Targeted Killing

Eugene Robinson Gets it Wrong on Drones

By Benjamin Wittes
Tuesday, December 3, 2013, 7:53 AM

Over at the Washington Post, columnist Eugene Robinson has a piece decrying the morality of drone strikes---a piece that expresses with an admirable economy of words nearly every conceptual error one can make on the subject.

Let's dissect.

The problems begin right at the top, where Robinson begins by conceding that "U.S. drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries may be militarily effective." But, he asserts, "they are killing innocent civilians in a way that is obscene and immoral. I’m afraid that ignoring this ugly fact makes Americans complicit in murder." Robinson does not compare the civilian deaths from drone strikes with those likely from other military options available to US forces to see whether they would be more or less "obscene and immoral"---or whether, indeed, drones might be the least bad option in terms of civilian casualties. He simply asserts that the use of a weapon that kills civilians as drones do makes us complicit in murder.

By the next paragraph, however, we find out that civilians actually don't lie at the core of Robinson's concern about drones. "I don’t see how drone strikes can be considered a wholly legitimate way to wage war," he writes. It may be "understandable" why President Obama would want to use "Armed, pilotless aircraft[, which] allow the CIA and the military to target individuals in enemy strongholds without putting U.S. lives at risk. But efficacy is not legitimacy. . . ." Robinson here is tapping into the weird idea that there is something disreputable---one might say unchivalric---about keeping one's people too safe while they wield lethal force. Real men fight mano a mano.

"Even if the intelligence agents and military officers who operate the drones have perfect knowledge," Robinson goes on, "and fire the drones’ missiles with perfect accuracy, this amounts to summary execution. Is such killing morally defensible?" Here Robinson seems unaware of how badly he is mangling the laws of war, which actually require that one attempt to target precisely. Whereas before he was complaining that drones kill too many civilians, here---though he doesn't put it this way---his complaint is that they don't kill enough. While killing civilians is "obscene and immoral," not killing civilians turns targeting into "summary executions." Heads you're a war criminal, tails you're a murderer.

Next Robinson---of course---challenges the notion that there's a war at all:

To defend enforcing a death sentence with no due process, at a minimum you have to accept that the fight against terrorists is properly defined as a war. Obama sharply questioned that conceptual framework when he was running for president in 2008; these days, he uses the word “war” frequently. But I have never heard him embrace the theory of a global Manichaean conflict in which, as Bush said, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Under what theory, then, does the president order drone strikes in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, with which we are not at war? It would seem the definition of “enemy” is, basically, “someone the United States decides to target.”

I have considerable faith in Obama to make careful, sober decisions about who should be considered an enemy to be targeted, and I know he agonizes over pulling the trigger. But that is cold comfort. Bush’s theory of war was clear and morally indefensible. Obama’s is fuzzy and morally ambiguous.

Actually, no. The Obama administration has articulated pretty clear answers to these questions, as Ken and I lay out at length in our book, Speaking the Law. For the administration's views of the parameters of the war, Robinson might consult Chapter 1. It's not especially fuzzy, at least not in my view. Moreover, it is just wrong to say that Obama sharply questioned the war framework while he was running for president. Indeed, he was careful not to argue that there was no war and even promised, in one debate with John McCain, to be more aggressive about going into Pakistan after Al Qaeda leaders---a campaign promise he has certainly kept.

Finally, Robinson returns to civilian casualties, arguing that drones kill civilians and that even if the numbers "seem small, . . . each victim was a human being who posed no threat to the United States or its interests---in some cases a child who was here one minute, full of laughter and life’s promise, and gone the next." That's certainly true, but it is equally true of every other weapon system used imperfectly---as weapon systems inevitably are. But once again, Robinson fails to address the question of the alternative to the drone war and whether those costs would be higher or lower in moral terms than the costs he considers "immoral." Would it be a different weapons system or air strikes from manned aircraft---and would the casualties from such strikes be higher or lower? Would it be the insertion of special forces units, and would such actions---obviously more dangerous to US forces---be more or less dangerous to civilians on the ground? Would it be far-more-indiscriminate actions by allied governments---and would Robinson be more comfortable with, say, a Pakistani artillery barrage as long as our hands stayed clean? Or would it be forbearance from the use of force altogether, and would such a hands-off approach to terrorists in ungoverned spaces let those terrorists embed themselves deeply in civilian populations they brutally oppress and use to attack others?

Unless you're willing to address the null hypothesis---and opponents of the drone war seldom are---you're just not serious.