“In — in one way, it — it makes war easier. It’s so clinical. The drones strikes are so clinical. No one dies from our side. No one dies from the American side. So is it easier for a president to go to war, to — to not involve Congress as much?”
The U.S. is increasingly relying on drones to support allies and fight battles abroad. Why, news articles declaring that a convoy of terrorists has been killed in a drone strike seem to have become a weekly ritual. As al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) and al-Shabab has become increasingly aggressive, the U.S. has stepped up drone strikes throughout Africa, as well. Just this week, as U.S. drone base in Ethiopia has become operational. And the base in Ethiopia isn’t the only one. What’s more, this activity has all been shrouded in secrecy, alongside other support that includes intelligence sharing, clandestine airstrikes, and “technical assistance” to nations invading Somalia to fight al-Shabab. You might be surprised to know, however, that the U.S. is using drones to assist in the Mexican Drug War, as well — albeit unarmed drones.
By drone, of course, I mean unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Today’s combat drones cost $30 million per aircraft, can fly pre-planned routes autonomously, achieves speeds of up to 300 miles per hour, can carry nearly two tons, and fly at an altitude of 50,000 feet. The Air Force currently owns 57 of these beauties and could buy several hundred more. The Department of Homeland Security has also been investing in drones for Customs and Border Protection. Yet, other nations are now jockeying to be part of the drone-race, with China worryingly unveiling drone prototypes.
The benefit of drones, of course, are that they allow for war without the mess — on our side, at least. Americans have become increasingly alienated from the realities of war. With no draft, fewer families are seeing loved ones shipped off, and we have been asked to make few sacrifices in the face of war. Not only have we not been asked to ration, pay higher taxes, work longer hours for less pay, or sacrifice some benefits, the last decade saw an incredible expansion of Medicare (the addition of the prescription drug-related part D) and massive tax cuts across the board. It also saw direct involvement in two wars and much smaller (and more secretive) involvement in smaller conflicts elsewhere.
What’s more, Leon Panetta tried to make the case that drones absolutely comply with international law. But a little Politifact research demonstrated that it’s murky, at best. In the meantime, however, the Obama administration has increased the number of drone strikes dramatically. While nine strikes occurred between 2004 and 2007, 118 occurred last year. The upside, of course, is that we seem to be doing a better job of not killing civilians: in 2008, 49% of those killed in drone strikes were civilians; in 2010, this number was down to under 6%. Bravo.
While the legal picture may be a bit of out focus internationally, so too are there questions here in the U.S. of A. For instance, does the involvement of combat drones in a conflict in another nation fall under the scope of the War Powers Act? Drone attacks are targeted, sporadic, and, most of all, unmanned. Exempting drone strikes from the requirements of WPA means that the U.S. can very aggressively stick its finger into a lot of conflict-pies without congressional approval, though the CIA has in many ways been doing so more covertly for a number of decades already. The upside of this, of course, may be that it makes timely and assertive interventions in humanitarian crises in Libya and (let’s cross our fingers) Syria possible. The downside, as Raddatz said, is that by reducing the costs, it might just make us think a little less before we go to war.
There’s an interesting connection, though, to executions, where electrocutions, gas chambers, hangings, and firing squads have largely become things of the past. Most Americans now support lethal injection. But as Radley Balko at the Huffington Post notes (in an incredible article), while other methods and drug cocktails may be more effective,
“Rather than subject witnesses to unnerving post-mortem twitching by prisoners who are experiencing no pain, prison officials instead use a procedure that leaves open the possibility of immense, unimaginable pain, but also ensures that witnesses will see no signs of it. “
Drone strikes are only the latest development in the sanitization of our basest instincts. We become less comfortable with ourselves when we don’t have to see the gory details and endure the discomfort involved. I don’t mean, however, to somehow glorify executed murderers (though I personally don’t support the death penalty) or terrorists killed by drones (which I do support). Rather, I want to highlight the way we’ve reduced the psychological costs and discomfort associated with violence. Simultaneously, though, violence seems to have subsided. And 25 states have not used the death penalty in the past year. Death eligible cases now have to meet fairly rigorous standards and go through a great deal of review (which still hasn’t made the system quite perfect). Further, there were only 46 executions in 2010, which pales in comparison with 12,996 murders and 330 million citizens. The number of executions has also decreased more than 50% since 2000.
My point with this (lengthy) sidebar is that making killing easier doesn’t always result in more killing. So, the drone situation is a mixed-bag really. We’ll simply have to see how it evolves. Congress won’t stand for such an expansion of presidential power and will — eventually — assert its oversight authority. But we have to interpret drones in an environment of less war and less violence overall and not purely as a hypothetical.
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