Amnesty International has just issued a report that is highly critical of the use of drones by the United States. Its main concern is the great number of civilian casualties that these strikes cause – the so-called collateral damage. There is considerable disagreement among observers about the extent of these casualties. Amnesty International relies on local people, who, as the report discloses, are keen to call attention to them. Whatever the actual number, though, they deserve careful consideration.
One should first of all note that the main reason for these civilian casualties is that terrorists do not observe the most elementary rule of armed conflict – widely recognized and championed by the International Red Cross – the rule of distinction. Under this rule, military forces should make every effort to separate military targets from civilian ones and spare the latter. Why do American drones have difficulty abiding by this? Mainly because the terrorists use private homes and vehicles to wage attacks on us and our allies; locate their snipers in mosques and on the rooftops of schools; and use ambulances to transport bombs. If terrorists abided by the rule of distinction, collateral damage would be minimized overnight. In short, a good part of the moral onus for these casualties rests with the terrorists.
In judging drones, people confuse two issues. Should those strongly suspected of engaging in terrorism be killed? And if yes, by what means? My criteria for answering the first question is the Just War Theory – that they should be killed only after we have exhausted all other means to resolve the conflict, and if they are out to kill innocent people (rather than merely to take our oil, other property, or – often – our pride). By this criteria, those who attacked us on 9/11 – and their ilk – are legitimate targets.
If kill we must, drones are much preferred to missiles, bombers or special forces. Because they can loiter over the target, and because their feed can be reviewed, drones cause much less collateral damage than other means of warfare.
Critics argue that drones violate international law, especially the most basic precept, sovereignty, which stipulates that no nation will use force to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations. However, when nations send terrorists across borders, as Iran does, or cannot control terrorists within their countries that attack us or our allies, we should attribute a new exception to the precept of sovereignty. That is, if terrorists from country A attack people in country B, they forfeit their right to be protected by sovereignty, as they cannot first violate sovereignty and then ask to be protected by it. (I write “new exception” because most nations of the world have already agreed to the Responsibility to Protect, which makes sovereignty conditional when a nation allows genocide to take place within its borders.)
There are those who argue that drones alienate people. However, polls conducted by Pew Research Center show that people in the countries at issue, such as Yemen and Pakistan are no more hostile to the U.S. than are people in Arab countries where drones were not used, and that people in said nations were quite hostile to America before drones were employed.
Finally, one should note that the U.S. government exercises very tight control over the use of drones. There must be at least two independent sources of intelligence before someone can be added to the target list, there are numerous targets against which drones may not be used, and, for many other targets, high-level approval is needed, up to the head of the CIA and even the president.
In short, if kill we must, drones are the preferred tool. They would not be needed if nations prevented terrorists from using their space to attack others across borders. Although every civilian casualty is unquestionably tragic, the main reason they occur is because terrorists masquerade as civilians – not because too many drones are afloat.
Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. He served as a senior adviser to the Carter White House and taught at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.