Targeted Killing

Defending Drones at the Oxford Union

By Benjamin Wittes
Saturday, April 27, 2013, 9:00 AM

Going to a university campus to defend the use of armed drones is a little like ascending the pulpit in a Southern Baptist church on a Sunday morning to speak on behalf of the Devil. So it was with no particular expectation of carrying the resolution---“This house believes drone warfare is ethical and effective”---that Ken and I donned tuxedos Thursday evening and joined the excellent British journalist David Aaronovich as the pro-drone team at an Oxford Union debate.

We did, I think, a little better than the Devil’s Advocate might have expected preaching the Sunday sermon---though, alas, not quite as well as the war-mongers past who opposed the Oxford Union’s infamous 1933 resolution: “That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.” We got 86 votes—which is to say we got trounced by the anti-drone forces by a nearly two-to-one margin. Our distinguished opponents included Jeremy Waldron of Oxford and NYU, Naureen Shah of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, and Chris Cole, author of the web site Drone Wars UK.

A few thoughts:

First, a word about our hosts: the Oxford Union is really a remarkable institution. Putting aside the faintly comic idea (to American sensibilities, anyway) of a group of students’ dressing up in formal wear to dine and hold parliamentary-style debates on matters of public moment, the Oxford Union really has no analog that I can think of in American life or university culture---and that's our loss. It is part club, part speaking venue for outside speakers, and part debating society for students. It is astonishingly active, holding numerous events a week. It has this remarkably beautiful building in the heart of Oxford, and it has a long and storied tradition of discussing questions that matter. The drone debate Thursday night was was earnest, serious, and sometimes very funny---and the student speeches from the floor were often excellent and passionate contributions. The best of them involved simply terrific oral advocacy. I was, I confess, rather a sucker for it all.

All that said, in a fairly basic sense, the two sides in this debate were talking past one another. And the dialog of the deaf quality to the discussion seems to me worth spelling out, as it represents, I think, a much wider dialog of the deaf in the debate over drones.

Our side interpreted the resolution as a debate over the propriety of using drones in warfare---that is, as asking whether the use of drones is ethical end effective relative to alternative weapons systems given that one has decided to employ military force. This is actually an easy question, in my opinion, since drones clearly enable more discriminating and deliberative targeting than do alternative weapon systems.

Our opponents, by contrast, saw the resolution as implicating the wider question of whether the United States should be resorting to force at all in countries like Pakistan and Yemen. In other words, they saw the question not merely as one of choice of weapon but as about whether the particular weapon enables military actions the United States would not otherwise take and of which one should disapprove either on ethical grounds, as counterproductive strategically, or both.

These two points of view may be unbridgeable. For one thing, one cannot prove one way or another what actions the United States would or would not take in Pakistan or Yemen or elsewhere if drones did not exist. I believe, for whatever it’s worth, that there is simply no way the United States would tolerate the development of safe havens for terrorists in ungoverned spaces, that law enforcement provides only the most limited means of reaching people in places in which no country exercises effective sovereignty, and that if we did not have drones, we would therefore likely use other, less-discriminating weapons to accomplish similar objectives. I thus tend to reject a conflation of the policy (targeting the enemy with lethal force) with the platform (drones), and see the platform as a comparatively attractive means of pursuing the policy.

But then again, I also have a much greater comfort level with the policy itself than do my opponents—or, for that matter, the overwhelming majority of Oxford Union members. And I can totally understand how someone who considers the policy itself to be immoral and counterproductive might not wish to evaluate the use of the technology that enables that policy in abstraction from it. As Jeremy Waldron put it in his eloquent closing remarks last night, the resolution asks us to evaluate what drone warfare “is,” not what it could be, and how are we to define what it is other than with reference to its day-to-day use. Separating the policy from the platform only makes sense if I am correct that the policy has a life independent of the platform.

In other words, there are really three distinct debates rolled up into this brief resolution:

  • First is the pure platform question: Is the use of drones ethical and effective relative to other weapons given a decision to use force?
  • Second is the pure policy decision: Should the United States be engaged in lethal targeting of terrorist suspects in countries like Yemen and Pakistan and under what circumstances?
  • Third is the question of whether the platform and the policy really are severable: Does the availability of drones enable targeting that we would otherwise eschew, and if so, do we consider that enabling to be a good or an evil?

My guess is that the debaters on Thursday would be able to find a great deal more common ground on the first of these questions than we would on the second two. But I would be very interested in exploring the subject---broken down more finely, as I've tried to do here---with our opponents to see if that's right.

I will post the videos of the speeches as soon as the Oxford Union makes them available, and my deep thanks to Joseph D'Urso, president of the union, and to the many members who attended, for a really terrific event.