May 12, 2013 5:09 pm

The ethics and efficacy of Obama’s drones

A critique of targeted killings lands many blows but, like the political debate in America, neglects the programme’s most troubling aspects
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Drone Warfare: Killing By Remote Control, by Medea Benjamin, Verso, RRP£9.99/$16.95

George W. Bush’s supporters have one thing right: if the former US president had used drones to kill suspected terrorists with the grim regularity adopted by Barack Obama, it would be treated as a national and international scandal.

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In his eight years in office, Mr Bush launched about 50 strikes by unmanned aircraft aimed at alleged terrorists. Mr Obama ordered nearly 300 in his first term. The president personally monitors the list of potential suspects at weekly gatherings that have been nicknamed “Terror Tuesday” meetings by analysts.

His re-election in the bag, Mr Obama is finding the political conspiracy of silence that protected the drone programme from more decisive public scrutiny is starting to erode.

From the Republican right, in March, libertarian senator Rand Paul used an old-fashioned filibuster to draw attention to the drone killings. Senate Democrats are also beginning to ask more questions. At a hearing last month, senators heard from an American-educated Yemeni, Farea al-Muslimi, whose village had recently been hit by a drone strike that left residents in “fear and terror”. The alleged terrorist target could easily have been arrested, he said – while for him it was no longer safe to return to his village because he is seen as being associated with the US. “Drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis,” Mr al-Muslimi told the senators.

Medea Benjamin is an anti-war activist who helped found Codepink, a women’s group that campaigns against US wars and occupations. It is a measure of just how far the Obama administration’s use of targeted killings has expanded from its original premise of going after al-Qaeda ringleaders that Benjamin’s book succeeds in landing a fair few of its intended blows.

Drone Warfare lacks the excoriating reporting that distinguishes two books on targeted killings recently published in the US. Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars is particularly strong on the use of drones in Yemen; and Mark Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife chronicles the way the Central Intelligence Agency has become so heavily involved in military operations in the past decade.

But the book does marshal its two main arguments well – arguments with which the political debate is only beginning to grapple. The first is the way the development of these high-tech weapons, which do not require soldiers to be put directly at risk, can subtly lower the barriers to becoming involved in new conflicts. “While drones make it easier to kill some bad guys, they also make it easier to go to war,” as Benjamin puts it.

The book is also good on the way the demands of counterterrorist killings have driven US policy in places such as Pakistan – where it was opposed by the leading candidates in the weekend’s parliamentary elections – to the extent that the state department has not only been sidelined, but its capacity to conduct diplomacy compromised.

Yet while the extensive use of drone strikes is gathering more attention, the curious feature of the political debate is the way that it sidesteps the most troubling aspect of the targeted killing programme – the “signature strikes”. The drones’ targets are sometimes known terrorist ringleaders. But they can also be based on less exact intelligence, including the “signature” of militant activity – usually young men toting heavy weapons in areas of Pakistan known to be controlled by militants.

Although this type of strike has been the most controversial within the administration, it is not at the centre of the political discussion. When Mr Paul sought to use drones to make a case against indiscriminate state power, he chose the theoretical issue of whether drones might ever be used against alleged terrorists in the US. Benjamin breezes quickly over the issue. Her anti-war viewpoint appears to leave her so aghast at the whole targeted killing edifice that she does not spend enough time dissecting signature strikes.

Yet this is the area of the drones programme where the Obama administration is at its most vulnerable, the issue that has the greatest potential to become a political scandal both at home and abroad.

In a country still traumatised in many ways by the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, an administration will face little political opposition to the idea that it has the right to go after known al-Qaeda ringleaders. But the prospect that it is possible to select unidentified individuals to be killed on the basis of suspicious behaviour alone is a very different proposition altogether.

Of all the many legal, moral and political issues thrown up by the extensive use of drone strikes, the biggest objection to the Obama administration’s “targeted killings” is that they are not nearly targeted enough.

The writer is the FT’s US diplomatic correspondent

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