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Benjamin Wittes’ Argument Rebutted: Drone Warfare is Not Ethical and Effective

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Last month Lawfare co-founder and Harvard Fellow Benjamin Wittes participated in a formal debate hosted by the Oxford Union on the resolution, “This house believes drone warfare is ethical and effective.”

In his followup column, Benjamin correctly observes that embedded within the drone debate are several separate issues.  How many and what these specific issues are is a matter of opinion, but his list will do for starters:

  1. The platform question: Is the use of drones ethical and effective relative to other weapons given a decision to use force?
  2. The policy question: Should the United States be engaged in lethal targeting of terrorist suspects in countries like Yemen and Pakistan and under what circumstances?
  3. Platform/policy interaction: Does the availability of drones enable lethal missions we would otherwise eschew, and if so, do we consider that incremental enabling to be a good or an evil?

This sort of gradual refinement of issues and questions is exactly what needs to happen.  So kudos to him for this part.

The substance of his actual argument, however, is another matter.  Benjamin made the rather unenviable prospect of defending the “pro” position (drones are ethical and effective) somewhat more feasible by restricting his attention to the first issue above.  Nevertheless, even in that narrow sense, defending drone use is not the ethical slam dunk he made it out to be.  There are several important arguments against *any* use of attack drones, i.e., ethical and practical concerns that pertain to unique features of the drone platform:

1. Proliferation. Other countries (China, Iran, N. Korea) can easily build drone weapons. Does not our eager use of drones invite their use by other countries, perhaps even against the US and her allies? Would it not be wise now to foresee this imminent danger, and to proceed more slowly and carefully — if at all?

2. Operator remoteness.  The operator of a manned aircraft arguably has access to more contextual cues that enable him to discriminate combatants from non-combatants.   A remote drone operator is more likely to mistake civilians for militants, or to fail to notice cues that might alert to the presence of children.

3. Public sentiment and outrage. As the recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee of Farea al-Muslimi confirms, drone strikes produce greater public outrage than conventional military actions. For one thing, the drones circle for hours, creating a climate of general terror. Living in constant fear of ‘death from the skies’ is a pretty terrible thing.

4. Hygienic killing. Where do we draw the line on a killing technology which is so efficient and ‘hygienic’ that it is simply inhumane? The pilot of a manned attack aircraft has, arguably, some direct sense of the horror of his actions. Human conscience and feelings, a gut-level aversion to killing, still operate. But is this true for a remote drone operator in an air-conditioned office?  And what are the psychological effects on the drone operators themselves?

5. Manner of death. Another unique feature of drone strikes is that the faster-than-sound missiles strike their victims with no advance warning.  One second you’re walking around, the next you’re toast. The killed person has no time for final prayers, or even a moment to effect some degree of self-composure.  Christians, and I suppose Muslims as well, believe: (1) the human soul is immortal; (2) there is an afterlife; and (3) that preparing oneself for death may have some bearing on what happens afterwards.  I write this knowing that nobody dares to say such a thing today; I say it nonetheless — it should be said, and stated plainly: every human being has an inalienable right to last prayers.  When this issue is not even considered, we no longer have human beings killing human beings, but machines and a soul-less system killing human beings. The former is tragic, the latter hellish.

So we see that there is significant doubt that lethal drones can clear even the lowest ethical hurdle, namely whether the platform itself is ethical and effective. All the points above pertain uniquely to drone weaponry and raise major ethical concerns. Points 1 and 3 also address issues of efficacy: drone proliferation may ultimately harm US security, and outrage concerning their use may alienate potential allies.  In an expanded sense of the word “efficacy”, all points further testify to the special counter-productiveness of drones, inasmuch as the ethical problems they raise erode the moral fabric of US society; of what purpose is military defense if the result is debasement of the very principles we say we must fight to protect?

Clearly even more problems are evident when we consider the other issues Wittes mentioned, i.e., drone use Yemen and Pakistan, and whether having the ability to wage ‘cheap war’ increases the likelihood of military conflicts and “lethal missions.”

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Written by John Uebersax

May 9, 2013 at 10:45 pm

Drone Strikes: What Are the Moral Issues?

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As suggested in a previous post, certain ambiguities associated with drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen make it difficult for the public to understand the issues, and for activists to mount effective opposition.

Above all we must not let this confusion distract attention from the basic moral issues and harms.  Therefore, in the face of constant double-talk by government officials, we respond with the potent weapons of simplicity and clear presentation of issues.

To repeat what was said previously, drone strikes are of four kinds:  (1) targeted killings, (2) signature strikes, (3) overt combat actions, and (4) covert combat actions.  The moral issues listed below apply in different degrees to each type of drone strike.

The specific moral harms can be broadly aggregated into two groups, according to seriousness.  We shall name these the top tier and second tier moral issues, respectively.  After presenting the issues, some brief suggestions will be made for how the US might conduct drone strikes — if they are truly necessary — in a more just and moral way.

Top tier issues

  • Civilian deaths/casualties. Clearly the most important moral issue is that drone strikes, especially in Pakistan, have killed or injured many innocent civilians.  Serious consideration must also be  given to the gruesomeness of the injuries and manner of death, and the associated effects of this on survivors and relatives of those killed or injured.
  • Terrorization. Very plausible reports have circulated concerning the mass terrorization of civilians in the Tribal Regions of Pakistan because of drones.  In some areas, drones, often several at the same time, can be heard constantly, even at night.  Whenever a drone is present, nobody can be sure they will not be killed in the next instant.
  • Racism. The civilian-to-militant casualty ratio deemed acceptable by US government officials is evidently very high.  This suggests that the life of civilian Pakistani or Yemeni has comparatively little value in the eyes of the US government.  So high a level of ‘collateral damage’ would be not be accepted were these British, German or French citizens.
  • Disregard of religious customs and principles. Particularly questionable is the use of follow-up drone strikes, which attack people who come to rescue or remove bodies from the scene of an initial strike, and strikes directed against funerals of slain militants.  Civilized and decent people have always granted enemies the right to collect and bury the dead.  In any case, a funeral is a religious ceremony, and no moral people would attack another during a religious service. Moreover, the US has launched strikes during its own religious holidays, such as on Good Friday, and on January 1, both holy days for Christians.  It is also reported that drone missiles travel faster than the speed of sound, and therefore kill victims without any advance warning.  If so, this removes the possibility of praying or collecting oneself in the moments before death (however ‘unfashionable’ it may be these days to mention such an issue, it is nonetheless a significant one).
  • Secrecy. If the strikes were just and honorable, the US government would conduct them in a transparent way, explaining its procedures and admitting and making restitution for collateral damage.  But the strikes are cloaked in secrecy. The secrecy is, then, evidence that the strikes are immoral:  otherwise the US government would more readily admit them and disclose details.  Moreover, the secrecy is a moral harm itself:  it reduces government credibility, fosters ill-will between nations, and alienates the US government from its own citizens.
  • Effects on drone operators. It is wrong for any nation to induce its citizens to act as cold-blooded exterminators of other human beings.  This is utterly incompatible with human nature, and must be producing terrible psychological damage in drone operators.

Second tier issues

  • Issues of international law. The drone strikes, especially in Pakistan (where citizens consistently voice their disapproval), are illegal because they violate the sovereignty of other nations. Civilian drone operators are illegal combatants under international law.  Drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia constitute a form of undeclared war, which is illegal both under international and US law.
  • Issues of democratic principles. All available evidence suggests that most Pakistan drone strikes are what an earlier post termed covert combat actions: they are targeting ordinary militants, not high-level terrorists.  The evidence also suggests that this is done by covert collusion between the US government and conservative factions of the Pakistani government.  Both governments must issue deceptive statements to their respective citizenries to cover things up.  This removes the citizens from oversight and direction of their own lives. In the case of the US, it is also probable that defense contractor lobbying is instrumental in expanding the drone strike campaigns.
  • Arms escalation.  Eager use of drones and rapid development of more advanced systems by the US is setting the stage for an international drone arms race.  Especially disturbing is the current development of autonomous drones, which may attack and kill without human input.
  • Inhumane treatment of enemy militants.  We are required to show respect for enemies, and to always regard them as human beings; killing by remote control is antithetical to this principle.
  • Nonexpedience. The aggressive drone strike campaigns are also immoral because they harm US national security: the strikes produce more new enemies than they neutralize.  They also erode the moral foundations of American society and damage its reputation abroad.  By producing new enemies, and, consequently, potentially new wars, they threaten America’s economy.
  • Evasion of responsibility.  The drone strikes (and the global ‘war on terror’ generally), demonstrate a reluctance by the US to admit its own partial responsibility for creating global instability.  The attacks of 9/11 and on the USS Cole in Yemen were morally evil, to be sure.  Yet the US must honestly consider the extent to which it helped provoke the attacks by a long standing policy of crass imperialism.  The US has also been complicit with the illegal efforts of Israel to functionally annex the West Bank territories of Palestine.  These things do not justify the terrorist attacks on the US, but should be considered as mitigating factors in determining our response to the attacks.
  • Dishonorable warfare.  When soldiers engage under more or less equal terms, there is potentially a kind of honor associated with warfare.  When one party has an immense advantage, killing becomes mere slaughter, with no trace of honor.

If the US wishes to conduct drone strikes in a more moral manner, then particular attention should be given to the top tier moral issues.  The main requirement is to reduce civilian casualties to an absolute minimum.  This can most effectively be done by limiting the number of strikes, such as by restricting them only to targets who are genuinely direct and immediate threats to US domestic security.  In any case, the CIA and Department of Defense obviously monitor strikes closely, and have data on civilian casualties.  They should routinely report these data (consistent with the Geneva Conventions).  If a strike is deemed genuinely necessary, the US should be able to defend it openly in the court of public opinion.  The US should also issue public statements of regret for civilian casualties, and make restitution.

Related:  Vatican statement on autonomous weapons and lethal drones (14 Nov 2013)

The Four Kinds of Drone Strikes

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Drone (appears to be General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper)

Regrettably, the US government is continuing its shell game of distraction, disinformation, and shifting definitions to thwart any serious attempts to impose transparency on its drone killing campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.  A good example is found in the headlines of Monday, May 21, 2012.  One news story reported that several anonymous government officials disclosed (off the record) certain new regulations concerning selection of drone strike targets.  The new regulations probably mean very little, since, as we shall observe below, targeted strikes of terrorist kingpins are relatively infrequent.  But ironically, a second story summarized the latest brief issued by the CIA in its ongoing legal battle with the ACLU (the ACLU is suing, under the Freedom of Information Act, for the government to supply more information about drone strikes, including data on civilian casualties.)  The gist of the CIA response is that, even though the existence of drone strikes is common knowledge, and the government informally acknowledges the strikes, it does not officially acknowledge them, and to do so would somehow jeopardize national security.  So, in short, on the same day the government is both leaking carefully prepared propaganda about the strikes in an evident move to assuage public opinion; and also refusing to admit that the CIA conducts strikes in Pakistan or elsewhere.

In the face of such contradictory and confusing tactics, we, the American public have only one recourse:  to doggedly pursue the truth, and to not cease asking questions until we are entirely satisfied with the answers.

We must begin with clear terms, and that is the purpose of the present article.  Drone strikes, that is, the launching of explosive missiles from a remotely operated aerial vehicle, come in four varieties: targeted killings, signature strikes, overt combat operations, and covert combat operations.  We shall consider each in turn.

  • Targeted killing. This occurs when a drone strike is used to kill a terrorist whose identity is known, and whose name has been placed on a hit list, due to being deemed a ‘direct and immediate threat’ to US security.  The government would like people to think this means these strikes target a terrorist literally with his or her hand on a detonator.  But, in actuality, the only real criterion is that the government believes the target is sufficiently closely affiliated with terrorist organizations (e.g., a propagandist or financier) to justify assassination. This is likely the rarest form of drone strike.  However it receives the most publicity, because the government likes to crow when it kills a high-ranking terrorist.
  • Signature strikes.  In signature strikes, the target is a person whose name is not known, but whose actions fit the profile (or ‘signature’) of a high-ranking terrorist. There is some ambiguity concerning the meaning of this term.  Some use it in the sense just stated — i.e., a strike against an anonymous terrorist leader.  Others use it more broadly to include killing of any non-identified militants, whether high-ranking or not.  However from the moral standpoint it makes a major difference whether an anonymous targeted victim is  a high-level leader, or simply an anonymous combatant.  For this reason it is advantageous to restrict the term “signature strike” to the targeting of anonymous high-level leaders,  and to assign strikes against anonymous non-leaders to the two further categories below.
  •  Overt combat operation. This category includes drone strikes conducted as part of regular military operations.  These strikes are presumably run by uniformed military personnel according to codes of military conduct, and are, logically and legally, not much different from ordinary air or artillery strikes. As a part of routine warfare, such strikes are subject to the provisions of the Geneva Conventions.  Three items of the Geneva Conventions are of special interest here:  (1) strikes should occur only in the context of a legally declared war; (2) they should be conducted by lawful combatants (which, many experts believe, excludes use of non-uniformed, civilian contractor operators); and (3) standard provisions concerning the need to report casualties, especially civilian casualties, are in effect.
  • Covert combat operation. Finally, there are covert combat operations. These, like the former category, are launched against usual military targets – e.g., any hostile militant, not just high-ranking ones.  But why should these strikes be covert?  The obvious answer is: to mask something shady. Covert combat strikes can evade all those irritating constraints on military tactics imposed by the Geneva Conventions, International Law, public opinion, and basic human decency.

The specific terms used above to distinguish these four kinds of strikes are admittedly arbitrary, and perhaps some other nomenclature would be more advantageous.  But we need some fixed set of terms to refer to these fundamentally different kinds of strikes. Without such terms, the US government will continue to have its way by relying on public confusion and terminological sophistry. For example, if there is only a single generic term, the government may issue a claim such as “drone strikes comply with international law.” This is perhaps technically true for, say, overt military drone strikes, but it is not true for signature strikes. With more precise terms, it would be more difficult for the government to mislead the public.

The last two categories of strikes correspond to what (according to the New York Times) the Department of Defense calls TADS, for Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes.  This term is a misleading euphemism, however.  It invites the interpretation that such strikes aim to disrupt potential terrorist attacks on the US.  But what these strikes actually seek to counter are things like cross-border raids from Pakistan to Afghanistan, attacks on supply lines, militant engagements with US forces, and actions of insurgents within their own countries.

Statistical tabulations compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and other sources show convincingly that most strikes in Pakistan must belong to the last category, covert combat operations.  The sheer number (300 strikes, with thousands of casualties) rules out targeted killings and signature strikes: there simply aren’t that many high-level terrorists.  What seems much more likely is that the US military feels the need to attack Taliban fighters within Pakistan – both to prevent Afghan Taliban members from hiding in Pakistan, and to counter strikes by the Pakistan Taliban and affiliated groups on NATO supply trains.

This, of course, is completely illegal, inasmuch as the US is not at war with Pakistan, or, for that matter, with the Pakistan Taliban.

“But”, drone strike zealots will plead, “what if we have the permission of the host government to conduct strikes in their territory?”  This is bogus logic to begin with.  Suppose some brutal dictator gives the US permission to launch drone strikes against innocent civilians in his country?  Would that permission somehow make the strikes just and legal?  And in any case, what good does such permission mean if it is not public, not acknowledged by the host country?

What really appears to be going on in Pakistan is this:  the US military in Afghanistan has a decided military interest in launching combat operations against the Pakistan Taliban.  However, this is illegal.  Meanwhile, conservative factions of the Pakistani government would love to see the Pakistan Taliban eliminated.  Unfortunately, the hands of this faction are tied by an uncooperative and unreliable military, and by other powerful Pakistani factions that are not so interested in seeing the Taliban destroyed, and certainly not at the price of trashing national sovereignty.

The solution is obvious.  The Pakistani conservatives give a wink and a nod to the US to do the dirty work.  “You launch the strikes, then we’ll officially disapprove of them.”  This works until the toll of innocent civilians killed by the strikes becomes too great, and pressure mounts on the Pakistani government to denounce them.  But, as modern politicians understand so well, the public has a short attention span.  All that need happen is for the strikes to subside for a few weeks until the anger abates, only to begin again.

To summarize, the US government thus far has promoted and capitalized on public confusion about the nature and purpose of drone strikes.  Most strikes in Pakistan and Yemen are likely covert combat operations.  The government, however, would gladly have the public believe these are targeted killings and signature strikes against high-level terrorists.  As covert combat operations, the strikes are illegal under international law, and extremely harmful to US dignity and security.  Further, unlike targeted killings or signature strikes, which might potentially prevent a terrorist act, collateral civilian damage of covert combat drone strikes is unacceptable.

John Uebersax is a psychologist, writer and former RAND Corporation military analyst.

Analysis of John Brennan’s Defense of US Drone Wars

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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.

Written by John Uebersax

May 1, 2012 at 8:05 pm

Cicero, Just War and American Foreign Policy

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Cicero_in_Senate_detail

Cicero, Just War, and American Foreign Policy

Despite the combined opposition of legal experts and activists, US government disregard for just war principles keeps getting worse.  The latest example is the Obama administration’s announcement that it will relax requirements for selecting drone strike assassination targets in Yemen.

To resist this seemingly implacable trend, perhaps we need some new ideas.  We might get them from an unlikely source:  the Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BCE).

This is too large a topic to deal with fully in a blog post – a book or long article would be more fitting.  But we can at least touch upon some main points, hopefully stimulating interest and further inquiry.

Why Cicero?

Cicero, who could easily be considered the father of just war theory, deserves our attention for several reasons. First, he presents a concise, coherent, and surprisingly modern just war theory, all in a single place:  the first book of his work, On Duties (De officiis, 1.11.33–1.13.41).

Second, an important feature of Cicero’s virtue ethics – predominantly Stoic, but also influenced by Aristotle and Plato – is that morality is absolute, not relative. In his view, virtue, not material comfort, is the highest good (or perhaps the only good). Material comforts or discomforts, temporary, are of little importance compared to health of the soul, which is eternal.  As Socrates put it, “A person who harms my body does not harm me.  Only I can harm myself.” –  and that by acting nonvirtuously.

It follows from the absolute basis of morality that nothing can be expedient if it isn’t moral, and that the moral choice is also the most expedient, even if it may appear inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Third, Cicero’s ethical theory is embedded within a detailed and compelling Natural Law philosophy, explained both in On Duties, and other works like Republic (De republica), On Laws (De legibus), and On the Gods (De natura deorum).  Consistent with the cosmopolitanism prominent in later Stoicism, Cicero maintains there is a community of all human beings, and that our moral duties extend to everyone, not just family and country.  Man is a social animal, and any anti-social action is also anti-self, because it violates ones moral nature.

Moreover, to violate Natural Law is to act contrary to the order of the universe, and therefore to invite divine punishment. As surely as Providence aids the righteous, or those who follow Nature, it also responds to immoral personal or national actions with ‘divine frowns’.

Fifth, the parallels between the situation of the US today and Rome’s in Cicero’s time are significant.  He was familiar with the ethical ambiguities associated with preserving and defending a global superpower with military force.

Guilt vs. Honor Cultures

Anthropologists make a distinction between a ‘shame culture’ and a ‘guilt culture’.  In a shame culture (which could also be called an honor culture) morality is inseparable from an instinctive urge to be socially accepted and respected.  To act immorally is to suffer shame, the low opinion of others, and social ostracization.  To act morally is to merit a good reputation and honor. In a guilt culture, morality tend to depend more on abstract or codified (and not infrequently incorrect) ideas of right and wrong, and fear of punishment.

A shame-honor culture, based on social instincts, is arguably more compatible with Natural Law ethics than a guilt culture, based on rules and concepts, in which rationalization and sophistry can easily obscure ethical duties.

Most people agree that Western culture today is a guilt culture.  Cicero, however, wrote in the context of a Roman shame-honor culture.  The historical transition to a guilt culture has, arguably, diminished the natural, instinctive moral sense in the West, producing, in the end, the radical moral relativism we see today.  Cicero, by connecting us with natural, instinctive morality, may supply a remedial influence.

Ciceronian Ethics and Political Realism

Ciceronian Natural Law ethics could even be seen as supplying a definitive answer to political realism. Realism asserts, in short, that the end justifies the means, and that the strong not only may, but should, exert their will over the weak. Cicero replies that nothing is more expedient, pragmatic, and self-serving than to act virtuously and morally.  To act immorally is to become dissociated from one’s own moral nature, to become inauthentic,  to “flee from oneself”, to violate ones conscience  — and to suffer inevitable adverse consequences as a result.  Hence, what the realist considers expedient is not expedient at all, if it violates moral law.  Only what is moral is truly expedient.

Cicero relates an example (On Duties 1.13.40) involving the Greek general, Pyrrhus of Epirus, with whom Rome fought for supremacy in southern Italy around 280 BC.  A deserter from Pyrrhus’ army offered to return to camp by stealth and assassinate Pyrrhus.  Despite the fact that it would have assured their military victory, the Roman Senate would have nothing of it – they promptly had the would-be assassin returned to Pyrrhus.  Here is a striking example of the Roman sense of honor in war.

Cicero was also keenly aware of the need to follow the spirit of the law, and not merely its letter. He describes (Duties 1.13.40) an incident when, after the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal released and sent ten captured Roman soldiers to negotiate an exchange of prisoners, having first make them promise to return in the event of their failure .  After their release, one prisoner immediately returned to Hannibal’s camp, pretending to have forgotten something, and then left again.  He later claimed that he had fulfilled his promise to “return”, and so could remain in Rome.  This was utterly detested by the Romans themselves, and the censors penalized the man for the remainder of his life.

A Non-Sectarian Religious Morality?

American foreign policy is schizophrenic.  One the one hand, our actions are governed entirely by realist policy and expediency. And yet Americans profess to be deeply religious.  The motto of the United States, ‘In God We Trust’ seems diametrically opposed to and utterly irreconcilable with realism.

Were one to seriously suggest that we ought to base foreign policy on religious virtue ethics, one could well imagine the chorus of voices that would complain how this violates the principle of separation of church and state.  But Ciceronian ethics could supply what many social critics have already called for: a moral system that is religiously based, yet not connected with any particular religion, sect, or denomination.

The alternative is to remain mired in relativistic ethics, political realism, and an increasingly inhumane and unnatural society.

Cicero on Just War

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Marcus Tullius Cicero (106—43 BCE)

Source:  Cicero, De officiis. (Walter Miller, transl.;  Loeb Classical Edition; Latin/English parallel text).    Harvard University Press, 1913.

De officiis (On Moral Duties), 1.11.33-1.13.41, 3.29.107.

11. Again, there are certain duties that we owe even to those who have wronged us. For there is a limit to retribution and to punishment; or rather, I am inclined to think, it is sufficient that the aggressor should be brought to repent of his wrong-doing, in order that he may not repeat the offence and that others may be deterred from doing wrong.

[34] Then, too, in the case of a state in its external relations, the rights of war must be strictly observed. For since there are two ways of settling a dispute: first, by discussion; second, by physical force; and since the former is characteristic of man, the latter of the brute, we must resort to force only in case we may not avail ourselves of discussion.

[35] The only excuse, therefore, for going to war is that we may live in peace unharmed; and when the victory is won, we should spare those who have not been blood-thirsty and barbarous in their warfare. For instance, our forefathers actually admitted to full rights of citizenship the Tusculans, Aequians, Volscians, Sabines, and Hernicians, but they razed Carthage and Numantia to the ground. I wish they had not destroyed Corinth; but I believe they had some special reason for what they did — its convenient situation, probably — and feared that its very location might some day furnish a temptation to renew the war. In my opinion, at least, we should always strive to secure a peace that shall not admit of guile. And if my advice had been heeded on this point, we should still have at least some sort of constitutional government, if not the best in the world, whereas, as it is, we have none at all.

Not only must we show consideration for those whom we have conquered by force of arms but we must also ensure protection to those who lay down their arms and throw themselves upon the mercy of our generals, even though the battering-ram has hammered at their walls. And among our countrymen justice has been observed so conscientiously in this direction, that those who have given promise of protection to states or nations subdued in war become, after the custom of our forefathers, the patrons of those states.

[36] As for war, humane laws touching it are drawn up in the fetial code of the Roman People under all the guarantees of religion; and from this it may be gathered that no war is just, unless it is entered upon after an official demand for satisfaction has been submitted or warning has been given and a formal declaration made. Popilius was general in command of a province. In his army Cato’s son was serving on his first campaign. When Popilius decided to disband one of his legions, he discharged also young Cato who was serving in that same legion. But when the young man out of love for the service stayed on in the field, his father wrote to Popilius to say that if he let him stay in the army, he should swear him into service with a new oath of allegiance, for in view of the voidance of his former oath he could not legally fight the foe. So extremely scrupulous was the observance of the laws in regard to the conduct of war.

[37] There is extant, too, a letter of the elder Marcus Cato to his son Marcus, in which he writes that he has heard that the youth has been discharged by the consul [Lucius Aemilius Paulus (B.C. 168)], when he was serving in Macedonia in the war with Perseus. He warns him, therefore, to be careful not to go into battle; for, he says, the man who is not legally a soldier has no right to be fighting the foe.

12. This also I observe — that he who would properly have been called “a fighting enemy” (perduellis) was called “a guest” (hostis), thus relieving the ugliness of the fact by a softened expression; for “enemy” (hostis) meant to our ancestors what we now call “stranger” (peregrinus). This is proved by the usage in the Twelve Tables: “Or a day fixed for trial with a stranger” (hostis). And again: “Right of ownership is inalienable for ever in dealings with a stranger” (hostis). What can exceed such charity, when he with whom one is at war is called by so gentle a name? And yet long lapse of time has given that word a harsher meaning: for it has lost its signification of “stranger” and has taken on the technical connotation of “an enemy under arms.”

[38] But when a war is fought out for supremacy and when glory is the object of war, it must still not fail to start from the same motives which I said a moment ago were the only righteous grounds for going to war. But those wars which have glory for their end must be carried on with less bitterness. For we contend, for example, with a fellow-citizen in one way, if he is a personal enemy, in another, if he is a rival: with the rival it is a struggle for office and position, with the enemy for life and honour. So with the Celtiberians and the Cimbrians we fought as with deadly enemies, not to determine which should be supreme, but which should survive; but with the Latins, Sabines, Samnites, Carthaginians, and Pyrrhus we fought for supremacy. The Carthaginians violated treaties; Hannibal was cruel; the others were more merciful. From Pyrrhus we have this famous speech on the exchange of prisoners:

Gold will I none, nor price shall ye give; for I ask none;
Come, let us not be chaff’rers of war, but warriors embattled.
Nay; let us venture our lives, and the sword, not gold, weigh the outcome.
Make we the trial by valour in arms and see if Dame Fortune
Wills it that ye shall prevail or I, or what be her judgment.
Hear thou, too, this word, good Fabricius: whose valour soever
Spared hath been by the fortune ofwar— their freedom I grant them.
Such my resolve. I give and present them to you, my brave Romans;
Take them back to their homes; the great gods’ blessings attend you.”

A right kingly sentiment this and worthy a scion of the Aeacidae.

13. [39] Again, if under stress of circumstance individuals have made any promise to the enemy, they are bound to keep their word even then. For instance, in the First Punic War, when Regulus was taken prisoner by the Carthaginians, he was sent to Rome on parole to negotiate an exchange of prisoners; he came and, in the first place, it was he that made the motion in the Senate that the prisoners should not be restored; and in the second place, when his relatives and friends would have kept him back, he chose to return to a death by torture rather than prove false to his promise, though given to an enemy.

[40] And again in the Second Punic War, after the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal sent to Rome ten Roman captives bound by an oath to return to him, if they did not succeed in ransoming his prisoners; and as long as any one of them lived, the censors kept them all degraded and disfranchised, because they were guilty of perjury in not returning. And they punished in like manner the one who had incurred guilt by an evasion of his oath: with Hannibal’s permission this man left the camp and returned a little later on the pretext that he had forgotten something or other; and then, when he left the camp the second time, he claimed that he was released from the obligation of his oath; and so he was, according to the letter of it, but not according to the spirit. In the matter of a promise one must always consider the meaning and not the mere words.

Our forefathers have given us another striking example of justice toward an enemy: when a deserter from Pyrrhus promised the Senate to administer poison to the king and thus work his death, the Senate and Gaius Fabricius delivered the deserter up to Pyrrhus. Thus they stamped with their disapproval the treacherous murder even of an enemy who was at once powerful, unprovoked, aggressive, and successful.

[41] With this I will close my discussion of the duties connected with war.

Pirates, the “common foe of all the world” not “lawful enemies”

In 3.29.107, Cicero makes these remarks:

[107] Furthermore, we have laws regulating warfare, and fidelity to an oath must often be observed in dealings with an enemy: for an oath sworn with the clear understanding in one’s own mind that it should be performed must be kept; but if there is no such understanding, it does not count as perjury if one does not perform the vow. For example, suppose that one does not deliver the amount agreed upon with pirates as the price of one’s life, that would be accounted no deception—not even if one should fail to deliver the ransom after having sworn to do so; for a pirate is not included in the number of lawful enemies, but is the common foe of all the world (communis hostis omnium); and with him there ought not to be any pledged word nor any oath mutually binding.

Source:  Cicero, De officiis. (Walter Miller, transl.;  Loeb Classical Edition; Latin/English parallel text).  Harvard University Press, 1913.

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On the Immorality of Drone Missile Strikes in Pakistan

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On the Immorality of Drone Missile Strikes in Pakistan

Open Letter to Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA)

The Honorable Barbara Boxer
United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee
112 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-0505
March 25, 2012

Dear Senator Boxer:

Best greetings. Thank you again for your having recently introduced legislation to effect the rapid removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. While appreciative of this step, I am nonetheless moved to write to request a cessation of drone missile strikes in Pakistan; and that the Senate conduct hearings on these covert operations.

Your House colleagues last year held hearings on the legal aspects of the strikes. Despite certain points of disagreement, the witnesses unanimously recommended Congress to exercise considerably more oversight in the matter.

Those hearings, however, did not go far enough. More fundamental than the question of conformity to international law is that of morality: as Seneca put it, “Propriety forbids what the law allows.” I believe that the immorality of these strikes ought to be apparent to every American official and citizen. Some of the more salient problems are these:

1. Assassination. Assassination is universally regarded as odious and morally repugnant. Only in the case of dire necessity is it deemed acceptable — and only then with great reluctance, and even remorse. One or two strikes, if truly necessary to neutralize top terrorists, might be considered necessary. But ten strikes should raise an alarm; and 200 strikes, the current approximate number, show that all moral restraint has been abandoned.

2. Inhumanity. The mechanized, inhumane nature of these killings makes them even worse. With conventional war, there is at least a sense of honor, courage, and mutual respect among combatants. But with drones the victims are slaughtered like animals, with no chance to flee, to surrender, or to fight back – thereby at least gaining an honorable death. Nothing in the strikes acknowledges the humanity of those slain.

3. Proportionality. These attacks are mainly aimed at Taliban militants, not terrorists. Thus the principle of proportionality, a basic tenet of Just War doctrine, is violated. The Taliban never attacked the United States; in their minds, they are defending their homeland. There is no justification to resort to such extreme, violent, and inhumane methods against them.

4. Civilian casualties. There seems little disagreement but that the strikes kill many civilians as well as combatants.

5. Escalation. In pioneering the use of drone missile warfare, the United States is setting a dangerous precedent, which other countries will certainly follow.

6. Covert nature. The covert nature of the operations — run, as they are, by the CIA, and with no accountability whatsoever — makes them even more prone to abuse and excess.

7. Psychological effects. This important topic may be subdivided as follows:

(a) Effects on operators . Soldiers in combat are themselves subject to risk. In a sense, a soldier is in a “kill or be killed” situation. Thus, when a soldier kills, the conscience, which strongly resists killing, is less injured. But a drone operator, remotely located, is not subject to risk or threat; his or her actions are mere killing (i.e., not motivated by a genuine instinct of self-preservation). Clearly this must have severe negative consequences for the psychological well-being of the operator. We are taking decent American young people and inducing them to be merciless killers and assassins.

(b) Effects on American citizens . The effect above necessarily carries over to the American public, who are ultimately responsible for these actions.

(c) Effects on Pakistanis . Innocent Pakistanis in the region are subjected to great psychological distress because of these attacks. Villagers must watch in mortal dread as drones circle for hours before missiles are actually launched, producing a state of generalized fear, terror, and helplessness. Indeed, news reports from Pakistan have alluded to increased incidence of serious depression and other psychiatric conditions resulting from the attacks. Added to this is rage over the violation of their national sovereignty.

(d) General effects. The strikes contribute to the mistaken belief that societal problems can be solved or improved in any way by resorting to violence. It is most ironic that the United States wishes to fight terrorism by affirming the legitimacy of unusually inhumane and violent measures.

Beyond these moral problems are simple utilitarian ones: that the strikes are doing more harm than good by earning recruits for al-Qaida, radicalizing Pakistan, and ruining the reputation of America and her truest democratic principles.

It appears abundantly clear to me that these strikes are not just unwise and morally wrong, but evil. I ask you to consider these points, and, should you conclude similarly, urge you to act to end the attacks.

Respectfully yours,

John Uebersax, PhD