1. The Drone Discussion
2. Drone Warfare Decreases the Cost of War Potentially Leading to More War
Drone’s radically change the cost of warfare. Drones are unmanned. Therefore, a country that uses drones should see a decrease in fatalities among its soldiers. They are slightly cheaper to build and operate compared to fighter jets. Finally, their strikes are rather surgical compared to 20th century warfare thereby minimizing, though not eliminating, collateral damage.
Many of the institutions and values associated with democracy ensure (purposefully or not) no one attempts to cheat the prison dilemma that is war. However, the cost of war for the US has already dropped dramatically since Vietnam. Presidents are very wary of the so-called Vietnam Syndrome. Therefore, throughout most of the 80s and 90s Presidents judiciously used the military. Most engagements were with weaker countries where the prospect of losing many US lives, disrupting the modern economy, or spending large sums of tax payer money was quite small. The decreased cost of war allowed Presidents to engage in more hostilities as long as each engagement limited costs.
Drones lower the cost of war even more. If one side has drones, now some of the costs associated with war are removed. Voters and their children exposure to war death is minimized. Also, the public do not see or hear about the effect of the drones. Compare this to the outrage of Abu Ghraib or Nick Ut’s Pulitzer winning “Napalm” photo from Vietnam.
This theory about cost is backed up anecdotally. The Obama administration has fought the War on Terror in at least five countries. Drones are often used to engage hostile targets. Yet there is little outrage or debate by the public about this, probably because the apparent cost to the public is quite low. Consider the intense debate about invading Iran compared with the scant discussion of drone warfare in Yemen, Somalia, etc. Invading Iran would impose costs on the US citizenry whereas using a drone in Somalia has almost no cost. Moreover, it seems the President himself accepts my general thesis. He intervened in Libya but refused to put boots on the ground. He wanted to avoid costs.
This is more troubling given the federalism issues raised by the War on Terror. The President has implicitly embraced the Bush argument that the 2001 AUMF provides him carte blanche to wage war anywhere in the world against anyone loosely associated with Al Qaeda. Congress seems incapable or unwilling to challenge the President’s power on this or many other foreign policy matters. For instance, the President’s actions in Libya arguably violated the War Powers Act. Jack Goldsmith claimed the President’s rationale would allow him to use drones anywhere without a strong check by Congress. Besides hand wrangling, Congress did nothing. It seems the executive faces no check from Congress on matters related to war. If the only check on the President’s war powers is political cost and if drone warfare lowers that political cost, then it seems the President’s ability to unilaterally prosecute war is quite large.
3. Why should Americans Care?
Americans should care about this for at least four reasons:
1. As stated earlier, this issue strongly implicates federalism issues. Checks and balances attempt to foster debate and avoid faction, thereby leading to a superior outcome. However, if the Executive branch is unchecked on war policy, then it is possible it could make sub-optimal decisions.
2. Potential blowback is a cost that may seem too remote for the average voter to care about or they believe drone warfare somehow prevents blowback. Therefore, there may be costs not internalized by the voting public. This effect may be intergenerational because the blowback may come years after the initial attack.
3. This is a strong human rights issue. The death of any innocent human being is tragic. Drones may have killed many innocent humans already. This cost of war is ignored by American voters – it is in essence externalized. The morality of war should be considered by all.
4. Many traditions and institutions developed in order to prevent war. If the cost of war decreases, will those traditions and institutions be weakened? Take, for example, tolerance. Commentators have already raised the issue of tolerance for Muslims. Others have described the war on terror as harkening back to the crusades or as the culmination of a clash of civilizations. It is possible that this clash weakens the idea of tolerance. This is bad per se but could also spill over into many other political concerns, e.g. freedom of religion, gay rights, freedom of speech, etc. Therefore, lowering the cost of war could have impacts outside foreign policy.
These concerns do not demand the military cease using drones. Instead, there needs to be an acknowledgement of how drones change the political incentives of warfare and therefore necessitate new institutional checks and balances to prevent negative outcomes.
*Isaiah Hunter is a J.D. Candidate at the New York University School of Law, Class of 2014.