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Take Two Drones and Call Me in the Morning

The perils of our addiction to remote-controlled war.

Last week, I argued that many common objections to U.S. drone strikes don't hold up well under scrutiny. For the most part, complaints that "drones kill civilians" or "drones kill from a distance" are red herrings -- every weapons system can cause civilian casualties, and planes, Tomahawk missiles, and snipers all enable killing from a distance. We should worry about armed drone technologies for a different set of reasons: By lowering or disguising the costs of lethal force, their availability can blind us to the potentially dangerous longer-term consequences of our strategic choices.

Armed drones lower the perceived costs of using lethal force in at least three ways.

First, drones reduce the dollar cost of using lethal force inside foreign countries. Most drones are a bargain compared with the available alternatives. Manned aircraft, for instance, are quite expensive: Lockheed Martin's F-22 fighter jets cost about $150 million each; F-35s are $90 million; and F-16s are $55 million. But the 2011 price of a Reaper drone was $28.4 million, while Predator drones cost only about $5 million to make. (And Hellfire missiles are a steal at less than $60,000 each; you could buy one with a home equity loan.)

Second, relying on drone attacks reduces the domestic political costs of using lethal force. Sending special operations forces after a suspected terrorist places the lives of U.S. personnel at risk, and full-scale invasions and occupations endanger even more American lives. In contrast, using armed drones eliminates all short-term risks to the lives of U.S. personnel involved in the operations. (And because drone attacks don't involve "sustained fighting … active exchanges of fire … [or] U.S. ground troops," any need for congressional notification and approval under the War Powers Resolution can conveniently be avoided.)

Third, by reducing accidental civilian casualties, precision drone technologies reduce the perceived moral and reputational costs of using lethal force. Contrary to popular belief, most U.S. officials care greatly about avoiding civilian casualties. (Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as a conscience, even in CIA officials.) Even those willing to discount the moral cost of civilian deaths understand the reputational costs: Dead civilians upset local populations and host-country governments, alienate the international community, and sometimes even disturb the sleep of American voters.

I don't believe that humans can be reduced to Homo economicus, but as a group, government officials are remarkably sensitive to financial, political, and reputational costs. Thus, when new technologies appear to reduce the costs of using lethal force, their threshold for deciding to use lethal force correspondingly drops.

If killing a suspected terrorist based in Yemen or Somalia will endanger expensive manned aircraft, the lives of U.S. troops, and/or the lives of many innocent civilians, U.S. officials will reserve such killings for situations of extreme urgency and gravity (stopping another 9/11, finally getting Osama bin Laden). But if all that appears to be at risk is an easily replaceable drone, officials will be tempted to use lethal force more and more casually.

And this, of course, is exactly what has been happening over the last four years. Increasingly, drones strikes have targeted militants who are lower and lower down the terrorist food chain, rather than terrorist masterminds. Strikes increasingly target individuals who pose speculative, distant future threats rather than only those posing urgent or catastrophic threats. And drone strikes have spread ever further from "hot" battlefields, migrating from Pakistan to Yemen to Somalia (and perhaps to Mali and the Philippines as well). Although drone strikes are believed to have killed more than 3,000 people since 2004, only a tiny fraction of the dead appear to have been so-called "high-value targets."

These numbers are just estimates culled from news stories, NGO reports, and rumors. Although people tend to notice several-thousand dead bodies, Barack Obama's administration still refuses to openly acknowledge that the CIA uses drone strikes anywhere other than Pakistan (and this was acknowledged only recently and grudgingly).

But though drone technologies enable the United States to reduce some of the costs of using lethal force inside the borders of other states, overreliance on drones may have potentially devastating costs of its own.

For one thing, overreliance on drones reflects a dangerous blurring of the boundaries between "war" and "non-war," with grave consequences for the rule of law. As I wrote in an earlier column, whether one regards drone strikes as lawful acts of war or as extrajudicial killings (murders, in plain English) depends wholly on how far one is willing to stretch the law of war in efforts to make it fit an increasingly unprecedented situation.

Defenders of the administration's increasing reliance on drone strikes outside "hot" battlefields assert that the law of war is applicable -- in any place and at any time -- with regard to any person the administration deems a combatant. Such an assertion wouldn't be troubling if the United States were in a conventional conflict with the uniformed forces of an enemy state. If that were the case, it would be fairly easy for journalists or moderately intrepid citizens to confirm the basic facts justifying government claims about the applicability of the law of war: The presence of thousands of uniformed troops shooting at one another is hard to misconstrue.

But outside Afghanistan, the United States is not in a conventional war. It's in an open-ended conflict with an inchoate, undefined adversary -- and administration assertions about who is a combatant and what constitutes a threat are entirely non-falsifiable because they're based wholly on undisclosed evidence.

In this murky context, it's facile to assert that the law of war "obviously" applies to all U.S. drone strikes and leave it at that. As I wrote on Aug. 29, that amounts, in practice, to a claim that the executive branch has the unreviewable power to kill anyone, anywhere, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret information discussed in a secret process by largely anonymous individuals.

Law exists to restrain untrammeled power. Sure, it's possible to make a plausible legal argument justifying each and every U.S. drone strike -- but this merely suggests that we're working with a legal framework that has begun to outlive its usefulness. The real question isn't whether U.S. drone strikes are "legal." The real question is: Do we really want to live in a world in which the U.S. government's justification for killing is so malleable?

Defenders of administration policy argue that these criticisms miss the mark because -- insiders insist -- executive branch officials go through an elaborate process in which they carefully consider every possible issue before determining that a drone strike is lawful. No doubt they do. But formal processes tend to further normalize once-exceptional activities -- and "trust us" is a pretty shaky foundation for the rule of law.

Here's another reason to worry about the U.S. overreliance on drone strikes: Other states -- and ultimately, nonstate actors -- will follow America's example, and the results won't be pretty.

Right now, the United States has a decided technological advantage when it comes to armed drones, but that won't last long. The country should use this window to advance a robust legal and normative framework that will help protect against abuses by those states whose leaders can rarely be trusted. Right now, the country is doing the exact opposite: Instead of articulating norms about transparency and accountability, the United States is effectively handing China, Russia, and every other repressive state a playbook for how to get away with murder.

Consider Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev's Russia, in which the life expectancy of dissidents, inquisitive journalists, and unwanted political rivals is already quite short. At the moment, the Russian government at least feels constrained to disclaim responsibility when a troublesome citizen is conveniently murdered. But with the United States putting forward an infinitely flexible interpretation of the law of war, why should Russia bother to cover its tracks in the future?

Far simpler just to shrug off the next dissident's death (whether by drone strike in Chechnya or radioactive sushi in London) with a dignified news release. The dead "dissident"? A combatant in Russia's war with terrorists. The evidence? That's classified, but all actions taken are lawful and subject to a rigorous internal Kremlin review process. You got a problem with that? To quote Obama, "There are classified issues, and a lot of what you read in the press … isn't always accurate.… My most sacred duty … is to keep the … people safe."

Here's one final reason to worry about drone technologies: They enable a "short-term fix" approach to counterterrorism, one that relies excessively on eliminating specific individuals deemed to be a threat, without much discussion of whether this strategy is likely to produce long-term security gains.

Drone strikes -- lawful or not, justifiable or not -- sow fear among the "guilty" and the innocent alike. What impact will they ultimately have on the stability of those societies? To what degree -- especially as we reach further and further down the terrorist food chain -- are we actually creating new grievances? As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked during the Iraq war, are we creating terrorists faster than we kill them? And will our increasing use of cross-border strikes have an impact on global stability, undoing fragile post-World War II bargains about sovereignty and the use of force?

As far as I can tell, none of these questions is being discussed within the Obama administration in any structured or systematic way. Meanwhile, U.S. reliance on drone strikes continues to increase. And because so much about U.S. drone strikes is classified, it's almost impossible for journalists, regional experts, human rights groups, or the general public to weigh in with informed views.

There's nothing preordained about how we use new technologies, but by lowering the perceived costs of using lethal force, drone technologies enable a particularly invidious sort of mission creep. When covert killings are the rare exception, they don't pose a fundamental challenge to the legal, moral, and political framework in which we live. But when covert killings become a routine and ubiquitous tool of U.S. foreign policy, everything is up for grabs.

JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

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