There has been a lot of recent controversy about America’s drone policy. That controversy is deserved. There seems to be something odd about the use of weapons of war outside a war zone. What are the rules? Where does it end?
When I think about it, there do seem to be clear rules and we know exactly where it ends. Only they are not the rules that the Administration has written down and they are not rules that any administration could openly admit to.
Basically, the United States will use drones in any of the areas where we would use any kind of military force to advance our interests outside of war. E.g., countries (or subareas of countries) that satisfy two conditions:
- They are outside the reach of a legitimate, democratic and effective government;
- The open use of American force would not embarrass a government we like or damage other American interests.
E.g., the U.S. will use drones to kill people in the world’s ungoverned spaces, just like it will use the Marines or the Army or any other element of national military force. But we will not use them to kill people in Canada and we will not use them in Colombia, albeit for different reasons.
These unwritten rules, I think, are why liberals massively support the use of drones to kill Al-Qaeda members in Yemen. I was surprised to discover that self-selected viewers of the Ed Show are okay with this policy. The support is there despite the risk to foreign civilians and even when the alleged terrorists are American.
The legality is strange (in essence, even American citizens in ungoverned spaces have no rights) but not, I do not think, new.
In practical terms, the difference between drones and F-16s or cruise missiles is one of cost. They can linger for more time than most manned vehicles and with no risk of losing the pilot. And they are more accurate than cruise missiles. That makes them easier to use. But it is not like the U.S. refrained from firing cruise missiles at Afghanistan or Sudan. Or, for that matter, sending helicopters full of Naval special forces into Pakistan.
None of this is to say that there is nothing new under the sun. Surveillance technology is different: ultra-high resolution photographs and bird or bug-sized flying spybots are in fact new things that need new rules. But those truly new things have not yet entered the public debate.
Drones as they currently exist are a matter of a change in scale but not a change in kind. The fundamental issues are no different and the unwritten rules are no different. If we are honest with ourselves, we know the rules and we know the limits. We just cannot say them ... and perhaps do not wish to admit them. After all, they amount to a declaration of sovereignty over much of the planet, within which the Constitution does not apply.
But once you realize that the limits are there, the lack of debate makes sense.