Notre Dame Professor: “Two Cheers for Drones”

Droney SaysIn a November op-ed piece in the Irish Rover, “Two Cheers for Drones: The ethics of UAV’s in the war on terror,” Notre Dame political science Professor Michael Desch argued for the ethics of drone warfare.  In doing so, he omitted discussion of key moral features of the drone question.  In addition, his professional relationship with the CIA and Department of State calls into question his objectivity.

Professor Desch begins by invoking the Catholic Tradition for Just War and outlines his arguments as follows:

Given that al Qaeda declared war on us on February 1998 and launched a series of escalating attacks on our embassies, warships, and finally our territory itself on September 11, 2001, our military response fits the requirements of a just decision to go to war, which include that it be conducted by the proper authority (the US government), with right intention (to destroy al Qaeda), that it have a reasonable chance of success, that the end be proportional to means employed, and that it be the last resort.

As Americans, we are deeply familiar with Desch’s premise that our primary justification for invading Afghanistan rests with the terror attacks of and leading up to 9/11.  However, Desch’s characterization of the Tradition’s requirements failed to include the overarching requirement, which is that war be defensive in nature—“legitimate defense by military force” according to the Catholic Catechism.  The Church is clear, therefore, that wars of aggression violate the principles of Just War.

More specifically, in the case of the Afghanistan War, a drone hotspot, a review of publicly available information leading up to the US invasion suggests that it was a war of aggression.  The goals appear to be three-fold: to seek retribution for a failed pipeline venture, to cause a change of regime, and to secure the country for transit and extraction of oil and other natural resources.

Kabobs and Boiled Peanuts:  The Taliban Go To Texas

A senior delegation from the Taliban movement in Afghanistan is in the United States for talks with an international energy company that wants to construct a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan.  A spokesman for the company, Unocal [Union Oil Company of California], said the Taliban were expected to spend several days at the company’s headquarters in Sugarland, Texas.  Unocal says it has agreements both with Turkmenistan to sell its gas and with Pakistan to buy it.  A BBC regional correspondent says the proposal to build a pipeline across Afghanistan is part of an international scramble to profit from developing the rich energy resources of the Caspian Sea.  (Source: BBC, Taliban in Texas for talks on gas pipeline, Dec. 4, 1997.)

The pipeline deal would later fall apart over the price the consortium would pay to the Taliban, and military threats ensued.

Your Choice:  A Carpet of Gold or a Carpet of Bombs

Until now, former French intelligence officer Jean-Charles Brisard and intelligence analyst Guillaume Dasquie report, ‘the oil and gas reserves of Central Asia have been controlled by Russia.  The Bush government wanted to change all that.’ However, confronted with the Taliban’s refusal to accept US conditions,’this rationale of energy security changed into a military one.’  In an interview in Paris, Brisard noted that ‘At one moment during the negotiations, the US representatives told the Taliban, either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs.’ (Source: War on Truth, Ahmed, 2005)

In light of demonstrated motive and intent for a war of aggression, the idea that the war was defensive in nature becomes tenuous.  Given the involvement of many countries as planning sites for the 9/11 attacks that we did not later invade, including Germany, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Philippines, the terror attacks appear to have been used as a pretext for a campaign that had been long planned for Afghanistan.

Many public reports circulated regarding such plans prior to 9/11, the following being one example.

India and Iran will only play the role of ‘facilitator’ while the US and Russia will combat the Taliban from the front with the help of two Central Asian countries, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan… Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will lead the ground attack with a strong military backup of the US and Russia. Vital Taliban installations and military assets will be targeted. India and Iran will provide logistic support. (Source: India Reacts, June 2001, as quoted in War on Truth, Ahmed)

On Proportionality and Chances for Success

The aggression question notwithstanding, let’s consider Desch’s other arguments.  After his general argument for going to war, he moves on to address the drone question more directly and touts the ability of drones to save American lives and reduce collateral damage.

The United States also has very capable Special Operations Forces, such as the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team Six which can operate surgically against terrorist figures.  But the failed Ranger/Delta operation in Mogadishu in 1993 makes clear that such operations can easily go very wrong, not only in terms of friendly casualties (19 US soldiers were killed and almost 100 were wounded) but also in terms of collateral damage…

In a speech in Atlanta one year before his resignation, General David Petraeus promoted drones with great enthusiasm, also proclaiming a lowered risk to American troops.

But the nature of drone warfare does not square with these characterizations of it.

"In the Crosshairs" by artist Johanna Poethig

Collateral Damage:  In the Crosshairs           by Johanna Poethig

I would challenge the General and the Professor on the grounds that removing the human agent from war, as is the effect of grounding the pilot, automates the taking of life.  This carries two ominous consequences.

First, the identity of the pilot as the bombardier of record has long provided a coincidental governor on the morality of conflict.  Separating the pilot from the aircraft inserts moral distance from the event, as the chain of responsibility for the killing grows longer and more convoluted according to the many specialized roles drone missions entail.

Second, the risk that pilots would normally incur presumably acts as a forcing mechanism for mission selectivity which accounts for the worth and safety of the pilot.  Eliminating this mechanism could cause otherwise marginal or even reckless missions to proceed unchecked.

Though difficult to confirm due to the secrecy of the drone program, one would therefore expect a disturbing combination of: less accountability, more missions, and more cumulative collateral damage and noncombatant casualties.

Desch adds further color to his theme of discriminate warfare:

In terms of conducting the war justly through discriminate and proportional operations, Obama’s approach has also been more in accord with the Tradition’s requirements.  Indeed, armed unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) are among the most discriminate of all weapons. … Consider the alternatives: the Air Force and Navy also have highly accurate laser-guided bombs that they have used to target al Qaeda figures, but the smallest of these has over 10 times the explosive power of the Hellfire Missile, raising significant chances for collateral damage and the harming of non-combatants.

But even a former Petraeus aid has made competing assertions.

David Kilcullen, the counter-insurgency expert who had worked closely with Gen. David Petraeus and is currently in charge of the US/NATO military operations in Afghanistan, said that only 2 percent of those killed in drone attacks had been ‘jihadists.’  Kilcullen noted that the use of drones is ‘not moral’ and only serves to provide ‘more recruits for militant movements that have grown exponentially as drone attacks have increased.’ (Source: Hellfire from the Sky:  The targeting of civilians by unmanned drones has increased in President Obama’s tenure, Frontline Magazine, November 2010)

Analysis such as that put forth by Professor Desch calls into further question Notre Dame’s moral autonomy.  In this case he misses a real opportunity to draw on his insider’s background to contribute fresh analysis on the drone topic.  His writing serves only to distribute prepackaged ideas that hew closely to current policy to a campus environment already suffering from a captive administration and controlled messaging.

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1.  Professor Desch’s CV.  See page 18 for consulting relationships.
2.  Little noted in public reporting on the Afghanistan War is that prior to joining Bush’s cabinet as National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice worked for Chevron Corp., an interested party in the pipeline deal, and later the acquirer of Unocal.
3.  I didn’t treat each requirement for Just War noted by Desch, however, there is an interesting argument against the Last Resort claim by Desch.  Laili Helms, the niece of former CIA head and longtime US Senator Richard Helms, served as a hired Taliban representative in the US and indicated the Taliban had tried to give up bin Laden but to no avail.   

Helms described one incident after another in which, she claimed, the Taliban agreed to give up bin Laden to the US, only to be rebuffed by the State Department.  On one occasion, she said, the Taliban agreed to give the US coordinates for his campsite, leaving enough time so the Yanks could whack Al Qaeda’s leader with a missile before he moved.  The proposal, she claims, was nixed.  The State Department denied receiving any such offer. (Source: Village Voice, The French Connection, 2-8 January 2002, Interview with authors of Bin Laden:  the Forbidden Truth, Brisard and Dasquie,)

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