Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The problem is the power to use them, not the drones themselves

I haven't thought much about drones since I had to worry about scheduling and clearing airspace for them when I was still in the Army deployed to Iraq. My deepest thoughts regarding them was to always remind myself not to put a tactical UAV over a target house before the raid hits.  As a strategic tool of national security, they struck me as just that: a tool. It is an alternative to a manned aircraft, but with lesser capabilities. No big deal and not something to waste grey cells on.

But then this was published in the NY Times yesterday. I am shocked at the authority the President has to determine who and what is a viable and legal target for precision strikes. I don't blame the President for this extreme power - it's the Congress' job to check his power and they're not doing that. They passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force against terrorists in 2001 and have not updated it since, leaving the President with extraordinary power.  Our strikes (manned or unmanned) in Pakistan, Yemen, and Horn of Africa seem to be against appropriate targets and are conducted in places where we have the authority to do so. It's the ability of the President to decide which individuals should be killed is astounding.

What concerns me about unmanned strike assets is the potential they have, in an environment where a small coterie have wide-ranging discretion to use them, to enable the United States to make a significant moral or strategic blunder. Even though I generally agree with Dan Trombly that many concerns about drones are not relevant today, that does not predict that the concerns he dispenses with will not be valid in the future. At the moment, UAV technology is not so advanced as to make it our primary strike platform across the globe (technology more limited by budgets and policy than capability). And we currently use UAVs in conflicts with the authority of the state where they are deployed. But what happens when we have a president not as scrupulous as President Obama?

My concern about about drones is not the drones themselves. The article linked about has little to nothing to do with drones themselves. My concern is about unchecked power. My concern is that people who can potentially rise to power high enough to direct the use of drones will use them foolishly because of the drones' inherent characteristics. The fact that the United States can now execute a (limited) bombing campaign without putting a single U.S. citizen into harms way is quite alluring - and that capability will on increase with time. With such extensive power, how long until will it be until we have a President who will use this mere tool to conduct attacks that were unfounded, unchecked, or fall short of jus ad bellum criteria. How long will it be until we have a President who orders an attack somewhere but does not understand the nth order effects that might trigger a sizable or regional war? Drones make these types of attacks easier and more palatable because the initial consequences (no loss of American lives) are negligible. We can invest so little and yet realize significant returns, surely, and that makes it so easy to use. But plans don't work out, intel is bad, collateral damage is not acceptable, thinking is muddled - things often assumed as irrelevant before an op but become quite relevant in the aftermath. Especially when it's so easy to execute the strike.

The United States should continue to use drones and develop drone technology for use against its enemies. It is only a tool and it does save (or has the potential to save) American lives while allowing the United States to protect its interests, making it a very valuable tool of American military power.  What we need to do, as a nation, is re-look what powers we vest with the President and ensure it isn't too easy for him or her to use force contrary to our ideals or interests. As drones advance, their use will become alluring to those with interventionist bents who believe that political capital comes cheaply if you don't have any skin in the game. You can't lose what you don't wager and I don't trust that everyone who might have power in the future will understand that using drones is still a wager, even if it's not American lives. Congress should start laying the groundwork now passing new laws to ensure when that person does come to power it's not too late.


  1. This separating of drones from the presidential power to use drones often strikes me as odd. It's not even that I necessarily disagree with you here, because we are both concerned with "unchecked [presidential?] power." Part of his power is command of the drones, which are capable of a lot of things.

    So it's a bit like this: We are worried about presidential power, but not about the things that actually make him powerful.

    (If the comment here seems muddled, it is because my thinking on this matter is muddled. I think.)

  2. While I believe, as mentioned, that drones make it easier for a president to exercise his power (or justify that exercise), he could just the same use stealth bombers or plain old strike aircraft (which we do a lot of now). And yes, the ease of use with drones is a problem, but the utility of this particular system has benefits that outweigh any thought to stop developing them. So while they can it can be alluring for a president to use them, the problem is the power of the president to use them. Because he can use any other platform, too, which has identical moral repercussions. The things that make him powerful are all capabilities to project power, of which one are drones. I'm concerned about the authorities that make him powerful.

  3. I understand your position. I just wonder why we place so much emphasis on that side of the equation. We all seem to be (me included) confident that the things that make the president so powerful are beneficial, good, and worth the costs (in most cases). But if you don't have the power, you don't have to worry about the ability of a president to misuse it.

    (You are absolutely right that this applies to other platforms. I'm just saying that it just might be that separating the two issues isn't helpful in understanding the problem.) Just sayin'

  4. My concern about about drones is not the drones themselves. The article linked about has little to nothing to do with drones themselves. My concern is about unchecked power.

    "Unchecked power"? Last I saw, Congress makes the law. If they don't like it, pass a law that makes its illegal (aid to the Contras anyone?). If the POTUS pushes back that he's exercising his inherent powers under Article II then it gets punted to the Supreme Court who rules on it. Say what? Oh that funny checks and balances thing that got put in place in the 18th century. [sidejack] Read about striking down the balanced budget amendment if you want to know why one branch can't give up its inherent powers found in the Constitution [sidejack]

    Here is what isn't being said. The reason this will never happen is because House Republicans either silently agree and/or are a prisoner of their own rhetoric. If they actually agree, they may bitch for political points, but they won't doing anything (I suspect this is a majority right there). And imagine the pressure on those who may want to ban or modify it but will have to defend a bill that the President will bash them with through November about making the country less safe. Weak on terrorism!!! None of them wants to give the President that kind of ammuntion for the fall campaign season, the ammuntion they've created over the last 3 decades. Oh, and not to mention most Americans agree with it, and this still is a demo... er republic.

    So the bottom line is deal with it. And if you don't like that answer, write Congress.

  5. Alas I think you are right. Unchecked is not the right word. Abjured is. Congress has vested the president with powers that normally require Congressional approval and/or oversight that exceed Article II powers. And you're spot on that it's not going to change for the reasons you've indicated.

  6. Jason,

    Sorry for my venting but I feel like I'm watching a repeat of the 1939 Phony War as the Germans behind the Siegfried Line peered at the French behind the Maginot Line, neither intending to do anything to the other despite the impressive armies. Of course that changed in May 1940 so I guess the analogy ends there...

  7. The problem with drones is they remove the risk involved in an attack. If you aren't willing to lay your own life on the line for a particular mission, should that mission really be executed? We have all heard the adage, "is this the hill you want to die on?" Without this check, there exists a disconnect between the operator and the action of taking a human life.