Scrutiny of U.S. drone use is long overdue

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In the long, brutal history of warfare, every weapons system, no matter how cloaked in secrecy it once was, has eventually fallen into the "wrong" hands.

Militaries that assumed they would maintain an eternal monopoly on catapults, horse armor, Gatling guns and atomic bombs would discover that the enemies they could once kill at will were clever enough to reverse-engineer every weapon that put them at a temporary disadvantage.

When it comes to finding cutting-edge ways to kill, we're a species without peer. Hubris and folly are the inevitable byproducts of killing our enemies. The more ingenious the killings, the greater our indifference to the ways, means and morality of our wars.

As Americans, we're so removed from the reality of wars fought in our name that the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan might as well have happened on Mars. Because there's no draft, there's no incentive for national soul-searching. We prefer our wars to be invisible, with as little skin in the game as possible and with all of the killing -- collateral and otherwise -- "over there" in some foreign land most of us couldn't find on a map.

That's why the Obama administration has been able to expand with impunity on the drone warfare policies pioneered by its predecessor. In keeping with already established tradition, President Barack Obama elected not to sully our conscience by sharing the particulars of raining death from the skies above Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.

That way, the 300 drone strikes since Mr. Obama took office represent no big deal in the popular imagination, even if they resulted in the deaths of 2,500 people, a sickening number of them noncombatants and innocent bystanders. Despite all of the blood, it is considered a bloodless act of terrorist eradication.

The New York Times recently pierced the public's bubble of indifference with a piece about the Obama administration's plan to deny Mitt Romney -- if he had won the election -- the same discretion to kill at will that Mr. Obama has enjoyed.

According to the Times, administration officials scrambled to "develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures."

Without Mr. Obama's "gut" for killing just the right terrorists at the helm, the administration feared Mr. Romney would take an already-scary drone program to the next level of mindless, arbitrary and anarchic killing from the sky.

Mr. Romney lost the election, so the administration's panic has subsided, but not its intention of codifying the rules. The CIA and the military want more flexibility in ordering drone strikes against our enemies in countries with which we're not officially at war. They also want to strike those identified by our allies as terrorists.

The Justice and State departments have major reservations about the drone program and argue that it works against the interests of the United States in the long run. They fear that what we're doing with drones will serve as a precedent leading other countries to eventually develop their own killer drones. If those countries can point to America's willful disregard for the territorial integrity of other nations, then the days of Americans looking at warfare as something "over there" will come to an end.

By all accounts, the debate among Mr. Obama's Cabinet officers about the role of drones is fierce. Too bad the American people have been left out of the discussion. Drone warfare represents a major evolutionary step in modern warfare, yet we're not talking about it in a substantive way.

There's also an unwarranted assumption that drones are only killing bad guys and that civilian casualties are low. Given the secrecy surrounding the program, how can anyone be content to simply take the government's word for this?

Next year, the United Nations is opening a unit in Geneva, Switzerland to investigate and catalog U.S. drone strikes. After he leaves office in 2016, Mr. Obama may have to go to Geneva to explain why the world shouldn't hold him in low esteem for accelerating the genie's escape from the lamp opened by President George W. Bush.

In the not-too-distant future, we will find ourselves looking anxiously to the sky and wondering how much American life will have to change once drone technology has finally fallen into the "wrong" hands.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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