 'moral' thing to do is win.

So, as Michael Walzer warns, in a war that is 'worth fighting' the rules tend to lose standing — the moral requirement of victory comes to override the standards set by the war conventions.

That is why it would be helpful to know what Romney means when he supports the use of 'any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends'. It's also why we should look to Obama for ongoing engagement with the ethics of drone use in the light of classical and modern just war theory.

As Niebuhr himself argued, wrongs are often committed 'by good people ... who do not probe deeply'.

Benedict Coleridge headshot smilingBenedict Coleridge is a recent honours graduate of the University of Melbourne. 


Topic tags: Ben Coleridge, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, drones, just war



submit a comment

Existing comments

If Obama loses this election, you can blame/thank the Right for bamboozling him. How is it ethical that an entire news network questions the President’s citizenship for four years to create doubt in voters while a fringe element of the far right demonizes and degrades him? Most of this is financed by the rich who want to keep their stranglehold on the flow of wealth in our country.
Brandt Hardin | 30 October 2012

It seems to me that the core issue about the drones is the fact that they breed anger, hatred and vengefulness in the communities they strike at. In fact, there's a sound argument that says that the drones breed terrorism. When a couple of Al Qaieda suspects are reported killed, we can't say, 'Oh good. That's a couple fewer terrorists' because those suspected terrorists have families and friends, some of whom are going to step up to the plate, fuelled in their grief by hatred of the enemy, especially if the suspects weren't terrorists at all.
Kate Ahearne | 30 October 2012

When politicians hide behind their religious faith to justify their actions, it's odds on they are just telling a lie for a political advantage. If Obama was serious, he'd have droned the whole of Pakistan, killing their army leaders and most of the politicians in charge of a failed state that threatened the USA and its friends. Along with N. Korea, China, Russia and many other nation states of doubtful behaviour. As always, religious 'thinking' gets trotted out as justification for war crimes. Sad to say, it's quite likely that the Taliban are doing exactly the same. And why not? In fact, pondering on Brandt's comment above, it occurs to me that NewsCorp is no different,since they clearly think they have a god on their side too. How else do they justify their appalling lack of ethical standards in delivering what passes as 'news' these days?
janice wallace | 30 October 2012


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up