To understand why U.S. drone strikes outside traditional battlefields make so many people so uneasy, look to the past and look to the future.
Start with the past. In 1976, exiled Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier was driving to work in Washington when a car bomb planted by Chilean agents ripped through his vehicle, killing Letelier and his young, American assistant. From the viewpoint of Chile’s ruling military junta, the killing was justifiable: Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s regime considered itself at war with leftist insurgents and viewed Letelier as a security threat.
U.S. authorities saw things differently, of course: They condemned the bombing as an assassination. The FBI opened a murder investigation, and the Senate intelligence committee launched an inquiry into illegal foreign intelligence activities on U.S. soil.
Now, imagine the future: Suppose Russian President Vladimir Putin decided that a few drone strikes in eastern Ukraine would be just the thing to eliminate some particularly irritating critic of Russian policy.
If this happened, U.S. authorities would surely denounce the strikes, just as they denounced Letelier’s killing. But Putin would surely respond by parroting the U.S. government’s justifications for drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. “First,” he might say, “I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any such Russian strikes. Second, I assure you that all Russian decisions to use lethal force comply fully with applicable law. Russia targets only terrorist combatants who pose an imminent threat to Russia, and it uses force inside other sovereign states only when those states are themselves unwilling or unable to address the threat.”
The United States would naturally demand evidence that those killed were truly dangerous terrorists, but Putin could again take a page from our book. “Unfortunately,” he’d respond, “We can’t make public such sensitive national security information.”
What could U.S. officials possibly say? They may know that they use lethal force only against those who constitute lawful targets under international law — but it’s hard to convince the rest of the world that “trust us” is a good enough basis for killing thousands of people in the territory of other sovereign states.
We both have enormous respect for the men and women charged with keeping our nation safe and believe that there are many circumstances in which drone strikes are entirely appropriate. Nonetheless, we are troubled by the lack of transparency and accountability surrounding U.S. use of targeted strikes far from traditional battlefields, as well as the lack of strategic clarity.
The United States’ drone policies damage its credibility, undermine the rule of law and create a potentially destabilizing international precedent — one that repressive regimes around the globe will undoubtedly exploit. As lethal drones proliferate, the future imagined above is becoming all too likely.
Recent events remind us that the threat posed by terrorist organizations is very real, and U.S. drone strikes have achieved significant tactical successes in certain regions, but the scope, number and lethality of terrorist attacks worldwide suggest that these successes are not producing enduring strategic gains. On the contrary: Overreliance on targeted strikes away from so-called “hot” battlefields creates a substantial risk of backlash and reinvigorated terrorist recruiting and may create a slippery slope leading to continual or wider conflict.
In his recent speech at West Point, President Obama acknowledged many of these concerns. It is time for him to take action to address them.
The court-ordered release Monday of the legal basis for the U.S.-targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, provides the public with some useful information, but much more is needed. The government should make public the approximate number and general location of U.S. drone strikes; the number of people known to have been killed and their organizational affiliations; and the number and identities of any civilians killed. In addition, Obama should create an independent, nonpartisan commission to review lethal drone strikes and should transfer responsibility for strikes from the CIA to the military. Finally, we believe the United States must take the lead in fostering the development of appropriate international norms for the use of lethal force outside traditional battlefields.
Current U.S. drone policies open the door to a dangerous and unstable future. Yes, states must be able to respond effectively to nontraditional threats from nontraditional actors, but whenever lethal force is used, it must also be consistent with the rule of law and fundamental human rights. In the end, U.S. security rests not only on a strong military but also its ability to offer credible leadership, consistent with our longstanding values.
John P. Abizaid, a retired Army general, was head of U.S. Central Command from 2003 to 2007. Rosa Brooks was counselor to the undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2011. They are co-chairs of the Stimson Center’s Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy.