Analysis of John Brennan’s Defense of US Drone Wars
On 30 April 2012, counter-terrorism czar John Brennan, in remarks delivered at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington DC, attempted to present the clearest legal and ethical justification so far for America’s anti-terrorism policies, including drone warfare in Pakistan and Yemen.
An optimistic interpretation of the speech is that it signals a new attitude of openness and transparency in the Obama administration’s approach to drone strikes. A more cynical view is that Brennan’s remarks offer mere rationalizations for a policy pursued for more dubious motives. The truth is likely somewhere between these two extremes.
In any case, Brennan made several arguments to justify the ethics of drone strikes, and these deserve a response. The following are some of the points which Brennan’s speech did not adequately address:
1. It remains ambiguous as to whether the claimed legal and moral justification for drone strikes derives from a war paradigm, a criminal justice paradigm, or some different paradigm altogether. This administration, like the previous one, seems to flip-flop on this question, choosing either position to suit its interests. Brennan’s comments, which included references to the killing of German and Japanese commanders in World War II, seem to lean towards the war paradigm. However: if drone strikes are considered acts of war, then international law does not recognize civilian drone operators as lawful combatants. More generally, why wouldn’t the US be bound by the Geneva Conventions? These would require that the US be much more cautious to avoid civilian casualties (and, I believe, to report them when they occur.) Another particularly offensive point in this regard is the alleged follow-up strikes which target militants (or others) who come to recover bodies of victims of an initial strike.
2. Again, if we are following a war paradigm, is there not a moral requirement to attempt negotiations, or at least some sort of discussions, with al Qaida? This would seem to follow directly from the ‘war only as last resort’ principle of just war theory.
3. Brennan contended that drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen are aimed at killing high-level commanders of al Qaida and affiliated groups – because they constitute a direct threat and are involved in planning or implementing terrorist acts against the United States. However, it is the general perception that the drone war in Pakistan is primarily an extension of the Afghanistan war – i.e., directed at least as much against Taliban militants (who pose no direct threat to the US) as against al Qaida. Failure to consider this point seems, at the least, somewhat disingenuous by Brennan.
4. The monochromatic portrayal of al Qaida as an international terrorist organization with no aim other than harming the United States is surely incomplete. Rather, it would seem that, at least as an immediate priority, al Qaida factions in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere, are more concerned with regime change in their own countries than in attacking the United States. It is hard to believe that an al Qaida field commander in Pakistan or Yemen, engaged in a dire struggle against domestic military forces, has much spare time to master-mind a terrorist attack within US borders.
5. Supporting the previous point, note that al Qaida actively participated in the Libyan coalition to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. In that sense, the Libyan al Qaida factions were de facto allies of the United States.
6. We must also not neglect to mention the role that the illegal Israeli occupation and virtual annexation of the West Bank plays as a motive in al Qaida activity. The Obama administration seems to accept that the occupation is illegal. Should this not then be seen as a mitigating factor in measuring our response to al Qaida (i.e., a reason to be proportionately less extreme in application of force)?
7. Brennan’s assertions that our drone strike and other counter-terrorist actions are working is less than fully credible. The strikes are winning no friends internationally. Clearly they are making Pakistanis angry; and, while there are no firm facts and figures available, the possibility that this is drawing new recruits to al Qaida and other insurgency groups must be taken seriously.
8. Brennan’s remarks do not indicate that he or President Obama recognize that drone strikes are morally different from other forms of warfare in these three important respects. First, the very presence of drones in the skies must be seen as terrorizing. Second, drone assassination is like shooting fish in a barrel or extermination of animals; their use is inherently inhumane. Third is the dehumanizing effects of requiring drone operators to act as exterminators — a far cry from what used to pass as ‘honorable warfare.’ If you’re being shot at yourself, risking life an limb, its undoubtedly easier to soothe a conscience over the killing of another human being. Drone operators do not have this remedy.