drone strikes

Five Problems with the “Secret” Drone Campaign in Syria

Last week’s Washington Post report of the CIA/Special Forces “secret” drone campaign provided fresh evidence that the United States is heading in the wrong direction on the Middle East. Supporters of increased military action abound in Washington, of course, and lacking any better idea, the Obama administration has decided to double down on drones, despite no evidence that such an effort will have any measurable effect on the situation in Syria or Iraq. Instead, the new drone campaign is likely to have (at least) five negative consequences.

First, it will inflame anti-American sentiment in the region. Sadly, as survey after survey shows, anti-Americanism is rampant through the Middle East, even in countries the U.S. counts on as allies in the fight against terrorism and the Islamic State. A recent study shows that the Arab Twitterverse is awash in negative sentiment toward the U.S., illustrating that  And even more relevant, a recent Pew study documents the unsurprising fact that U.S. drone strikes are incredibly unpopular almost everywhere, prompting majorities in several Arab countries to say strikes against the United States for its behavior are justified. More drone strikes will move the U.S. backwards, not forwards.

Second, it will aid Islamic State recruiting and spur more terrorism. After 9/11 the United States went on the offensive, looking to destroy Al Qaeda and kill terrorists abroad before they could visit America to do more harm. What happened, however, was that by killing large numbers of Al Qaeda members and supporters, but also a large number of civilians, and thereby causing immense chaos, strife, and uncertainty, the United States managed to give fresh air to first Al Qaeda’s recruiting efforts and now to the Islamic State’s. In 2001 there were 1878 terrorist attacks in addition to the 9/11 attacks. After 13 years of war on terror there were 16,818 terror attacks worldwide in 2014. In short, the U.S. counterterrorism strategy has been debunked. With every drone strike, the U.S. lends weight to jihadist claims that the U.S. is a malign presence in the Middle East.

The President’s Drone Memo

Yesterday, a memo describing the president’s legal justifications for drone attacks against U.S. citizens was obtained and published by NBC’s Michael Isikoff. The memo is a disturbing assertion of discretionary executive power that should concern and frighten all Americans. Unfortunately, the secretive use of drone attacks is one of the few areas of bi-partisan consensus in this highly divisive town, and the public still seems to resoundingly support current counter-terrorism policies.

Not being a foreign policy expert, I will not get into the broader questions of counter-terrorism policies. I agree, as I think most Americans would, that there are times in which the government can justifiably use lethal force against even its own citizens. As always, however, the devil is in the details, and here the details are encapsulated in the broad, discretionary language of the memo. Abstractly agreeing that there are times where a killing is justified does not answer who will determine when to use such force, what standards they are expected to uphold, and what possibilities of review exist for mistakes.

These standards—the “who,” the “how,” and the “possibility of review”—are at the core of the Western legal tradition. Putting process—that is, how something is determined—on equal level with substance—what is determined—is one of the Western legal tradition’s most important contributions. The goal of a legal system is not just to reach the correct result, but to reach that result via a just, open, and reviewable process. Fundamentally, these principles are concessions to our inevitable predilection for errors in thinking, judgment, and fact-gathering. The lynching of an obviously guilty child molester is problematic not just because of the disturbing result, but for how that result was determined.

Those are the principles that we should hold dear when analyzing the memo. Perhaps every drone attack has been the correct call (something we know isn’t true), and high-level officials certainly care about civilian casualties. Nevertheless, if we believe in the principles of the Western legal tradition, we shouldn’t okay with this power if it were in the hands of Mother Theresa.

Al Qaeda’s Mythical Unity

The mythical al Qaeda is a hierarchical organization. After losing its haven in Afghanistan, it cleverly decentralized authority and shifted its headquarters to Pakistan. But central management still dispatches operatives globally and manages affiliates according to a strategy.

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