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Damaged drone dreams

December 12, 2011

The US drone program buzzes its unmanned aircraft over distant lands, frightening the public, because they are not sure whether the alien vehicle will merely fly over them or drop bombs to annihilate them. Many in the US, from across the political divide, agree that drones are a dream weapon that provide a “cleaner” way to do war, by pursuing American interests without risking military lives. However, one should remember the words of John F. Kennedy, “there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it.”

There are certainly costs to using drones, including logistical failures that have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and America’s staunchest rival, Iran, now possessing a downed drone. Further, the over-usage of the drones in international relations shows that it is a case of the weapon inspiring the war, not the war inspiring the weapon. Finally, the domestic effect of the drone program is that it violates the constitutional checks and balances placed on the president and CIA’s power by Congress.

With a constant bombardment and surveillance operation led by the drones, the US has eliminated several high level terrorist leaders. Despite all the logistical successes of the program, there have certainly been some blunders that were inevitable in using remote technology to kill human targets. As such, there have been countless botched drone missions in Pakistan and Afghanistan that have led to the death of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent civilians.

While some may discount these deaths as unavoidable collateral damage, one should think of the operational mistakes being made in the over-use of drones. By using an unmanned vehicle, the US will engage targets that they would otherwise avoid sending ground forces to attack. Thus, the US uses force more freely and takes action even when they lack the amount of credible information needed to put American lives at risk. This means that while the drones might protect American lives, they put the lives of civilians living in war zones at greater risk of destruction due to faulty or negligible intelligence.

Another issue is the hazard that more countries will acquire drone technology, which will all but guarantee an increase in hostilities across the globe. Most nations wish to posses a technology that could allow them to wage a seemingly “cost-free war”, and this is especially true for America’s adversaries like China or Iran. The recent downed drone that Iran has recovered is just one of the many inevitable instances where other nations will attempt to harness this technology, and perhaps use it against the US in the future.

What is far more devastating to the future of the US than the logistical failures of the drone program is the way in which it is affecting the nation’s foreign policy. Under current international law, there are no rules in place for the use of drones. However, the international community, through major documents like the UN Charter, prohibits the use of force against nations one has not declared an enemy.  For the drone operations in Pakistan, where the US has at least nominally recognised the nation as an ally, there is a violation of America’s international legal obligations.

Not only is the drone program putting the US in violation of international law, it is creating more hostile enemies globally and subverting the soft-power of the nation. With the advent of new weapons, American policy makers seem far more willing to exercise force in order to achieve their objectives rather than utilising soft-power diplomacy. This is evidenced by the drones being used against Qadhafi’s regime in Libya, which was bombed rather than negotiated with, as well as the extrajudicial killing of an American-jihadist imam, Anwar Awalaki, in Yemen. The US has enjoyed several years of diplomatic negotiated peace with its rivals without reverting to force in the past, but it seems with the new technology, the policy is to shoot first, ask questions later.

The final and perhaps most alarming element to the drone program is the effect it has on the constitutional sharing of powers between the president and Congress. The decision to use drones is currently the exclusive right of the CIA and the president. Under the Constitution, the president is the commander-in-chief and can make treaties with the advice of Senate. However, Congress possesses the ultimate right to “provide for the common defense,” and “declare war.” Therefore, though the President represents the US to foreign nations, he or his agencies like the CIA, cannot unilaterally engage the US in an armed conflict without the consent of Congress.

As it currently stands, the drone program is handing far too much power to the executive branch and violating the rights of Congress. In many ways, the Congress has capitulated its rights to the president by allowing him to conceal the details of the drone program based on a generalised fear for national security. President Kennedy once stated, “there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment.”

Therefore, the American people should realise that though drones may save some American military lives, they carry with them latent and long-reaching effects. Not only are there logistical nightmares that expose the US to greater threats by its enemies, the drones also have negatively affected America’s soft power in international relations and violated the constitutional balance of powers.

Unless this technology can be brought out of the shadowy rooms of the CIA and into the realm of the public through Congress and the international community, the drones will carry a far greater cost than benefit (despite popular belief).


The writer holds a Juris Doctorate in the US and is a researcher on comparative law and international law issues.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.