The Morality of Drone Strikes

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An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night, Jan. 31, 2010. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

In his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech, President Obama defended the right to engage in “just wars,” evoking a theory of ethical warfare that can be traced back to Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and even Cicero. Is the administration’s use of unmanned drone strikes compatible with the traditional principles of just war? We asked Daniel Brunstetter, a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, who has written about drones and just war theory for The Atlantic and the journal Ethics & International Affairs.

Lauren Feeney: What is “just war theory?”

Daniel Brunstetter

Daniel Brunstetter: Just war theory is a shared moral language that helps us facilitate our evaluation of the way in which statesmen can use force. I’ve heard it said that President Obama has been an avid reader of Augustine or Aquinas and that gives him the necessary knowledge of what just war theory is. One of the misconceptions about just war theory is that there is some book or checklist that you can turn to and say, “Do I satisfy this, do I satisfy that? Okay, great, I can go and wage war.” It’s more of a tradition in which there has been a long conversation dating from the times of Augustine, and it gives us a moral vocabulary that both structures and informs how we think about war and how we legitimize or don’t legitimize the use of force.

Feeney: So there isn’t a set of rules, but what are the main principles?

Brunstetter: You can divide it into three basic categories.

There’s what scholars call the jus ad bellum, which means the justice of war. Within that are six different criteria you can look at to think about whether using force in a particular situation is just: just cause, right intention, last resort, legitimate authority, proportionality, and probability of success. President Obama referred to just cause and last resort in his Nobel Prize speech in 2009, when he said you only wage war in self-defense and when you’ve tried everything else and force is the last reasonable option.

There’s another phase referred to as jus in bello, or justice in war — what you can do during the course of a war — and there are two major principles there: distinction and proportionality. Distinction means distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants and avoiding harm of non-combatants to whatever extent is possible while trying to carry out a military mission. Proportionality means trying to balance the harm inflicted with the overall consequences of that action. You don’t want to carry out a military action that’s going to have long-term or even short-term negative consequences.

Then there’s a final phase which people talk about nowadays, jus post bellum, or justice after war. If you’re using force, you want to think clearly about the outcomes and how to come to a just peace afterwards.

Feeney: Does the use of drone strikes fit within the rules of a just war?

Brunstetter: I think that depends on a couple of things. Take jus ad bellum, or the justice of war. If you read President Obama’s early speeches and look at the National Security Strategy of 2010, you see how his just war philosophy has been a striking critique of President Bush’s philosophy. Obama has sought to limit self-defense to imminent threats rather than Bush’s vague notion of preemption. He’s reinvigorated the idea that you only go to war as a last resort.

Now, the question is, do drones satisfy these criteria? Here’s where we run into a couple of problems. In terms of just cause, it really depends on how imminent the threat is, that is, that the specific targets are actually going to carry out an attack. And in terms of last resort, it depends on if there are other options that we could use instead of lethal force. Could we, for example, try to capture terrorists? Brennan, in his recent speech, said that the U.S. administration prefers to capture, but that it’s exceedingly rare because terrorists or alleged terrorists tend to be in very remote places.

My fear is that President Obama speaks the language of last resort, but his use of drones doesn’t really seem to follow that principle. It’s unclear to me whether and to what extent their use is really a last resort.

Feeney: Is secrecy part of the problem? Maybe if we heard Obama’s justification for any individual drone strike, it could in fact pass muster, but the administration hasn’t been forthcoming with information about these decisions.

Brunstetter:I think you raise a very important point. President Obama’s use of drones is not necessarily unjust according to the standards of just war theory. It could be that there’s an imminent threat of attack and he’s tried everything possible and the threshold of last resort has been crossed. That is clearly a possible scenario, and in fact, the just war tradition would teach you that that would be an instance in which the use of force would be legitimate.

But, as you say, there is very little evidence that we have access to that suggests that this is really the case in all instances. In fact, if we look at some of the patterns across the years, we see a few problematic trends. For one, this whole campaign of signature strikes, especially starting in 2011. Were there other ways in which to quell that threat? I think there may be evidence with which the administration could defend their claims, but without further disclosure, we can’t really know.

Feeney: What about the principle of distinction? We know that a number of civilians have been killed in drone strikes.

Brunstetter: I talked about the jus ad bellum criteria, the justice of war, and raised questions about whether drone strikes really satisfy last resort. I think you can raise equally important questions about whether they satisfy the jus in bello principles of proportionality and distinction. If you listen to the proponents of drones, John Brennan for example — architect of the drone program and Obama’s pick for the head of the CIA — they say that drones are the most humane technology that we’ve ever possessed as human beings. They laud drones for their ability to make pinpoint laser-guided strikes. They call them more proportionate and discriminate than any weapon system in the history of mankind.

Now, that’s probably true. Certainly it’s true if you compare drones to say the firebombing of Dresden. But I don’t think it’s fair to judge proportionality that way. Drones are more proportionate than bombing campaigns and they’re more proportionate than say the Pakistani Army going in and cleaning up the Af-Pak border area. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are proportionate. The more drone strikes you carry out, the more likely you are, even if you’re very good, to have collateral damage. Now, the just war tradition doesn’t say you can never have collateral damage, but it says you need to take every opportunity to limit that as much as possible, and you can only undertake strikes that are a military necessity. So in my mind it’s not about whether drones are more proportionate than say ground forces but whether all the criteria of just war are being met in the particular strike.

Feeney: Just war theory seems to leave room for quite a bit of war.

Brunstetter: That depends on how you interpret the criteria. I think the purpose of just war theory is to limit the recourse to force, except when it’s absolutely necessary, and to make sure that when you have to go to war or use force, that it’s done in ways that protect, to the greatest extent possible, non-combatants from harm. The challenge is that sometimes just war principles can be manipulated to justify almost any recourse to force. The most obvious example is George W. Bush’s use of the language to justify the Iraq invasion. One of the most common critiques of just war theory is that it is only used to justify war, but it’s also used to challenge or criticize the use of force. If you look at the recent presidential debates, for example, it was used to argue against going to war with Iran. Perhaps if the administration released the relevant documents, we would find that just war criteria were voiced to show how some potential drone strikes were deemed to be unjustified and therefore weren’t carried out. But without access to the facts, I am admittedly skeptical this is the case.

I think what we’re seeing with the Obama Administration is that they’ve placed too much faith in this idea that drones are more proportional than other weapons, and that that gives them this moral leverage to continue to use them. But we need to also take into account the different elements that might affect the long-term success of the various drone campaigns: collateral damage, and how that contributes to anti-American sentiment; what does the post-drone campaign world look like? Without transparency, without drones being woven into the actual U.S. foreign policy in an open way, it’s hard for us to even think about those questions.

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  • Ron Thibodeau

    With over 6000 drone armaments available. It’s ‘just’ cost effective.

  • JonThomas

    Yep, and with no people on the ground, drones take away the cost of American lives. No citizens to weep over, complain about, or use as a reason for protest. Thousands of miles away, for a vast majority of Americans, human lives have little to no emotional significance, no sense of being “real.” They aren’t even shown on the news, just mentioned in passing, if at all.

    It’s beyond a ‘just war theory.’ It’s an out of sight, out of mind, rational. It’s ‘solving a problem with a push of the button.’ If any President wants to spout some moralistic defense of war, then they have to not only grab a sword and really put themselves in danger while standing up for their beliefs, but they must also be ok with sending their children to do the same. No button pushing, no trigger pulling, just down and dirty fighting for what really has value…life! Until that day, there is no ‘just’ or ‘moral’ rational for any violence.

  • Anonymous

    The United States has proven since 2002 that what value means is oil and such resourses that belong to others, and an easy way to obtain it by useing Drones.

  • JonThomas

    Well, while the preponderance of evidence throughout it’s history may provide an argument that the U.S., as a nation(not necessarily it’s individual citizens,) often values it’s financial, materialistic, and political interests ahead of the lives of those who stand in the way of such interests, it is way too simplistic to say that ‘since 2002 drones have been used to obtain oil'(my paraphrase.)

    Without going to too great of detail, and without a debate of right or wrong of these actions… Firstly… there are the terrorist security concerns that arose from 9/11/2001. That’s a huge and undeniable reason for the military actions that led to the use of drones.

    Secondly, most, if not all of the oil that the U.S. procures is done so through, and with the blessings of, the governments of the nations which have the oil.

    Have drones been used within the borders of oil producing nations? Yes, I’m sure, but instead of painting with such a broad brush(that is to say… trying to make too large of a point in your premise,) you should provide details and evidence that would support a statement such as the one you have made.

  • Anonymous

    My Dad, after four years being dumped off behind German borders to “go kill all the Germans he could” and finding himself confronting a young German soldier, told me war is killing someone as young and stupid as you, because you believed some old fart when he got you out there in the snow and rain, and mud to kill each other or be killed so another old fart could have something that did not belong to any of the old farts. I think my Dad earned the right to determine what war is. I think when we humans created the way to kill every single human many times over, war became not just stupid, but obsolete. It is a game the 1% play to get money out of the stupid who are afraid someone “might” take away their chance to be in the 1%. They HAVE no chance to be in the 1% and drones are making sure they keep it that way.

  • Anonymous

    There are no terrorist security issues. NO ONE has the weapons to reach America except maybe Russia and China and THEY are taken over by the 1%ers. Even George Bush admitted 9/11 was a lie and Iraq had nothing to do with it, but Iraq DID have the largest oil discover in decades and had decided to sell it to Russia and France. Hmmmm. Facts that are easy to verify.

  • Anonymous

    AND to state that the governments of nations want to bless America with oil, that is mostly because the oil guys pick the leaders who will “bless” them and kill off all the rest. It is still going on here in America on the Native American reserves. The casinos, look up Jack Abramoff’s dealings with the FBI and Congress that prove it………are NOT for Native Americans, they are for corrupt law firms and lobbyists to put the final death knell to Native American cultural ideals and principles that the land and nature and our great, great grandchildren and theirs, deserve better than we got, not worse.

  • Al

    I Googled Dick Cheney. In the litanay of his history it said he served on the Advisory Committee for JINSA. So I looked up JINSA to see what it is. My first thought was wondering why we have such a prominent organization like that here in America. When I found that other leading members of JINSA included Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz, Senator Joe Lieberman, White House advisors Douglas Feith & Richard Perle, (basically all the neocon Republicans shouting for the Iraq war) it started to make sense how we suddenly got into war with nearly every Arabic nation in the world as well as why the World Trade Center has been the main target of Arabic terrorism. Check it out and see what you find. It could be the closest guarded secret of all.

  • Anonymous

    If our nation is ever taken over-it will be taken over from within!–
    [[–JAMES MADISON–]]………perhaps a 9/11?????.
    Volume IV of the international Jew:—Aspects of the Jewish Power in the United States proves reason for false flags to blame the Arab nations, thus the desire for the two siamese twins to conquer,…. land for Israel and the oil beneath for the elite oil companies.

  • Citizen

    The real problem as I see it is one of trust ,, I for one and I’m sure there are many that agree with me trust issues like dron targets are I am very comfortable with the MORAL COMPASS of bush ,Chaney More than I am of Obama moral compass!!!

  • Jim

    With the focus on “just war” there has been no thought to just defense. There is absolutely no way we could arrest the “enemy combatants” to bring them to justice and accountability. What else can we do to protect ourselves. The Islamists have declared war. Give me a solution, not another problem. If these people were on American soil, the issue would be solved through the courts.

  • jim

    head in the sand

  • Mark

    All sorts of concerns are being discussed here, but the article refers to “morality.” It should, by the way, have been entitled “The Immorality of Drone Strikes.” Morality is no longer a concern on the United States, and arguably never was. The nation has long-since abandoned the notion in favor of power politics and economic benefit. These are the metrics, exclusive of all others, that reflect the “hearts and minds” of American motivation and justification. It galls me that, for a nation that has referred to its God relentlessly since its founding, the means it chooses to accomplish its ends are the most barbaric imaginable and always have been. Need land? Murder the natives and take it. Need an economy? Take and use chattel, and now, wage slaves. Need resources? Invade and murder and take what you need, or subvert the government(s) that resist. The word and the idea of morality should be deleted from American dictionaries.

  • Val

    This poor Brunstetter kid seems to be mentally challenged. Hey, kid, when you bomb another country because there might be someone there that may have been part of an organization that may have planned some kind of attack against American soldiers occupying a third country, and kill not only this suspect, without charges and trial, but many other innocent civilians, including women and children, then YOU’RE the terrorist and your bombing is an unjust act of war, as expressly denounced by the Nuremburg judges. What kind of sophistry are you belching here? You should be ashamed to be promoting outright murder like this.

  • Pat Elgee

    We need war because too many congressmen have money in corporations that supply the military machine. No war: no profits.
    Besides in the Mid-East there has been opposing tribes that have been killing each other for two thousand years. That is not going to be stopped by US intervention.
    Oil? If there were no oil to import, we would get creative. We always have. If it were a real problem, they would not have lifted the mpg minimums over the last few terms.
    And the biggest sucker punch is that we send our sons to war to fight for democracy in other countries when we have lost our because of the corruption. Congress taking bribes from lobbyist, banks, drug companies, gun mfgs, power companies, communication companies.
    The soldiers should just say NO to the old farts, go fight wars yourselves.

  • Pat Elgee

    China can buy any company in the US they want. They are not friendly to the US, have recently tried to buy military secrets, and I do not see why they get such favorable trade status to the point when those agreements have screwed our own industry. Oh, bribes, whoops, political contributions.

  • Bert Sacks

    President Obama in his Nobel Lecture in 2009 said this: “The concept of a “just war” emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort OR in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.” (my emphasis added)

    The actual legal requirement is “last resort AND self-defense” — which is a critically important distinction in judging the 2003 U.S. Iraq war [no self-defense involved] and also the Israeli Operation Cast Lead in Gaza [where Israel stopping economic sanctions against Gaza had been shown to be a nonviolent alternative which stopped the rockets].

    Finally, the argument that a weapon can be precisely targeted does not mean that proportionality and discrimination requirements are met. The precise bombing of Iraq’s electrical-generating plants in 1991 made processing of water and sewage impossible and caused the deaths of 46,900 Iraqi children from water-borne disease (NEJM 9/92).

  • Jay Bowden,

    Blah, blah , blah, sit in your ivory tower and discuss issues that affect the soldiers on the ground. Get your hands dirty , see and feel the deaths of our kids On the battleground and then come back and discuss the proper moral perspectives. I believe the nature of the conversations would change.

  • Jay Bowden,

    My comments are based on the show dealing with Drone strikes. Thanks

  • The eagle speaks!

    I do not subscribe to the notion of “just war”! The moment we start down that path we come only to justifying our desire to force our will upon the other — this is true even in a “war of defense”.

  • Erwin Dale Brown

    We haven’t been in a war since WWII. Incursions are not legitimate wars. We have killed a lot of people, had around 200,000 soldier suicides and way too much PTSD. We now have to suffer a death toll of more civilians that are being killed by our “chair ridden” pilots flying drones. In 70 countries? Is that the story? I’m a veteran but not one of these new age contracted killers we have now. “THE DRONES ARE MAKING LIFE LONG ENEMIES OUT OF PEOPLE WE AREN’T EVEN AWARE OF AND THEY WILL BE WANTING TO KILL OUR GREAT GRAND CHILDREN SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE”. Our kids will not even understand why it is happening.

  • Jon

    It requires no courage to use. It earns no honor to the user. It should be feared, but it cannot be respected. Is that how we want the world to see us?

  • Gary Wilson

    What a bunch of hogwash.

    There is no legal difference whatsoever in the legality between an airstrike conducted by a pilot sitting in the cockpit of an aircraft and that conducted by a pilot sitting in a room and controlling the aircraft remotely. (BTW, they both wear flight suits and get flight pay)

    Whether the airstrike is legal depends strictly on the target. That is a purely function of the intelligence community and national command authority authorizing the use of such force.

    The question has gotten blurred as the combatants we’re facing have totally ignored all of laws of war to begin with, including 1. not wearing uniforms, 2. conducting attacks on purely civilian targets and 3. hiding military assets and targets amongst civilian populations.

    The author totally ignores those three blatant violations of the laws of war as dictated by the Geneva and Hague Conventions that started our involvement in the mideast to begin with. If the enemy combatants (called that because they refuse to operate under the laws of war and with the blessing of legal state) wore uniforms and stayed in clearly marked camps away from the civilian population to begin with, there would be no collateral civilian casualties at all!

  • Sierra Volk

    There is no “just” war. There is just war.

  • Daryl Davis

    I think if those so called combatant’s that have declared war on us are going to hide behind their women’s skirts, hide in there children’s schools, hide like the cowards among the civilian’s then we should do as they do, ignore the so called RULES OF ENGAGEMENT. we should attack them however is most effective. The government sends our military to a foreign land to fight then basically put’s trigger locks on there weapons by forcing our military to abide by these so called rules of engagement. If you feel we are wrong for saving lives, ask our men and women who fought for there lives in WWI and WWII. Ask them who in Germany fought fair! Ask them when fighting against Japan who fought fair! When Japan attacked us, was that our fault? they lied to us at the same time they were planning to attack! so personally I’ am fed up with AMERICAN’S taking the blame for how we fought against those who have attacked us in the past. I do agree war makes the 1% richer and the working class grieve over their loss but, this nation is divided and would rather lose the son’s and daughter’s then come together as one and stop the B S in Washington. I asked a young Spanish man what did the words say under the Spanish flag on his car and he said .. my flag my country. Since that day when I see the American flag, I see our soldiers who fought in Germany against the iron fist of Hitler to free people they didn’t even know,I see the soldiers who fought in the south pacific against Japan who was willing to commit suicide to destroy us and, the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They didn’t ask to go to war….. they simply answered their country’s call! That being said ,When I see The AMERICAN FLAG I see a country because of our soldier’s. From now until I’m gone I couldn’t thank you enough for your selfless act of courage. if you don’t agree that’s fine! but just remember when you see the American flag maybe you’ll see… My Flag, My country because of our Soldiers!

  • Dave B.

    I think these talking heads have split hairs so fine that there is no hair left.

  • Moira Jones

    The voices that are very important to hear on this topic come from the people who have had to live with drone strikes. Here’s a speech on this topic by a student from Pakistan: