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.