Anxiety Is Not a Policy for Drones and Targeted Killing

A current meme on drones and targeted killing is that although they might indeed reduce civilian harm and offer greater protection to one’s own force – more precision and discriminating use of force – they are nonetheless bad because they have another effect, viz., that they reduce the inhibition that political or military leaders have in the use of force.  So, for example, this past Sunday, the (justly-famed) Brookings expert on robotic war and author of the path-breaking Wired for War, Peter Singer, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that, on the one hand, he supported most of the drone strikes that the US had carried out.

He then went on, however, to express what could properly be called much anxiety about drones and targeted killing – anxiety rooted in a presumed relaxation in the disincentive to use force.  Given an unwillingness to finally come down as between support for drone strikes and anxiety about them, Singer finally rested his position on a process issue – the way in which they presumably undermine democracy and democratic decision-making.  However, the way in which drones undermine democracy, on this account, still finally rests upon this root anxiety about not having one’s own forces at risk as a burden upon political leaders.

Anxiety is not a policy.  It might be and, I think, in this case is an admirable sentiment, and a useful way of focusing on the basic question of the use of force.  But ultimately, having anxieties about the implications of one’s weaponry and one’s political leaders who make decisions about how to use it is not the same as actually making a decision about what to do.  When anxiety has to give way to actually deciding whether to use a weapon, or whether to develop a weapon system, someone has to decide: is the possibility that political or military leaders might decide to unjustly to overuse a weapon a reason to not use the most precise weapon available to commanders?  Or not to develop greater precision in the first place?

Because that is the issue in the vague and morally-responsible sounding invocation of anxiety over drones and targeted killing.  Most knowledgeable observers are in broad agreement that these technologies are more sparing both of civilians and one’s own forces, and indeed forces on the other side that one did not deem necessary to attack.  It is always possible that the availability of ever more precise weapons that have these humanitarian characteristics will persuade political or military leaders that they can thereby undertake more uses of force than they might otherwise (although, importantly, the intensity, duration, and damage from more frequent recourses to force might also be far less than conventional means).  But the refusal to use, or the refusal to develop, weapons of greater precision as a way of inoculating, as it were, political leadership from the temptation to use force more immediately comes at the price of holding the civilians and fighters who are on the losing end of this calculation as, in moral terms, hostages.  They are held hostage to the believe that political leaders cannot be trusted.

This is immoral.  It uses the civilian and soldiers whose lives might have been spared by more precise technologies as mere means – hostages – to other ends.  The immorality of this argument is masked by the sincerity of the anxiety – a vague anxiety that covers the true implications of the argument.  The anxiety is admirable – up to a point.  It is admirable to the extent that it forces a serious re-examination of this moral anxiety where it actually lives – which is to say, in the acts of political and military leaders.  It does not live, except illegitimately, in the refusal to use or develop more precision means as a way of pressuring those leaders.  The anxiety ultimately is about the unjust or immoral or wrong resort to force by political leadership, and that is the point that anxiety ought to push.

Ultimately rubber meets road; and anxiety, however morally sincere or admirable, has to give way to policy.  In the actual attack contemplated, do you use the most precise means possible or not?  Are you really prepared to urge the use of less precise means, or to urge that technologically available, more humanitarian means should not be developed?  And if you think the answer is that one should use, or only have available, less precise means, isn’t the real reason that you don’t think the attack is actually just or justified?  But if that is the reason, then have the moral courage to get beyond vaguely expressed anxieties and say so.

(I have given a fuller academic discussion for why I think the argument from the relaxed disincentive to use force a bad one, in a paper that will be appearing as a book chapter, downloadable here at SSRN.  And thanks to Glenn for the link.)

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