Is there a good reason to order drone strikes on civilians?

Some who consider themselves on the left side of the political spectrum argue that Obama is a war criminal for his drone strikes, and this interests me. Part of the reason is that he wasn’t a career politician with fingers in the workings of the federal government for years (like Bush the elder, for example). For all intents and purposes, from what I know of his history, he was about as close to just an average normal dude as you can get and still be President, yet he was convinced that the drone strikes he ordered were a good idea. Now, maybe he’s a racist sociopath, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume he’s not.

The argument I mention above seems to me to be based on the premise that ordering drone strikes on civilians, or putting foreign civilians at deadly risk through such a strike, is inherently immoral, that there can’t possibly be a good reason to do so that would justify such a monstrous act of murder. One has to admit, that’s a tempting line of thinking, but is there a reason? Was this truly a tough choice on the president’s part, or an act of callous heartlessness? Obviously, we can’t know for sure what he was told, which is one reason I thought this might be more appropriate for IMHO, but decided to start it here.

Thoughts or theories?

What exactly is a “civilian”, or more relevantly, when should someone cease to be regarded as a civilian? Is it necessarily someone who wears a uniform as a member of government-sanctioned armed forces, complete with insignia and pretty coloured decorations? Or is it more meaningfully defined as anyone who has repeatedly and egregiously acted as an enemy combatant perpetrating violence against the defensive country – i.e.- a terrorist? ISTM that all those Obama targeted, whether with drones, special forces, or other means, indisputably fit the definition of “terrorist”.

If we would when possible send in troops to take out these people then better we use our drones and not lose our soldiers.

That doesn’t really address the OP’s question since, obviously, attacking the same civilians with troops instead of with drones might also be a war crime.

Relevantly to the OP: In general, intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities is regarded as a war crime. It makes no difference whether the attack involves drones or not. As to whether specific attacks for which Obama is responsible were war crimes, you’d need to look at the circumstances of each incident and the justification offered for it.

I’m not aware of any instance where Obama (or any other president) has purposefully ordered drone strikes on civilians for the sake of drone strikes on civilians. It was generally that the “civilian” was an enemy combatant, or that enemies were using civilian human shields, or that drone operators may have struck the wrong target by mistake.

Not accusing you of bad faith, but there may be a bit of unintentional straw-manning going on here.

First, the people on the left who argue Obama was or may be considered a war criminal do not, so far as I can tell, consider him unique in this regard. Rather, they would tend to categorize the vast majority of US Presidents (perhaps even all) as war criminals for similar reasons (not drone strikes, but unnecessary wars and/or unnecessary/preventable/unjustified civilian deaths).

Further, and more to the point of explicit straw-manning, their point isn’t necessarily that “there can’t possibly be a good reason to do so that would justify such a monstrous act of murder,” (as you have summarized their position), but rather “the public attempts at justification put forth by the Obama administration were insufficient and demand greater transparency and scrutiny. As it stands, the failure to adequately justify such strikes leads us to presume that they were not, in fact, justified.”

I think it reflects Obama’s pragmatism; weighing the death of the target (and potential collateral deaths) against the deaths the target might inflict if not eliminated.

Who cares? If it was worth doing with troops then it was worth committing a war crime with either troops or a drone. Your response implies that that neither may be a war crime so apparently you believe there is a good reason to order drone strikes on civilians.

(a little off topic, but relevant, I think)
Why does everybody get so upset about drones?

It’s a common theme*, as if a drone shooting a guided missile is somehow different than a manned aircraft shooting a guided missile.

I think it has something to do with the psychology. Drones are simple technology which anybody can buy at a toy store, Air force jets, of course, are the opposite. So it seems “unfair” to use drones,I suppose. And there is the very real fear that terrorists could use them against us, and a trillion dollar Air Force won’t be able to defend us. .

So people often seem to link drones with war crimes against civilians, and complain about any use of drones, while not complaining about the use of jet planes.

*(especially used by people with no military experience)

Who cares if they’re war crimes? Seriously?

The OP does, for one, since he posted about that very question. And I kind of doubt that he’s alone. Call me a sentimental old fool, but I like to think that the class of people who don’t care whether the US is committing war crimes would be a small minority.

I think my response implies that both may be war crimes, and FWIW my view is that they would be, subject to some as-yet-unstated circumstance which would save them from being war crimes.

In general, an intentional attack on noncombatants is a war crime.

Yes, seriously. A ‘war crime’ is political nonsense. Prosecutions are random and arbitrary. I’m not going to use the fuzzy concept of a war crime to measure right or wrong.

You are a sentimental old fool. The sparsity of war crime trials and convictions make it clear that very few people care about so called ‘war crimes’.

If in actuality an attack on civilians will save the lives of many more civilians, and there is no alternative course of action, then it should be done and the idea that preventing mass death and destruction must be a war crime is absurd.

The OP isn’t asking about attacks on civilians which will save the lives of many more civilians and to which there is no alternative; he is asking about attacks on civilians in general.

If you want to make the case that all US attacks on civilians are known, or should be presumed, to be justified according to the criteria you have offered, go ahead and make it. If you’re not making that case, then your dismissal of the concept of “war crime” just looks like an attempt to avoid having to make that case.

I doubt you can by military UAs at the toy store. Also, many of them are jet planes.

This is the big thing for me. The Bush Admin. with the help of congress giving them very blanket powers basically set up a system with accountability. That means we never know how much reason we had to kill their targets and just have to trust them.

I think the only really unique thing about Obama is that IMO he treated Bush’s approach to the war on terror broadly as the default policy rather than something one administration chose to do, and it had the effect of normalizing everything.

And attacks on civilians in general includes the cases where they happen to be in the proximity of terrorists who need to be killed to save the lives of others. Those terrorists may be intentionally hiding among civilians hoping we won’t come after them.

That’s all in your mind. You have to justify your use of ‘war crimes’ like a hand grenade you can toss into the argument to prove our point. These attacks are either justified or not, whether anyone considers them war crimes doesn’t matter. And to be clear Barack Obama has not been convicted or even charged with any war crimes by any controlling authority, not like there is one anyway, so as a matter of fact, he has committed no war crimes.

I think you oversimplify. The people who have qualms about drones quite likely have qualms about manned aircraft being used to construct strikes on civilians as well, particularly when the justifications put forward publicly appear flimsy or poorly considered.

Where drones are (presumably) different is in changing the risk calculus. Using drones opens up a whole host of targeting opportunities where no American lives will be hazarded, but the same destructive results as dropping a bomb from an F-18 or kicking in a door and putting a bullet in someone, but without even the minimal risk of manned aviation and mechanical troubles leading to a crash in an otherwise permissive environment, much less troops on the grounds (even briefly).

So… if one accepts the premise that Americans really only care, by and large, about American lives and American troop deaths, use of drones opens up a whole new realm of possibilities in which the bulk of Americans would have no cause to care, one way or the other, whether the use of force was justified or not. Because no American lives are hazarded in the achievement of the deadly result. Not so you’d be able to die it together with publicly available information, anyway.

An American President, using a drone to strike a target overseas, intentionally resulting in civilian casualties or not, is effectively immune from consequence. Either for any one strike, or in the aggregate. An American President limiting force to only manned delivery methods, on the other hand, May eventually have to explain why Johnny died and why there are pictures of his body being dragged through the streets charred and without a head.

The use of drones adds one other aspect that the US administration will find favourable.

Reporting, drone strikes are simply not as newsworthy as manned fighter aircraft strikes - what percentage of drone strikes, hits or misses, even get reported? I am willing to bet it is rather less than 100%.

Drone strikes where infrastructure is taken out and no lives are lost will probably not be reported and there is the issue of conditioning.

If you happen to live in a zone where drone strikes are semi-routine and some local leader is taken out it becomes less of an international incident - whereas with aircraft it will be headlines every time. It means you can carry out lots more drone strikes, in fact it encourages more of them as part of the routine.

There can even be a certain amount of deniability - explosion takes out local target person but that could be downplayed in the west as local militia disputes and a roadside device.

When it comes to these things, it boils down to projection, not morals - we are seeing much smaller events where locals are using drones to drop munitions on to enforcement agencies and counter terrorism units - but its obvious that eventually US enemies will use drones on US territory, and when that happens it will suddenly become immoral and criminal.

I don’t buy the ‘ease of killing’ argument. When we send in troops should we take their weapons away and have them kill the terrorists only in hand to hand combat? Don’t get bogged down in this, there is either a justification to attack even if it results in the death of civilians, or there is not. Whether or not drones are used changes nothing.

Killing us is always immoral and criminal. Killing them is not. That’s why there is a difference between us and them. Or at least such a difference is perceived.

I do feel justified in making my assumptions at least for the people I’m thinking about, who might not be the people you are. I could be wrong, of course, and I admit it’s tough for me to put into words why I think so. But I still think the basic question is interesting, because it really cuts to the heart of “us versus them” and realpolitik and stuff.

But you’ve whittled down the debate to positions between–and here I quote–whether it was “truly a tough choice on the president’s part, or an act of callous heartlessness” to order drone strikes that killed civilians.

You’ve basically asked us to debate whether or not Obama considers himself to have been justified in his choice, which would seem to be an easy question to answer for anyone, even for those on the far left who think him a war criminal, and straw-manned away the contrarian point of view: that what Obama believed does not matter. What matters–what is at issue when one expresses concern over Obama’s conduct of the wars he inherited–is whether he was actually justified in pursuing them as he did, good faith or not.

I have no doubt Obama considered himself a pragmatist and I have no doubt that he wasn’t a particularly bloodthirsty man, either as far as Presidents go or just in general. That says nothing about whether or not he was actually justified in doing what he did, only that, presumably, he likely thought he was and acted in good faith. That does not, however, preclude the possibility that he was in fact wrong, even if one were to allow that drone strikes resulting in civilian deaths (intentionally or otherwise) might plausibly be justified under some circumstances. Which is where the gray area that you “feel justified” in assuming away comes in. Why do you feel so justified? And can we really have this discussion under such an assumption?