Drones are not simply a moral issue. Like debating the legitimacy of air strikes, ground invasion or cruise missile strikes, deliberating on the use of drones is a use of force question. To the extent that their use is supposed to follow the moral standards of war, the first question we have to ask ourselves is: under what conditions is their lethal use legitimate? To gain purchase on the ethical dilemmas posed by drones, one needs, first, to know the moral and historical context during which the use the drones emerged as the weapon of choice of President Obama. This is linked to a partial transition away from the Bush Doctrine.
Early in his presidential campaign in 2008, Obama stated he wanted to repudiate the "mind-set that got us into [the Iraq] war in the first place." That mind-set included Bush's willingness to snub allies, such as France and Germany, and undertake a pre-emptive war, or what is sometimes now distinguished as preventive war, against Iraq in the name of self-defence. Obama's rhetoric thus sounded a more cautious tone that emphasized the importance of last resort and multilateralism.
In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 2009, Obama referenced the importance of the just war tradition in guiding the use of force: "And over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers and clerics and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war. The concept of a 'just war' emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort and in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence." The 2010 National Security Strategy - the document that outlines the foreign policy threats facing the U.S. and how the administration plans to deal with them - echoes this cautious war philosophy. The language of pre-emptive war that predominated Bush's national Security Strategy of 2002 and 2006 was removed, and a more cautious language that echoed the notion of last resort was employed: "While the use of force is sometimes necessary, we will exhaust other options before war whenever we can, and carefully weigh the costs and risks of inaction." The document goes on to emphasize the importance of using force in ways that "reflects our values and strengthens our legitimacy" and stresses the need for "broad international support."
The notion of last resort is important here because it suggests that Obama sees the use of force as something that ought to be avoided, if possible. This means that force should not be used unless a threat is imminent, and even in cases in which it is, all reasonable means of forestalling the threat should be tried first.
In some respects, Obama has towed the line. The Libya campaign was a multilateral effort aimed, at least initially, at protecting civilians from imminent threat of slaughter. When dealing with the looming threat of Iran, Obama has emphasized diplomatic measures designed to isolate the regime. Finally, he has shown restraint by not rushing to war to stop the bloodshed in Syria because of a lack of international support. When it comes to large-scale force, Obama has, it seems, turned the page from the Bush Doctrine.
But this does not mean he has completely rejected the idea that the U.S. could 'go it alone' and act pre-emptively. As the National Security Strategy unequivocally exclaims: "The United States must reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend our nation and our interests, yet we will also seek to adhere to the standards that govern the use of force." This leads us to the dilemmas posed by drones.
In using drones, Obama continues to act on the Memorandum of Notification, signed in the weeks following 9/11 by President Bush that gave the CIA the right to kill members of Al-Qaeda in anticipatory self-defense virtually anywhere in the world. Obama has continued the war on Al-Qaeda, using drones to relentlessly pursue its members by denying them safe haven and killing them with targeted strikes, some of which have killed civilians. While the administration claims important successes in decimating Al-Qaeda, skeptics point to the link between purported civilian casualties and terrorist recruitment, as well as the growing presence of potentially affiliated branches in Africa and Yemen, to suggest that the war against extremism is far from being won by drones. The cause of this criticism is the impression that the Obama administration is not living up to its own values...