That's because even as our ground wars have wound down, our covert drone wars have been ratcheting up. We've used drones in conventional "hot battlefields" (Afghanistan, Libya) and this is relatively uncontroversial, but we've also relied on drones to go after targets in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. There have been unsubstantiated allegations of U.S. drone use in Mali and the Philippines as well. Since most to this drone activity remains covert, it's hard to know how extensive the U.S. use of drone strikes has become. Best estimates place the number of drone strikes outside conventional battlefields in the hundreds, and the number of deaths well over 3,000. (The number of civilian casualties remains hotly debated.)
As I've written elsewhere, there's nothing inherently "wrong" with the use of unmanned, armed aerial vehicles. They're just weapons-delivery systems. Aerial bombing by manned aircraft kills people just as dead as drone strikes.
But rapid technological breakthroughs in the last decade have been game-changers for how the United States thinks about the cross-border use of force. Today's UAVs don't enable the United States to strike anyone, anywhere, anytime, but they do make the use of lethal force in foreign states more economical, more precise, and less risky from the perspective of domestic constituencies: When going after a suspected terrorist requires no short-term risk to U.S. lives, the public is a lot less likely to object.
The trouble with drones is that they make it a little too tempting to use force. When you have a nifty tool that allows you to deniably knock off potential bad guys with no risk, why wouldn't you use it more and more? Thus, we've seen drone strikes evolve in the last decade, from a tool used in limited circumstances to go after specifically identified high-ranking al Qaeda officials to a tool relied on in an increasing number of countries to go after an eternally lengthening list of putative bad guys, some identified by name, others targeted on the basis of suspicious behavior patterns, with an increasingly tenuous link to grave or imminent threats to the United States.
From a legal perspective, this isn't necessarily a problem: if the law of armed conflict applies, it's not hard to make a case for the legality of U.S. drone strikes. From a rule of law perspective, though, it's beyond disturbing: unknown numbers of unnamed people executed by the United States for unspecified reasons in unacknowledged drone strikes, with no safeguard against abuse (or simple mistake) beyond the good faith and good sense of executive branch officials.
History suggests that this ain't much of a safeguard.
In his inaugural address, President Obama pledged that America would always respect the rule of law, because "peace in our time requires the constant advance of [such] principles." That's a fine sentiment, Chamberlainian echoes notwithstanding, but there's been little public sign that the Obama administration is truly interested in bringing drone strikes under the rule of law umbrella. The president's silence on the ongoing drone war in his inaugural remarks speaks volumes about his unwillingness to increase transparency in even the most minimal way.
But increased transparency is something we desperately need. Without more transparency, how can we decide if the U.S. use of drones is lawful or unlawful? More pragmatically, without more transparency, how can we evaluate whether the U.S. drone war is doing us more good than harm? How can we tell if it's actually weakening terrorist networks? How can we evaluate its second-order effects -- is it inspiring more anti-U.S. violence than it's preventing, or setting a dangerous precedent for other states? How can we tell if drone strikes are a sound strategy, or, as a military acquaintance puts it, merely a tactic in search of a strategy?
We can't. Unquestionably, there are individuals and groups out there who'd be tickled pink to do us harm. Whether our current use of drone strikes is the most effective or wise response to militant groups remains unclear, though -- and evidence is mounting that we may pay a price for it. But if the president won't even acknowledge the program, much less do anything to promote meaningful public debate, how will we ever know? How will we keep the drone program from giving us little more than perpetual war?
When in doubt, we English literature majors fall back on random scraps of verse. So -- why not? -- I'll close by saying that all this all brings to mind another famous (and even more irrelevant) Philip Larkin poem, one most certainly not written as a comment on drones, or war, or the setting of the sun over waning empires. I suddenly find myself contemplating Larkin's anguished closing lines in "High Windows":
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
Which, in the end, is not a bad metaphor for America's drone war.