Dan Byman’s defence of drones in Foreign Affairs (July / August 2013) sets out the case for drones, a highly effective, low risk method of taking out terrorists. The changed nature of terrorism, with its globalised, stateless, and highly distributed character certainly presents significant challenges to the defence of the realm. There are advantages over conventional military options – air strikes, ‘boots on the ground’, covert operations – and, in particular, the speed with which weaponised drones can be deployed makes them far more flexible tools for the military. The politics, Byman adds, can be tricky, but most governments within drone strike domains are tacitly acquiescent.
If the objective of the exercise is to defeat terrorism, or, rather, the immediate threat of terrorism, then Byman is right – drones are extremely effective. However, he is wrong in not addressing whether they advance the long term strategic interests of the United States. He limits his discussion on this to the prospect that drones create more terrorists in people whose families are killed or injured, perpetuating the hatred that turns people against America. The problems are deeper than that – and impact the core of who and what America is.
Glenn Greenwald’s most excellent series on Security and Liberty in The Guardian addresses most recently the definition of terrorism, and in particular the case of a gangland shooting where a man called Morales shot and killed an innocent 10-year-old girl by mistake. The State of New York convicted him of being a terrorist, defined by state laws as acting with ‘intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.’ The interpretation of the court was that Morales actions were designed to coerce the entire Mexican-American community, and were therefore terrorist. On appeal, the court not only rejected the terrorism conviction, but also sent the entire case for retrial, as the standards by which terrorist trials were conducted were different to those of non-terrorist offences.