White House: Drone program ‘legal,’ ‘ethical’ and ‘wise.’ Is it?

Kirsty Wigglesworth AP In this Jan. 31, 2010 file photo, an unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, … Continued

Kirsty Wigglesworth


In this Jan. 31, 2010 file photo, an unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night.

The Obama administration argues that the U.S. drone program is legal and moral. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday of the administration’s policy, “These strikes are legal, they are ethical and they are wise.” Legally, they cite the congressional authorization of force in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the president’s ability to authorize covert operations.

Morally, they cite Just War Tradition (JWT). St. Augustine never imagined a world in which unmanned aircraft could kill people from the skies. But these ancient moral codes can still provide guidance in robot war.

JWT is a centuries-old guide to thinking about when and how it can ever by morally justifiable to violate the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” JWT holds that we retain our moral compass even during warfare. It is on this basis that the U.S. military can court martial soldiers for murder or massacres even during wartime killing. War is not an excuse that lets us “off the hook” of our obligations to protect human life and dignity. JWT stakes out the middle ground between pacifism, which never allows war, and realpolitik, which always allows war.

Before entering combat there must be a just cause such as self defense. Only a right, public authority can determine this, guided by the right intention of protecting peace and the common good. Force can only be used as a last resort, when success is possible, and the harms of war will not be disproportionate to the reasons for going to war. During war, force must be discriminate and proportional. Civilians must not be targeted, must actively be protected, and any unintended harms and civilian casualties must not outweigh the protection of life to come from using force.

Proponents argue that drone warfare is just, and meets all these criteria. They argue that using drones is more moral than sending in ground forces, “boots on the ground,” or large scale aerial bombing campaigns, which would kill more people. The U.S. must kill enemies to defend from imminent al Qaeda and insurgent attacks. Drones are the best means of killing those clear and present dangers, that best protects both U.S. soldiers and non-combatants.

But drones are not being used instead of “boots on the ground” to better protect civilians. Drones are used where the U.S. would never send in ground troops (Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan), where wars have not been declared and where the U.S. would otherwise not intervene conventionally. Thus drones are extending, not limiting killing.

Further, drones are only useful against enemies that have no air defenses. Drones are slow and vulnerable to both conventional attack and cyber hacking. Thus they can only be used against militarily weak targets. This calls into question whether using drones is militarily necessary, or politically expedient, against weak targets.

Questions about the military necessity of drone strikes rise the further down the kill list the U.S. descends. CIA and Pentagon officials testify that al Qaeda is in disarray, on the run, and not able to strike the U.S. homeland, despite recent activities in Africa by splinter groups. The justifications for the expansive drone program would have been much more plausible shortly after the September 11th attacks. But as we enter the 12th year of war, the imminent threats to the U.S. homeland that makes drone strikes militarily necessary are harder to defend.

Like medical triage, JWT offers an ethic of risk that requires protecting the most vulnerable first. Thus soldiers must take on more risk than civilians. We cannot save U.S. soldiers’ lives at the expense of foreign civilians. JWT notes that all lives are sacred and applies to all, not just Americans. We cannot use drones to protect the lives of U.S. soldiers by endangering the lives of foreign civilians.

Yet while some drone uses today may be questionable, this does not mean drones never meet JWT. Unlike some types of weapons, such as nuclear weapons, which never meet just war criteria, the morality of drones depends on the context. If they were used within a just war, they could be a more discriminate and proportional way to protect against civilian casualties.

Intelligence gathering drones also can be used to gather information to save lives and build peace. For example, United Nations Peacekeeping Operations are considering using intelligence drones to monitor violence against civilians in Eastern Congo, where millions of civilians have been killed.

As we invent new ways to kill, the old rules still apply. But they are not sufficient to build peace and protect against terror. Just War Tradition may help limit the killing in war, but it tells us nothing about how to build peace.

Dr. Maryann Cusimano Love is Associate Professor of International Relations in the Politics Department of The Catholic University of America. She is also a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research, and serves as a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on International Justice and Peace issues.

  • WmarkW

    “Drones are used where the U.S. would never send in ground troops (Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan), where wars have not been declared and where the U.S. would otherwise not intervene conventionally.”

    Of the thirty major armed conflicts in the world today, not one is between the uniformed militias of sovereign nations. Hasn’t been one since Russia and Georgia went at it for one week in 2008. One side of every conflict is a guerilla army, shipping lane pirates, terror cells, non-governmental political group like Hamas, or drug cartel.

    Since today’s enemies don’t have territory than can be invaded and aren’t Geneva Convention signatories, new methods have to be used that aren’t based on the assumption that both sides will honor consistent rules of warfare. America will conduct a more just war than our enemies will, drones or not. Our rules of engagement have to be based on the assumption that the enemy will toggle back and forth between miltiary and civilian status at its convenience, and our rules of engagement can’t be limited to drawing a firm dichotonomy between the two.

  • Kingofkings1

    Professor, please continue


    No war is just.

    All war is just war and 99% of the time you end up killing the wrong people, whether you’re using an atlatl or a Predator drone.

  • Secular1

    In my view Is it wise, perhaps yes. Considering that the damage is very very limited – that is the proverbial collateral damage, and cost to us is minimal in more ways than one. That is all the positive I can say about it.

    Ethically it is absolutely wrong, and I am not sure if it can ever be ethical/moral unless you address the legal side of the question. The JWT is absolute amoral argument, as it is an argument built on the most vulgar and amoral tomes written by ignorant ancients. It completely ignores the ethical progress we human beings have made over the past 35 centuries. It can be made moral only if we can make it legal first.

    Legally speaking it is not. It does not become legal any more than Bush’s excursions away from legality with wiretaps etc. Some clever lawyers writing white papers and briefs at the direction of the executive, does not make it legal. It is just a small step. It is up to the judiciary to weigh-in on it along with similar briefs from the opposing side. Before any of this dealt with, there ought to be a Constitutional amendment, which allows for such action. The amendment must delineate very crisply when it is applicable and a due process on an individual individual basis (in terms of the targeted citizens). Perhaps there may be two processes one allowing public defense by the target, in absentia (of course). Another probably secret, still with adequate representation through public defender type pool of lawyers. That is one way to make it legal. Which then bestows a ethical/moral authority and justifications. A nation that found that targeted assassinations of inimical nations’ leaders is amoral and repugnant (rightly so). That such a nation could turn around and say that its executive leadership all on its own condemn one of it’s own for execution without due process of any kind whatsoever, is grotesque.

  • Secular1

    WmW all you said about the facts on the ground are true. But we claim to ethical & moral high ground. Just because there are no legal framework to deal with the new environment is no license for us to do whatever our elected leaders feel like doing. We are democracy, so what our leaders do is tantamount to us doing it. We need to create a new legal framework, as an outcome of serious debate amongst us. Then follow that framework, expediency is no reason circumvent due process.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    Are drones legal, ethical and wise?

    It depends on who happens to be President of the United States. After all, it is the Press which helps watchdog such issues. If it is the Bush Administration in office, then drones are the evil beginnings of Darth Vader’s galactic tyranny and the press is the equivalent of Luke Skywalker . If it is the Obama Administration, then drones are the righteous sword of all that is just and good, ready to defend America while the press watches in starry-eyed wonderment.

    I suppose the same is true for water boarding, Guantanamo and secret CIA renditions.

  • Teresita

    Dr. Cusimano, Like many, we’ve loved your column in America magazine. Thank you for continuing to translate how old rules apply in modern day scenarios. I felt you summed it up best when you stated,

    “We cannot save U.S. soldiers’ lives at the expense of foreign civilians. [Just War Theory] notes that all lives are sacred and applies to all, not just Americans.”

    We would do well in the United States to reflect on the sacredness of all lives and the pretty dinifitive command, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Your points of the U.S. ability to prey upon weaker targets where war has not been declared make this use of technology unjust, regardless of the administration in power.

    Thank you for your clarity that forces us to reflect.

  • Bill Brooks

    Dr. Cusimano-Love makes an interesting argument regarding the ethics and morality of the use of drones in today’s warfare, but the questions regarding adherence to “Just War Theory” (as taught in Command War Colleges for the past 50 years) remain unanswered in my opinion given that our adversaries (Viet Cong, Al Qaida, ad nauseum) don’t have the same ethics and morality that we aspire to. Would Al Qaida (or for that matter, Iran or North Korea) use drones against us indiscriminately if they had them? Of course they would – and they would not care about collateral damage – quite the contrary. Drones save lives – American soldiers’ lives!

  • Secular1

    In my view this situation that we are facing or trying to address is not at a covered by our constitution. The approach or process being followed is absurd and definitely not sanctioned by the constitution. There is absolutely no way around the due process when the executive branch wishes to shorten a citizen’s life. Obviously the due process that we usually follow is untenable for these cases. That means a new process needs to be followed. Whatever process that may be followed it must include judicial review for each individual, allowing for defense by the person or at least a public defender functionary. The proper vehicle to sanctify this new process will have to be the 28th amendment to the US constitution. This can be done still maintaining secerecy.

  • Kingofkings1

    Are drones legal, ethical, or wise?
    None of the above

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