In prior commentaries I have spoken about the moral and constitutional issues in targeting people for assassination, by drones or otherwise. Today I’d like to look at the problem coldly, and try to assess whether and when those moral arguments have consequences on our effort to end terrorism. In particular, what should we make of the Obama Administration’s use of drones abroad to kill those it labels enemies. Plainly al-Qaeda has few scruples; why should we? Should we “fight fire with fire” or “sink to their level” to use two common expressions?
In both Iraq and Afghanistan it became military doctrine that the “soft power” of moral authority and loyalty, could sometimes be more effective than the hard power of guns and ammunition. But when?
Soft power won’t convince radicalized members of al-Qaeda or other armed groups to put down their weapons. But soft power may make it harder for them to recruit new members and may result in more local opposition to them. We saw that in Iraq, although the full story of Iraq is much more complex. By contrast, Israel’s unsuccessful effort to use the hard power of military force to stop Palestinian shootings and bombings has dragged on for decades. Meanwhile, several European countries have defeated a succession of terrorist organizations by avoiding escalation, maintaining the moral high ground with patient police work.
Ideology isn’t helpful here. Neither are references to manliness, courage or loyalty. What works is an entirely empirical question. World War II required guns, though we also fought a propaganda war, aided by the mindless brutality of our adversaries. Some conflicts are more easily settled, and some can only be won with the use of moral authority and avoidance of the use of guns.
Drones outside of active combat zones infuriate the local population–a foreign country reaching into theirs and acting on our own say so. No American would allow that here. Indeed the Chilean murder of Letelier in Washington, D.C. some years ago, became part of the groundswell of American opinion against the Pinochet regime.
Drones can be effective. But using any weapon for the wrong job is foolish. That is as true of drones as any other weapon, soft or hard. Drones seem costless. No American pilots or soldiers are in harm’s way. But in the current conflict with terrorism, drones do have costs wherever they radicalize more people to take arms against the U.S. Where virtually everybody is already under arms, bombing and shooting enemy forces reliably shrinks them as in the World Wars. But where the people under arms are a small portion of the people potentially under arms, the problem is much more complex. In dealing with that problem drones that kill solely on the president’s say so are less useful. Using laws and courts of justice can make more sense because they do much less collateral damage, both morally and physically.
When I was in Mombasa, the locals thought we were unclean – we weren’t Muslim – and so their places of worship were off limits to us. In this country, I’ve been invited to speak and meet people in mosques. But in Mombasa I was unclean and unwelcome. That attitude leads to very strong antipathy toward American action on their soil. American boots on the ground radicalize some Muslim youths. American drones do too. The issue isn’t appeasement; it’s arithmetic–which approach will work. Moral authority matters.
Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.
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