Thursday, September 27, 2012

More on drones

In the comment section of this post, Bob Murphy says that I have "unusual preferences when it comes to the president being able to blow up Americans with flying robots and no judicial review."

It's an awfully loaded way of putting it, but I'd like to say a little bit about why my preferences are not all that "unusual" (assuming "unusual" means "inexplicable" rather than "uncommon").

Another motivation for this post is a recent report from Stanford and NYU shared by Glenn Greenwald (the guy who a lot of people seem happy to outsource their views on all things war on terror related to) (HT - Bob Murphy). The report is thought provoking and it points readers in a lot of directions to learn more. It raises concerns about the reliability of the data (which is somewhat well known now, since the issue of the definition of "militant" was discussed a litle while back) - which as a data guy I consider very important. I had a hard actually getting a sense of the data in the report. There is some information in some charts at the end, but by putting the number of casualties on the same axis as the number of strikes, and then not providing a clear table that aggregates it, it's hard for me to follow.

However, the report does point to other peoples' data which is presented more clearly. I specifically looked at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a non-profit in London. The report says that "TBIJ's data currently constitute the most reliable available source". The primary reason is that they do not rely on official designations of militants. The chart I put together below compares their numbers on all drone strikes to Iraq War casualties from 2003-2012 that come from the Iraq Body Count project (also - from what I understand - an opposition-approved source):

This is the biggest reason why I refuse to concede the moral high ground to Glenn Greenwald types. These are the numbers that a highly critical report considers fairly reliable. Drones are (as Klaidman has called them) a "significant humanitarian advance over other kinds of weaponry". There's a lot of misdirection from Greenwald and others by pointing out the obvious point that you may want to dig a little deeper rather than trusting the administration's word on how precise drone attacks are. That's clearly true, but the fact that the administration may be presenting an overly rosy picture hardly demonstrates that drones are not precise.

The primary contribution of the report (from what I've read - I didn't read the entire thing) is to discuss the suffering that people experience from the drone attacks in more detail, based on information gathered in 130 interviews (none of the interviews seem to include American military personnel, based on the description of who got interviewed). This sort of thing is important - particularly for driving home the point that people like me have been making for a decade now vis-a-vis the Iraq war that you create terrorists in these conflicts as well.

But again, this has to be considered in the context of the counterfactuals.

How does drone warfare compare in this regard to conventional warfare? My working assumption - just based on the numbers above and common sense - has to be that prosecution of the war on terror with drones has reduced this problem, not exascerbated it. I have a very hard time taking concerns about "creating new terrorists" seriously looking at the drone numbers, particularly when considering how effective it is at dismantling terrorist infrastructure.

The real concern around "creating new terrorists" for me is the entire war in Iraq, as well as the fact that we are so deep in Afghanistan now because we did not crack down hard in the tribal regions on the border back in 2002 and 2003. It seems to me that if you're concerned about "creating new terrorists", the drone strikes are getting back to minimizing that problem after a decade of counter-productive (and in the case of Iraq, entirely unprovoked) conventional warfare.

The Greenwald types never seem to have an answer to this. Of course drone warfare isn't pretty. But instead of just talking about how warfare isn't pretty, let's compare it to the counterfactuals.

There is another counter-factual, of course. We could just drop the whole thing.

We could leave Iraq to Islamist parties, and leave Afghanistan to whatever militants, tribal leaders, or warlords can hold a certain territory. We can leave al Qaeda - an enemy that launched the first strike on U.S. soil in sixty years - entirely unharassed in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. Will this be less terrorizing for these populations? Will less terrorists be created in these situations? Would Americans be safer?

I can't see how.

The trouble with Greenwald and those like him is that they often lump a lot of things together.

I think drone warfare is an important advance to embrace. But I do think we could probably scale it back - and the Obama administration appears to agree lately. I think there's nothing wrong with having a military prison on a Cuban beach or holding militants for the duration of a conflict where their compatriats are still fighting. But I don't think we should torture people, violate international law, or go against Constitutional law. I think if an American citizen is fighting with an enemy force it's a military matter. But that doesn't mean I'm non-chalant about due process. I think we should have gone to war in Afghanistan. But I don't think we should have gone to war in Iraq.

Just as it's hard to get Greenwald and Greenwald types to talk about counterfactuals, it's hard to get them to talk about these sorts of distinctions and nuances.

But that's really what we need to talk about, not how me and people like me are monsters and don't care about due process or civilian casualties. It's precisely because I care about civilians that I want to eliminate al Qaeda and the Taliban in the most sensible way possible.


Watch it in the comment section. If you're an asshole to me or anyone else your comment is going to get deleted. Believe it or not, I really don't enjoy getting told that I'm a statist or that I don't care about human suffering or the Constitution. Sometimes I leave nasty comments if they are accompanied with additional substantive thoughts. Don't count on that.


  1. Can you elaborate on what you meant by this?

    " I have a very hard time taking concerns about "creating new terrorists" seriously looking at the drone numbers,"

    I would've thought drones killing civilians 27% of the time would be sufficient to ensure that the terrorist population grows over time. You don't think so?

    1. I don't know how the numbers work out - that would be fascinating to understand in a more precise way.

      We are killing civilians - which creates terrorists, and we are deconstructing a terrorist network - which reduces the number of terrorists, and we are finally making terrorist safe havens not so safe - which discourages the creation of terrorists that would have been created.

      I don't know how that nets out, but we are disrupting networks so much more effectively than we were by occupying Iraqi cities, I'd suspect there's a net reduction. But reasonable minds might disagree on that. We ultimately don't know.

      My additional point was that I have a hard time taking the concerns seriously about drones, considering the record of the Iraq war or the alternative of leaving. Either of those (the Bush position and the libertarian position, we can summarize) seems like it creates a whole lot more terrorists than addressing the very real terrorist threat and attack on U.S. soil with drones (the Obama position).

      It's a very crude calculus and crude way of talking about it, but I'd readily admit that there are terrorists today that would not have been terrorists if it weren't for the drone attacks.

      I'm guessing the problem would be even worse under the libertarian or Republican counterfactual.

    2. The other thing to remember is that just because we are creating terrorists doesn't mean it's the wrong decision. Resistance to the Nazis probably created more enthusiastic, nationalist Nazis than there would have been if we just let them have their way.

      I think the fight against terror networks is a justifiable fight, although the response itself is likely to energize the enemy. So the right response is to seek out the most efficient ways of having that fight, and I think drones and ops are an obvious answer relative to the social devastation of conventional warfare.

  2. I think looking at the body count as some kind of direct indicator of the rate at which people decide to take violent action against U.S. forces is problematic. In fact, the entire third chapter of that study you linked appears to respond to this view. Even if we acknowledge that the body count is lower than it could be in this or that counterfactual (and here I am trying to imagine explaining this to a Pakistani family that just lost a member), it doesn't address issues like property damage, willingness of civilians or even rescue workers to assist, social coherence in all forms (one example given being education), and the sheer psychological torment of having a giant set of dice up in the sky that could roll your number at any time for no reason. Sometimes you don't need to kill to foment violence.

    The idea that we did worse in Iraq, in particular, seems to be a case of damning with faint praise.

    Also, I'm curious to hear how you would address the other issues raised in the article you initially discussed: unaccountable and unrestricted presidential kill list, unprecedented whistleblower prosecutions, etc.

    1. re: "The idea that we did worse in Iraq, in particular, seems to be a case of damning with faint praise."

      It's hard for me to figure how else to react to war except to damn it.

      If faint praise is part of the equation, then war happened to get off easy.

      As for the rest of your comment - I agree. I'm not proposing a direct relationship. I didn't read that section - I'll try to revisit it.

    2. "It's hard for me to figure how else to react to war except to damn it."

      Some wars are completely justifiable and some are not. The Second World War may be an example where some targeted assassinations (a few dozen Nazis) in the mid 1930s could have saved millions of lives.

    3. Right. As I've noted before, pacifism doesn't make sense precisely because whether you take part in the carnage or not is no determinant of the extent of the carnage.

      When I say war is damnable, I'm not suggesting it's not something that is good to engage in from time to time.

  3. I generally support drone strikes. It is the difference between using a sniper and a howitzer when you really only want to kill one man. There would have been a lot to be said for drone strikes (if they had been available) to eliminate bin Laden in the first place rather than invading Afghanistan.

    And if an American moves to Yemen and declares himself to be at war with the United States he should expect that the US may take his declaration of war seriously. There is no reason why he should be treated better than a Yemeni at war with the US since not only is the American at war, he is also guilty of treason.

    However, the idea that we are eliminating terrorist havens seems false to me. I see no reason why a terrorist would be better off staging from Afghanistan for an attack on the United States rather than from other countries (including from within the United States itself) that also have remote areas but generally have better travel connections.

    The other difficulty that I have with understanding the U.S. strategy is the lack of apparent action against the sources of funding for al Quaeda. I thought it was generally accepted that the money for al Quaeda came from various wealthy Saudis and yet the United States does not appear to have sent drones or Seal teams after any of those funders. If I was in charge I would target the sources of money - whether it came from a Saudi Prince or a Pakistani General. I would also target the money distribution channels. Identifiable couriers delivering payroll for the Taliban in Afghanistan would be a high priority target.

  4. I think you're too quick to accept the premise that we are talking about a war here. (yes, there are wars going on, and drones used in them, but I am speaking of things like strikes in Yemen for instance) This to a non-negligible number of people feels like a police operation, not a war. And so while killing enemy soldiers is generally accepted, killing criminals without due process (which in the US at least is generally understood as judicial process, Mr. Holder non-withstanding) is not considered acceptable. There is also the question of line drawing that occurs. For instance, there are terrorist groups within the United States. Is the US at war with them too? Would it be acceptable to just bomb them from above, or do we need to try to arrest them, give them a chance to surrender and bring them to trial?

    1. Yes, well, that is precisely the ambiguity that large-scale terrorist campaigns exploit and which public policy has a hard time grappling with.

  5. If the terrorists are in the United States they should be given an opportunity to surrender before they are shot (or bombed) if circumstances permit that to be done without risk to law enforcement or civilians. Those doing the shooting should be under a high, but realistic, standard of diligence: something higher than the standard the New York City police currently applies to shooting suspected Black or Hispanic criminals should be applied.

    Yemen appears to be at war with domestic insurgents and the United States has the permission of the Yemeni government so Yemen does not cause me any ethical qualms.

    This is not a police operation in Afghanistan or the tribal area in Pakistan or Yemen or Iraq any more than the Korean war was a police action. So far as I am aware the US has not done Predator strikes inside Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Iran or Syria or Lebanon (although they may have done surveillance).

    1. How would you differentiate a war from a police operation? There are some cases where we would definitely agree. Iraq, Korea, Vietnam, WWII etc, are very clearly wars. On the other hand, certain things are clearly police operations against terrorists: Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, etc... Clearly, just killing those people would not have been acceptable, even if they were vacationing or living abroad. I can't think of anything better than "I know a war when I see one". But clearly, that doesn't work very well, because you and I see things differently here. I've tried to come up with a good definition, but they all feel like they have gaping holes. Maybe you have something better.

  6. Drones performance as a piece of military technology is pretty much irrelevant to the controversy surrounding their use. You're acting as if the critics of drone strikes are arguing that civilians targeted for summary execution via drone strike should be blown up a different way.


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