The Sudden Attraction of Drones in Libya

The Sudden Attraction of Drones in Libya

Numbers of folks I’ve been talking with recently — desirous of going forward with humanitarian intervention in Libya, but mindful that international altruism by the Western democracies goes forward only with few casualties among their armies — seem suddenly to have concluded that drones are a wonderfully discriminating weapon.

Perhaps I am unfair, and anecdote is not data, but let’s just say I do not recall the same general approval for drone warfare even three months ago when it was all about Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Or when it comes to Israel’s use of drones.  Just a few weeks ago, there was much handwringing about civilian casualties and utter doubt, at least in the NGO, advocacy, and academic circles in which I travel, that claims made by the CIA and others about the low level of collateral damage was true.  Although there are exceptions, of course, my sense is that Walter Pincus’s excellent WaPo report on a conference last week featuring current and former USAF officers talking about the actual use of these weapons tended to confirm them as subject to serious discipline in their use.  (Forget all that ‘Playstation’ meme stuff that emanated from Jane Mayer; so yesterday.)  And confirmed them as a genuine improvement in precision.  And just in time, I can’t help but notice, to be put forward as the US contribution to humanitarian intervention in Libya.

Now, I have argued for years — while noting that I have very little hard data and nothing but anecdote and conversation with insiders — that drones are indeed vastly more discriminating.  And I think that the perception is shifting toward that view — journalists suddenly getting on board with the meme that drones are now cool, NGO types suddenly seeing virtues in Libya drones that they never seemed to see in Pakistan, etc.  But I hope I am not being cynical in thinking that part of this is for all the wrong reasons: the desire to find a weapon that can be both discriminating and overcome the NATO distaste for casualties among its own.

Because if that is the case, it is not merely unprincipled — it is also wrong in important ways.  Drones are far more discriminating and precise — but they are that in Afghanistan and Pakistan in no small part because of the extensive intelligence network in which they are mostly the tactical tip of the spear.  Nothing like that years-in-the-making network exists in Libya, and for that reason it might easily not be as precise there as it is in AfPak.

It is, I stress, more precise and discriminating, even in Libya — if only because of the “loiter” factor for drones, by comparison to the mere handful of minutes that manned aircraft can remain over the target.  But those with whom I discuss drone use in Pakistan and Afghanistan stress the importance of front-end, integrated intelligence that involves human intelligence on the ground, signals intelligence, and surveillance over long periods from drones, as surveillance and not weapons platform.

Moreover, the suddenly broad acceptance of drones by those who, in my experience, have heretofor treated them with suspicion is also, ironically, a rejection of that other critique of drones: that they make resorting to force too easy.  That’s what I criticized in my latest paper on this.  So I was quite taken by surprise when this suddenly became a virtue rather than yet more evidence of the vice of American technological imperialism, the ease with which it could dispatch drone armies of the air, without risk to its forces.

It turns out, however, that when you want to undertake armed altruism and humanitarian intervention, Samantha Power’s War, you rather desperately and suddenly want weapons that involve little risk to your forces.  Bug becomes feature.  Otherwise the ‘coalition of the heroically altruistic willing’ becomes the ‘coalition of free riders and defectors and shirkers’, unwilling to take casualties.

In that case (which is every case of altruistic war), drones are suddenly a great weapon. Yet not only are they no safer than they were before, they are actually a marginally less safe weapon in Libya if only because the intelligence picture upon which they depend is not as complete.  Drones are the preferred weapon for humanitarian intervention because they accommodate the limited risks that the global altruists are willing to take. Hence we suddenly seem to discover in them new virtues of discrimination and precision that, mysteriously, we had somehow not managed to see before.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Notify of

well, i guess the opposition to drones hasn’t really been about drones. just about the fear of civilian casualties. but the difference isnt only in terms of the just cause professor anderson. in Afghanistan we might kill as many civilians as it takes to eliminate the dangerous elements. in libya, since our mandate is to protect the civilians we cant exactly kill more civilians than we can save. the war might be proportionate (i mean in the way that philosophers use that term, not in the meaningless legal term). so its both Jus ad bellum (Powers war) and in bello ( we will actually do good for the country were getting involved in).

Kevin Jon Heller


With respect, I think you need to provide some citations, because you seem to be attacking a strawman.  We move in relatively similar circles, and I know no one on the left whose primary criticism of drones is that they are too indiscriminate.  Everyone I know acknowledges that they are far more precise than regular bombing; the criticism is either that they are used illegally (in that they are used outside of armed conflict in ways not permitted by IHRL) or that, though more precise than regular bombing, they still lead to enough civilian casualties that their use is counterproductive from the standpoint of wining “hearts and minds.”

Mihai Martoiu Ticu

This is a straw man. The critique of using drones in Pakistan was not about the drones per se, but about their victims. What if the victims disagree with the U.S. and want to challenge its legal arguments? U.S. might say that it is a war and therefore the humanitarian law should apply. The victims might believe otherwise and say that drone attacks are just plain murder. In which court, Pakistani, U.S. or international could they sue the U.S. or any person in U.S. for being murdered?


[…] These two issues are connected when it comes to humanitarian intervention.  Many of those who support such intervention would typically also be concerned about presidential unilateralism in the use of force, and about the dehumanizing effect of modern warfare.  They appear to have relaxed these concerns in the context of humanitarian intervention.  Ken Anderson makes this observation with respect to the use of drones – see here. […]


It’s nice/entertaining that Ken and Mary Ellen O’Connell seem to agree on something:


[…] The Sudden Attraction of Drones in Libya – Opinio Juris LikeBe the first to like this post. Leave a Comment » […]