U.S. drone strike policy: Just War or just targeted killing?

HO AFP/GETTY IMAGES This US Army handout file image taken February 27, 2011 shows an MQ-1C Gray Eagle armed with … Continued



This US Army handout file image taken February 27, 2011 shows an MQ-1C Gray Eagle armed with Hellfire missiles Camp Taji, Iraq. In a reversal, President Barack Obama will allow lawmakers access to secret documents outlining the legal justification for drone strikes that kill US citizens abroad who conspire with Al-Qaeda. An administration official disclosed the move February 6, 2013 on the eve of a Senate hearing on Obama’s nomination of his top White House anti-terror adviser John Brennan to lead the Central Intelligence Agency in his second term.

Just War theory normally does not come up during hearings on Presidential appointments for the position of Director of the CIA, but in the case of the confirmation of White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, a key architect of the secretive U.S. drone program, it should.

Just War theory informs the leaked confidential Justice Department memo on the U.S. drone strike policy that lays out the case for the constitutionality of targeting Americans abroad for execution by drones. The memo makes explicit reference to the “four fundamental law of war principles…necessity, distinction, proportionality, and humanity (the avoidance of unnecessary suffering).”

These four principles named in the memo are based on the “Christian Just War doctrine” originally developed by Saints Ambrose and Augustine, and later refined by Thomas Aquinas. Just War doctrine sought a middle way on the use of force by the state between the pacifism of the early Christian church on the one hand, the idea of “Holy War” or crusade on the other. It authorizes the use of force by the state but only within these principles.

The Justice Department memo makes a case for the legality of drone strikes to kill Americans abroad who pose an “imminent threat of violent attack.” This is a reference to “self-defense.” Brennan was the first administration official to publicly acknowledge drone strikes in a speech last year, calling them “consistent with the inherent right of self-defense.”

The “inherent right of self-defense” is another clear reference to moral reasoning on war as represented by Just War theory.

The problem is, the Justice Department memo doesn’t limit the legality argument to what would be commonly understood as “imminent threat” and thus the justification of “self-defense,” but in fact so expands “imminent” as to redefine it completely and undercut the notion that the targeted killing is in self-defense.

The memo states, “First, the definition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

The “immediate future” is the very definition of “imminent.” How can it mean anything else? But this twisting of definitions to fit expediency is now a familiar refrain in justification for the use of lethal violence by the U.S. abroad in the last decade. We saw it in the redefinitions of “imminent” threat in the Bush administration’s justification for the attack on Iraq.

In December of 2002, the United States Institute of Peace invited four experts on ethics and Just War theory to present papers on the topic, “Would an Invasion of Iraq Be a ‘Just War’?” and published a report. I was one of the four invited to present these published papers, but it was Gerard Powers, Director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who made the argument against the redefinition of “imminent.”

“What is disturbing is that the Bush administration has taken the concept of preemption as an option in exceptional cases and turned it into a new doctrine about the legitimacy of the unilateral use of preventive war to deal not just with imminent threats, but with merely potential or gathering dangers. Justifying preventive war in this way would represent a sharp departure from just war norms.”

This is the same issue, the expansion of “imminent threats” to mean “potential or gathering dangers.”

I am grieved to make this comparison. One of the most inspiring and even profound speeches on both Just War theory and Just Peace theory I have ever heard was President Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In that speech, I argued, “The president said that the ‘old architecture’ of thinking about war and peace is ‘buckling.’ What is required now, argued the President, is to ‘think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of just peace.’” I called this the “Obama doctrine.” I was wrong.

Drone strikes are used for targeted killing of Americans and others deemed a threat to the U.S. in an Obama administration policy that is far too expansive. Drone strikes are also killing innocent civilians and thus killing the possibilities of “just peace.”

A March, 2011 drone strike killed at least 38 civilians in Pakistan. A Pakistani tribal elder, Malik Faridullah, described the result of the so-called “precision bombing.” “There were no bodies, only body parts — hands, legs and eyes scattered around. I could not recognize anyone. People carried away the body parts in shopping bags and clothing or with bits of wood, whatever they could find.”

Should we then be surprised when tribal leaders in this part of Pakistan vow “revenge” against the United States? “We are a people who wait 100 years to exact revenge. We never forgive our enemy,” some of the elders said in a statement. How much is the accelerating failure of our foreign policy goals in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state increasingly at odds with the US, the product of such drone attacks? And how little we may understand of the long-term sabotage of our capacity to re-build this relationship in the future.

Mr. President, in your Nobel Peace Prize address you began with these inspiring words: “[F]or all the cruelty and hardship of our world, we are not mere prisoners of fate. Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice.”

Remember that?

Please, because our actions do matter, change all of your policy on drone strikes.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    Drones: Just war or Just Killing?

    It depends on who happens to be President of the United States at the time.

    After all, it is the Press which helps watchdog such issues. If it is the Bush Administration in office, then drones are the evil beginnings of Darth Vader’s galactic tyranny and the press is the equivalent of Luke Skywalker . If it is the Obama Administration, then drones are the righteous sword of all that is just and good, ready to defend America while the press watches in starry-eyed wonderment.

    I suppose the same is true for water boarding, Guantanamo and secret CIA renditions.

  • backspace1

    Must be a theology class on Tactical Doctrine,

    Law-1, as to intercession, i”e or intercede
    does not contradict strategic doctrine ,as in Lord, request peace(?)
    hence rotations and/ or automatic counter-measures

    this is for the doctor in insane asylum?
    nice to see the house hasn’t fallen in. bingo-

  • frostbite6

    Didn’t this nation reject the concept of pre-emptive or anticipatory self-defense when the Senate ratified the Charter of the United Nations?

    Doesn’t Article 51 of the Charter limit the right of nations to defend themselves unilaterally? Doesn’t that limitation relate to actual rather than imagined attacks?

    Isn’t distortion of the ancient precedents by Mr. Brennan and others a throwback to more brutal times?

    Isn’t disregard of treaties constituting part of the supreme law of the land amount to a violation of the Constitution of the United States?

    But, then, the blindfold slips from the eyes of justice when there is a perception of some sort of threat.

  • backspace1

    In response, since I am / pro-con

    Antiquated fixed positions rarely are afforded, the luxury of reactive diplomacy, as my teacher would say, however, in the lime light of certain conditions, I am certain precedence, in “a” ever evolving situation (sin) would supercede “absolute authority”, for the sake of opportunism and a short cut?

    Which by my book still does not,(if it matters) project the field but, directs, to the cause .

    jeopardy(alone) does not and should not dictate actions in fluid state

  • persiflage

    Well, there are those that start pre-emptive wars, and then there are those that are required to follow through and clean up the mess. Seldom are they the same people…………

    The fact is, Obama has met with great resistence from poliicians, the Pentagon, the alphabet agencies like the CIA, and the DoD – every time he proposes a policy change i.e. the closing of Guantanamo is just one such instance.

    I got a kick out of republicans whining about the use of Predator drones on the news today………whatever happend to John ‘bomb, bomb, bomb Iran’ McCain?? Oh, he’s vehemently protesting Obama’s ‘weakness’ on Israel and Iran – and his use of drones.

    But hey, give the GOP a break – they’re busy re-inventing their brand for broader appeal to all the folks they’ve dissed for years, and that will be no easy task. So far, they haven’t expressed any interest in changing their actual behavior.

  • persiflage

    Depending on how you look at it, drones employed outside US borders have proven to be incredibly effective against terrorists and anti-American operatives without putting American lives at risk.

    America is not the only country using drone technology. This is a piece of computer-driven war weaponry that is not going away anytime soon.

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