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Essay: Debating Drone Strikes is Justified – Avoiding Realities of War is Not

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Rennett Stowe
/
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Global Hawk Drone

Seventy years after World War II came to a conclusion, some of the realities of war have changed a lot – especially in terms of technology.  But Lake Effect contributor Art Cyr says there are some issues – and some debates that haven’t changed.

Up close and personal - that describes targeting individuals in wartime, even when impersonal drone aircraft and electronics are employed.

On April 23, President Barack Obama announced – and took responsibility for – a U.S. drone strike which killed two innocent hostages, including an American. Giovanni Lo Porto of Italy and U.S. citizen Warren Weinstein were inadvertently killed in an attack on an al Qaeda camp in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. The White House was right to announce the mistake, and to apologize.

Drone killings involve two important concerns. First, U.S. news media have a propensity to highlight the killing of Americans, whether intentional or not. Second, the use of drones as weapons per se generates ongoing controversy.

In March 2013, the United States Senate voted 63-34 to confirm John Brennan to head the CIA. This followed intensive Intelligence Committee debate regarding drone strikes, and a filibuster by Senator Rand Paul about this weapon.

In 2011, the killing in Yemen of al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki, his young son Abdulrahman and associate Samir Khan by U.S. drones sparked controversy. They were American citizens, and critics argue such killings deny orderly due process.

On these grounds, critics are wrong. Our common law tradition assumes all people have basic human rights. American citizens here do not have special rights.

That principle led to defeats of the Bush administration by a largely conservative United States Supreme Court, which struck down the fallacious argument that accused terrorists held at Guantanamo had no rights because they were neither civilians nor uniformed military. The Court decreed some form of orderly due process is essential, and the Bush White House complied, albeit grudgingly.

Beyond this point, war is uncivilized and unfit for customary civilian due process, though our country has been a leader in developing rules limiting armed conflict. Particularly notable is President Abraham Lincoln’s efforts during the Civil War, in collaboration with Professor Francis Lieber of Columbia Law School in New York.

Targeting individuals in war can be defensible. Early in World War II, a special U.S. intelligence force was given the mission of locating and killing Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, brilliant architect of the Pearl Harbor attack. In early 1943, he was confirmed flying near New Guinea, a special squadron of fighter planes was dispatched and his aircraft shot down.

During the initial part of the war, the British began a sophisticated intelligence program to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Later, the effort was abandoned, not for reasons of morality but because Hitler’s serious mental deterioration led planners to conclude he was more useful to the Allied effort alive than dead.

The Vietnam War included the Phoenix program, focused on neutralizing individuals on the other side through various means, including – but by no means focused on - killing. Publicity about this program fueled anti-war sentiment.

After that controversial war, careful realistic analysis confirmed CIA estimates that many thousands of Viet Cong had been neutralized. Senior Viet Cong leader Madame Nguyen Thi Dinh told historian Stanley Karnow the program was extremely effective and “very dangerous.”

Americans prefer technological means, yet drones reinforce radical Islamic arguments that invaders from the West are truly alien. When possible, terrorists should be captured rather than killed. That both eases moral ambiguities and provides important opportunity for interrogation.

Additionally, drones cannot duplicate the flexible, subtle information gathering skills of talented human operatives.

We should keep debating this high-tech form of killing.

Arthur I. Cyr is Director of the Clausen Center for World Business and Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha. Previously he was President of the Chicago World Trade Center, the Vice President of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, a faculty member and executive at UCLA, and an executive at the Ford Foundation. His publications include the book After the Cold War - American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia (Macmillan and NYU Press).