Hunter's Point: Do Drones Actively Incentivize War?

Isaiah Hunter*

1. The Drone Discussion

Sen. Rand Paul’s dramatic filibuster of John Brennan captivated the American public and catapulted drone warfare into the forefront of political discourse. Some commentators choose to “Stand With Rand” documenting the numerous issues drone war fare implicates. Others suggested Paul’s protest was grandstanding and that his positions were dangerous. Paul himself declared victory when the Obama Administration stated – with some ambiguity ­­– that the Executive lacked the legal authority to kill US citizens on US soil who did not imminently pose a threat. Yet, this did not end nor was it the beginning of the academic debate on drone warfare. Most of the discussion focuses on a framework for extra judicial killing, pointing out that focusing on drones per se is a distraction. This article address an important issue often overlooked in discussions of drone warfare. Drones uniquely change the political cost of warfare, thereby emboldening the executive branch to use force.

2. Drone Warfare Decreases the Cost of War Potentially Leading to More War

Traditional warfare is expensive. For example, rough estimates peg 25 million military deaths during WWII and close to 30 million civilian deaths.  In addition, roughly one trillion was spent worldwide – a massive number compared to world GDP at the time. The 21st century has decreased the direct and indirect cost of war. For example, in the War on Terror US causalities are approximately 6500. Collateral damage is down significantly. Yet at the same time, war is still expensive, though perhaps less expensive as a share of GDP compared to WWII.

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.

However, decreasing the cost of war is not perhaps a good thing per se: as the cost of war increases, the desire to fight should decrease. WWII illustrates this point. WW II was so devastating for two main reasons: (1) weapons technology made it easier to kill and (2) economies were able to mass produce these weapons. This resulted in many efforts to increase the cost of war in order to prevent countries from attacking each other. (A) The EU was formed in part to interconnect the economies of Europe to make it economically painful to wage war. (B) Modern economies in general make war less pleasant for civilian population. Relatively speaking humans are better off economically in modern times and therefore may be more risk averse about using war to pursue gains because they face losing more if the war backfires. Democracy provides them some agency to implement an anti-war government policy. In fact, the famous Democratic Peace Theory is predicated at least in part on the citizenry bearing the cost of warfare and therefore voting to avoid war as much as possible. (C) This cost is also not just pecuniary but human. Voter’s sons and daughters are the one killed in war. This increases the salience of war for voters. (D) Intertwined into this notion of democracy, war, and cost is the issue of tolerance. Religious tolerance arose in Europe in response to the religious wars of the 19th century. Tolerance was a second-best solution for all parties involved. For example, Protestants would prefer everyone else be Protestant, but if that could not happen, then they would prefer being allowed to remain Protestant instead of being forced to become Catholic. The cost of war became so extreme that all parties agreed the common second-best solution of tolerance was the best solution for society.

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.