[Michael W. Lewis is a Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University where he teaches International Law and the Law of War.]
On drones there was not that much new from President Obama yesterday, but what he emphasized tells us something about where the debate on drones remains. Echoing statements that have been previously made by a number of his advisers he challenged the continuing claims that drones are inaccurate, counterproductive and continue to cause increasing numbers of civilian casualties. He also officially provided some new information on oversight and the approval process, although much of this information is found in Klaidman’s “Kill or Capture”.
Although there have been exchanges here at OJ as much as a year ago in which there seemed to be a consensus on all sides that drones were not causing disproportionate or excessive civilian casualties when compared to other tools of warfare, that issue still appears to be the primary criticism of drones. You have to look no further than yesterday’s New York Times to see an editorial that claims that drones continue to cause increasing civilian casualties.
As a result it was important for Obama to outline the alternatives to the continued use of drones in places where the local government is unable or unwilling to counter a terror threat to the US. As I pointed out in the LA Times in February the alternatives are special forces, manned aircraft strikes and cruise missiles, invasion or turning over the matter to law enforcement. It is important to remember that “law enforcement” in these contexts is the Pakistani or the Yemeni Army. In the past, attempts by the Pakistani Army to regain control of areas of FATA have been humanitarian disasters. The Swat Valley campaign in 2009 displaced over a million civilians when the Pakistani Army used artillery, armor and airstrikes to go after ~5,000 Taliban/al Qaeda fighters. Last year rumors of a new Pakistani Army offensive in Waziristan sent thousands of civilians fleeing the area even though no offensive took place.
The other options, night raids by special forces, manned aircraft or cruise missile strikes or a full scale invasion by ground troops, would all cause more displacement and disruption of the local civilian population than drones do. It is important to emphasize, as Obama did yesterday, that…