If you had reliable intelligence on the location of an Al Qaeda lieutenant in remote Pakistan, and a Hellfire-equipped drone handy, would you kill him with it? What if he was on the road with a bunch of other people you couldn't identify? At home with his wife and daughters? At services in a mosque? Walking through a crowded market? What if he was an American cleric, or if the intel on his exact role was a little fuzzy?
As warfaring technology has evolved from sticks-and-stones to satellites and drones, the distance between the Commander-in-Chief and those decisions has disappeared. I recall a Guadalcanal vet's statement that after they found the mutilated bodies of fellow GIs, they decided to never again take any prisoners. That kind of field-level policy choice now comes to rest in the White House.
Similarly, as warriors have morph'd from color-coded knights to guerillas or just shadowy fighters unaffiliated with any state, the rules governing the conduct of conflict have to adapt, as well. We are on the cusp of those changes, as America comes to grips with approaches that are both effective and consistent with our values as a People.
The New York Times reported recently on the Obama Administration's process in these situations: the President has put himself personally at the apex of decision-making on the subject, and meets regularly with aides who've compiled "baseball cards" on each potential target. He decides when-or-if the trigger is pulled and hell is unleashed. Occasionally, Mr. Obama has eschewed the remote approach in favor of a personal visitation, as to the bin Laden residence but the buck stops with him, personally. And while I am personally pretty comfortable with that kind of power in the hands of that individual, proper systems of law and procedure must be independent of person or politics.
Of course, the process starts with the end question: should we do this at all? That inquiry turns on issues of effectiveness, efficiency (alone and in relation to alternatives), collateral consequences, and some value-judgment on whether we as a society are willing to "go there."
As to effectiveness, the numbers are startling: apparently, some 500 Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters have been taken- out, starting at the top and disrupting the organization's decision-making processes. As to efficiency, this has been accomplished with nary even a blister on the part of American troops. And while the technology is not inexpensive, its cost is trivial compared with the blood-and-treasure necessary to invade a country and maintain a ground war.
Arguments have been made that the collateral consequences of drone-strikes render them unattractive as an option. They've been called the new terrorist recruiting tool, or opposed because inevitable civilian casualties make them unacceptable, or because they violate important rules of national sovereignty.
I think the recruiting concern is over-blown: Iraq became a magnet for passionate young Arabs after the 2003 US invasion, but I cannot imagine these relatively isolated incidents having a comparable impact. And war has always been an horrifically, tragically sloppy business for innocents compared to a Dresden, or Nagasaki, or even My Lai, these strikes are downright surgical. Payloads have even been downsized to reduce the perimeter of destruction. It is true that the casualty counting is deeply flawed as of now, everyone killed is presumed to have been a non-civilian enemy, unless it can be proved that they weren't. Around here, we generally think that's got it backwards.
So far, the sovereignty issue has not had a good test, as Pakistan has been at least tacitly complicit with the enemy, and Yemen and Somalia barely exist as nation-states. Whether the US would use a drone strike in Germany, the UK or Colombia presents a much more serious concern, as yet unaddressed.
As to the "go there?" argument, is this species of war-making so different that it ought not to be used, like chemical or biological weaponry, or nukes? I would suggest the opposite drones turn terror on its makers. What could be more perpetually terrifying to a terrorist than the ever-present knowledge that the drones are out there, unseen but watching, and ready to rain down literal hell-fire? It seems to me that they use America's unique competitive advantage in tech to great strategic advantage in today's amorphous fields of battle.
That said, how should their use be governed? Is a Declaration of War necessary or how else shall we identify sufficiently bad guys that Kony monster comes to mind on whom they can be used? Once that crucial decision has been taken, the easy answer in many circumstances is that the Commander-in-Chief decides or delegates to a position within the military command. But how do we properly account for flimsy identification or evidence of guilt, coupled with the seductiveness of familiarity breeding too-much-comfort with the tactic? What if the target is an American, to whom certain Constitutional due-process-of-law guarantees importantly attach? And are we comfortable with other surveillance uses word is that the EPA is testing them to cheaply monitor pollution in the midwest?
These are the kinds of questions that need to be debated in a free society, and that beg a more sophisticated, fail-safe policy response than "trust me." Like any tool, drone technology itself is values-neutral: it's up to us to determine how it can be deployed to maximize its advantages and limit its downsides.
Drones will only be as good as the human decision-making processes that underlie their use. Those decisions need to be made, consciously, publicly, and well.