The Alternatives to Drone Strikes Are Worse
Drone strikes work, and threats to the United States necessitate them
February 6, 2013
America's drone policy makes everyone uncomfortable. The alternatives are worse. Attacking enemy combatants from the air is part of warfare. Combatants who wear civilian clothing or who operate from sanctuaries are not excused from risk. Compare drone strikes to the feckless 1998 cruise missile attack on bin Laden. Drone strikes work; that is why our opponents object to them. If the host governments are cognizant and accepting (even if this is not public), if the laws of armed conflict limiting egregious attacks on civilians are observed, drone strikes are an acceptable use of force.
The more difficult issue involves targeting belligerents who also hold American citizenship. If you think about it, every confederate killed by U.S. forces in the Civil War was an American citizen. Germans with dual citizenship, both civilians and soldiers, were killed in combat or in aerial bombings during World War II. There were probably a few citizens among Chinese forces in Korea. Killing Americans participating in hostilities in an armed conflict against the United States, while disturbing, is not automatically precluded.
Arrest and trial is the preferred approach for dealing Americans who threaten to kill their fellow citizens. What do we do if arrest is not an option? We could wait for a moment when they can be caught, but that runs the risk that while we wait, there will be another 9/11 or a successful airline bomber. The struggles against global jihad do not fit neatly with existing rules for conflict, and a pragmatic approach that puts public safety first faces difficult choices in balancing risk and rights.
The most difficult choice involves setting bounds for the use of lethal force against Americans. The administration has three rules: A senior U.S. official must determine there is an "imminent" threat of violent attack; capture is not possible; and attacks must be consistent with the laws of war (meaning an effort to avoid collateral damage and innocent causalities). The rules could be clearer in saying targets must be combatants engaged in armed struggle, and the administration uses an elastic definition of "imminent," but these rules are sufficient for what should be a rare and infrequent event—if drone attacks on U.S. citizens are not rare and infrequent, something is dangerously wrong. It would be better if we did not have to do this and there will be a time when these rules can be abolished, but that time is not now.