During his State of the Union Address last night, President Barack Obama said:
We don't need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.
Although the word "drones" is not mentioned anywhere in the speech, they clearly are implied in "direct action". The meaning is clear: To protect US national security, we can and must continue to fight wars all over, but we can do so without having to risk the lives of "tens of thousands of our sons and daughters".
What distinguishes drones from other killing technologies employed in war is that drones are unmanned. For proponents of drone warfare, that is their greatest advantage. They also tout that drones are highly accurate, precision weapons capable of taking out targets and nothing else. That contention, while popular in the halls of power in Washington, manifests as the disputable claim that civilian casualties are rare.
If drones offer a clear advantage over other types of weapons, it is an advantage that compares to the combatant who perfidiously disguises himself to approach and kill his target unawares or the sniper who kills from a distance. Perfidy in the context of war is a war crime because the advantage the combatant gains from disguised sneak attack is illegal, and sniping is at the outer margins of what we would call "battle" because distance and camouflage offer degrees of protection to the shooter that those who engage their enemies directly do not enjoy. Being present in or proximate to the battle, or even flying manned crafts above targets and risking being shot down are the kinds of "disadvantages" that unmanned lethal technology eliminates.
The actual way in which drones are actually being used is a technological innovation to the practice of targeted killing. This begs the question: Is targeted killing "war" and if so, what kind of war is it?
Targeted killing and imminence
Targeted killing is distinct from assassination, according to its advocates, because the context in which the killing occurs is war, and in war states are permitted to kill their enemies on or off the battlefield. Israel pioneered this reasoning as official policy in November 2000, and the US followed suit in 2002. Thus, advocates would argue, there is nothing more immoral or illegal about targeted killing than other types of wartime killing, as long as the killing adheres to rules of proportion, distinction and so on.
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Even if one were to accept that targeted killing is not assassination because it occurs in the context of war, it is distinct from killing the enemy in battle because targets are attacked at times and in places when they are not directly engaged in armed conflict (killing people in battle or during hot pursuit is, by definition, not targeted killing). Those who advocate the legality of targeted killing hitch their arguments to the concept of imminence, namely that people who are designated for death in this manner pose an imminent, dangerous and violent threat, and that killing them is the only available means of averting that threat. Therefore, advocates argue, the legitimacy of targeted killing is equivalent to killing enemies during direct hostilities.
Whether a target actually poses some kind of imminent threat is a matter of facts and accurate intelligence. But to accept that targeted killing is just another way to wage war requires accepting the expansion and thus distortion of the concept of "hostilities". The distortion arises from what distinguishes targeted killing from the conventions of war: surreptitious and riskless killing, as well as the absence or negation of elemental rules of armed conflict such as hors de combat immunity or a possibility of individual surrender.
Targeted killing is a small-scale tactic to strike at individuals. But its logic is that of total war. The total war logic latent in Obama's State of the Union address is that the war will (or can or should) go on as long as terrorists pose threats to the nation. There is no mention of an end of drone warfare, even as an end to boots-on-the-ground warfare is one of the uplifting themes of the speech. In such a total war, surrender, negotiation or armistice literally is inconceivable.
If the question is how we can keep fighting all over, the answer is drones. The human enemies - the perpetrators and abettors of terrorist acts - are elusive, dispersed among civilian populations, and "real". But how is this reality conceived? In fact, the practice of targeted killing and the discourse supporting it helps us understand this. Juxtaposed against the messy and amorphous concept of terrorism is a kind of certainty about the existence of identifiable (and killable) terrorists whose names are stockpiled in the "disposition matrix". The practice of targeted killing, whether by drones or other means, manifests as a lethal whack-a-mole project to eliminate what is imagined and proclaimed to be a finite number of terrorists.
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As critics of drone warfare correctly point out and investigators and analysts can empirically support, such attacks alienate and enrage communities and societies within which they occur. In Pakistan and Yemen, in particular, accelerating drone warfare and "collateral damage" (ie, civilian deaths) have contributed to political instability and intensified anti-American sentiment. Moreover, US drone warfare is strongly opposed by publics in countries far beyond those regions.
Indeed, to perceive or anticipate the adverse consequences of drone warfare we have only to look at the consequences of the previously preferred US strategy for waging the war on terror: capture, interrogation using violent and degrading methods, and indefinite detention. The torture of Arabs and Muslims was a major recruitment tool for al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations. The consequences of the torture policy, according to Matthew Alexander (pseudonym), a retired Air Force major with extensive interrogation experience in Iraq, included the attraction of foreign fighters to Iraq who conducted attacks that caused the majority of US casualties and injuries. Connecting the dots, Alexander says, "at least hundreds but more likely thousands of American lives (not to count Iraqi civilian deaths) are linked directly to the policy decision to introduce the torture and abuse of prisoners as accepted tactics."
Now that killing has supplanted capture as the preference and the centerpiece of US counter-terrorism strategy, drones have supplanted Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo as symbols, recruitment tools and motivators for America's enemies.
Stanley McChrystal, a retired US Army general who played a huge role in the development of drone warfare and other forms of targeted killing, and counter-terrorism strategising more broadly, has begun striking a very critical chord:
What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world. The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes... is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who've never seen one or seen the effects of one.
The criticism of drone warfare in the US has concentrated mainly on the secrecy shrouding the policy. Indeed, it is quite troubling that we (the public) do not have - because it is classified - specific information about the legal authority for drone warfare, the criteria for being designated as killable, the list of countries where the US has conducted or plans to conduct lethal operations, and more.
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However, we do have information to anticipate blowback arising from the negative consequences and hostile reactions to drone warfare, and we also do have evidence that contemporary US counter-terrorism strategy privileges targeted killing and manifests as lethal whack-a-mole. Evidence is provided by every government official who makes a public statement that we are winning the war against al-Qaeda by thinning their ranks or eliminating their top leadership. The larger point of McChrystal's criticism of drones is that the consequences of their current use may be strategically detrimental: "[I]f their use threatens the broader goals or creates more problems than it solves, then you have to ask whether they are the right tool."
Rather than engaging in this variety of larger strategic thinking in which means, goals and consequences are weighed, many advocates tend to emphasise that the use of drones to attack suspected terrorists and militants is just, necessary, and effective because whatever evil drones do is lesser than the evil done by those killed (on purpose) by drones (John Brennan made the same argument during his Senate confirmation hearing to become the next director of the CIA).
Lesser evil thinking is not well suited to the kinds of complex strategic problems drone warfare and targeted killing raise. As Eyal Weitzman explains:
The principle of the lesser evil is often presented as a dilemma between two or more bad choices in situations where available options are, or seem to be, limited... The principle [is] understood as taking place within a closed system in which those posing the dilemma, the options available for choice, the factors to be calculated and the very parameters of calculation are unchallenged... as if the previous accumulation of events has not taken place, and the future implications are out of bounds.
Waging war with drones may be a practical means of attacking targets in hard-to-access locales and avoiding the risks and costs of boots on the ground. Indeed the seductiveness and availability of drone technology is a driving factor in the geographical expansion of what the US government refers to and justifies as war. That expansion is evidence that this is a total war, for which there is no conceivable end or victory unless one subscribes to the idea that there are a finite number of enemies, and that no others will be inspired by the war - and by the drones - to become enemies. The war may someday end, but not because drones killed all the enemies in the world.
Lisa Hajjar is a professor of sociology at the University of California - Santa Barbara. Her research and writing focus on the laws of war and conflict, human rights and torture. She is the author of Torture: A Sociology of Violence and Human Rights. She is also co-editor of Jadaliyya and serves on the editorial committees of Middle East Report and Journal of Palestine Studies.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.