Writing in Foreign Affairs ("Why Drones Work"), Daniel Byman makes what might be the Obama administration’s own case for the use of drones to kill people in aid of prosecuting the U.S. war of terror overseas. It even echoes the President in its ostensibly even-handed tone, affecting anguish over the difficulty of the decision but not letting moral qualms stand in the way of endorsing the President’s weapon of choice in a war in which the abductions and torture memos which characterised the Bush years have given way to kill lists and murderous missile campaigns.
However, like the Obama administration, Byman declines to ask the serious questions which should form the starting point for any investigation into whether or how the United States should use drones. In essence, Byman argues that drones are cheap, efficient, and that their use is unavoidable given the benefits they yield to the U.S. national security apparatus. His title, “Why Drones Work”, provides the theme as well as the method for an article in which he disingenuously caricatures opposition to drones and dismisses them without either examining the substance of their criticisms or explaining the premise of his own argument.
In the entire paper, Byman doesn’t even bother to pause and elaborate upon what ought to be the departing point for any discussion of the use of drones: what do these weapons actually “work” at doing?
That so elementary a question could go unanswered let alone unasked perhaps tells us all we need to know about the self-perpetuating nature of the national security commentariat, whose own momentum—as opposed to the public interest—unchecked by any consultation of those two savants Cause and Effect, not slowed in the slightest by any coherent investigation of motive or interest, and unhampered by the exercise of any grey cells, drives national security policy in the United States.
Clearly, drones are good at killing individuals or small groups of people. But technology is ultimately only as moral or as useful as the purpose which inspires it and the production process—from its conception to its application—which animates its deployment. In the case of drones, thanks to commentators like Byman, the technology is being separated from its policy goals and from the relationship between those goals and any sense of morality. It is striking that the author has exactly nothing to say about the character of the world terroristic drone war is actually meant to aid the United States in creating.
There is something almost ungrammatical about Byman’s invocation of drones. His thoughts are always left uncompleted. Drones are “a necessary instrument of counterterrorism...”, but to what end counterterrorism is necessary, we are not told. “They work”, he repeats, but does not say at what.
Byman is willing to criticise aspects of the drone programme, urging the administration “to improve its drone policy, spelling out clearer rules for extrajudicial and extraterritorial killings”. That is, he believes that we need to perfect the process for killing outside the legal system which exists to protect people against such abuse.
Byman pretends that most drone critics believe the only alternative is capturing “militants”. But the questions that most critics ask probe deeper than this. What we’re asking is that people like Byman spend a few moments processing why it is that there are militants in the first place. Why do we feel that it is necessary to take recourse to methods of war which make many of us queasy? Is it in fact necessary? What motivates “terrorists” and “militants”, and are there actions that we could take—compatible with our values—which would defang people’s anger with the United States?
Byman boasts that the extrajudicial and extraterritorial use of drones within other nations is often supported by the governments of those nations. But isn’t this part of the problem? That these governments, so eager to convince the sanguinary suckers in our national security establishment that their domestic opponents are “terrorists”, use U.S. military power to interfere in contests about democracy, accountability, and religion in their countries. That despite the conceit that we know what we’re doing and hold all the cards, we too readily fall into the role of proxy for some pretty nasty governments, who are virtually indistinguishable from the “terrorists” in their methods.
Byman complains that the critics are unrealistic when they suggest “slashing unemployment in Yemen, bringing democracy to Saudi Arabia, and building a functioning government in Somalia”. He might be correct to say that the United States cannot wave a magic wand and bring these goals to pass. But what we could do is stop aiding and abetting those forces and interests which work actively against these ends.
Byman also notes the controversy around the use of “signature strikes, which target not specific individuals but instead groups engaged in suspicious activities”. Like the NSA’s unregulated data mining, signature strikes are an illustration of the hubris of our security state, which makes the outrageous claim that it doesn’t have to provide serious evidence, prove guilt, or pay more than lip service to the values in the name of which it claims to wage its vicious, hidden war.
Byman’s response to these concerns is to take up the question of whether the strikes cause less “collateral damage” (i.e. murder fewer innocent people) than other methods of killing. But he persistently refuses to acknowledge the more nagging question...of whether we could act in a manner that prevented us from having to kill people.
In his statistical ramblings, Byman does not ask serious questions or seek to establish that the drone killings don’t cause problems for the United States, but merely sows doubts about the accuracy of the number of people we murder, and the degree of hatred our terroristic methods generate. His inappropriately chipper view seems to be, People hate us...but not as much as we might think! We kill a lot of innocent people...but not as many as we might! We can murder U.S. citizens...but only some of them! This pitiless Pollyanna believes that clarity about our immorality will save us from what he appears to regard as the greatest danger: that “mistakes risk tarnishing the entire drone program”.
Indeed, it would be terribly unfortunate if the reputation of the drone programme was called into question. Less worrisome to Byman, apparently, is the danger that terrorism becomes the norm, a legally accepted, established, and inscribed practise conducted by democratic governments in the name of the people they represent. Or that the United States is taking lives in an increasingly casual manner which not only diminishes the value of human beings outside our borders, but does so in a way that is calculated to spread violence and conflict across our world.
Byman might see himself as dealing with a technical matter rather than addressing questions of right and wrong, and the article demonstrates a clear disinterest in the use to which drones are being put. But when a person advocates for the utility of tools of war and violence and devastation, they cannot somehow decide to recues themselves from the consequences of their advocacy.
Because ultimately, whatever fantasy the Obama administration wants to indulge about drone wars not being real wars, to believe that drones can work, you also have to believe that war can work. And we are faced with a litany of historical misadventures, too many of them from our own lifetimes—resulting in butchery, savagery, and destruction—which demonstrate time and again the futility of making anything other than a victor’s pyrrhic peace by means of war.