Real world drones

IssueMay 2013
News by Gabriel Carlyle

Almost half the British public think that drones ‘make it too easy for Western governments to conduct military strikes in foreign countries’, but are split on the question of whether such strikes have made the west more or less safe overall, recent polls have revealed.

On the other hand, almost a third (32%) of Britons — and 40% of Conservatives — would support the UK government assisting a drone strike ‘to kill a known terrorist overseas’ even if it were ‘likely that 10-15 innocent civilians might be killed’.

39% say that drones ‘give Western politicians too much personal power to pick and choose who is killed

YouGov conducted six surveys on British attitudes towards drone strikes, between 26 February and 8 March, and its academic director, Joel Rogers, has claimed that they demonstrate that ‘public concern and uncertainty is more focused towards the terms and conditions of current drone policy, rather than the fundamental principle of targeted killing with drones.’

Examining the details, however, these polls would appear to tell us very little about people’s attitudes to real-world drone strikes.

For example, 75% of people said that they would support the UK government ‘assisting’ in a drone strike against ‘a known terrorist in Yemen’ if: (a) ‘a terrorist attack against the UK was imminent and could be stopped’ by the strike; and (b) ‘it were guaranteed that no innocent civilians would be killed’.

In reality, many drone strikes do not have ‘a known terrorist’ (whatever that means) as their target.

Indeed, as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted in a recent letter to US president Barack Obama, so-called ‘signature strikes’ are ‘based on observation of patterns of behaviour and other “signatures” ... [and] do not appear to require specific knowledge about an indvidual’s participation in hostilities or an imminent threat’.

Fleming or Orwell?

Moreover, the ‘imminent’ terrorist attack against the UK that can be stopped by a drone strike in Yemen – a variation on the infamous ‘ticking time-bomb scenario’ used by apologists for torture – is pure fantasy, fit only for a James Bond film. (Nonetheless, as Amnesty notes, the US is now attempting to close this gap by ‘broadening’ the meaning of ‘imminent’ to encompass ‘a perceived danger that may be realised at an undefined point in the future; or based on a group’s generalized intent to use force against the United States, even if the US government is not aware of that group’s planning toward a specific attack against the United States’.)

Finally, the ‘guarantee’ of no civilan deaths is similarly fantastical, whether in Yemen (where at least 12 civilians, including 2 children, have been killed in reported drone strikes), in Pakistan (where over 400 civilians have been killed and the CIA targets those attempting to rescue the victims of its attacks) or anywhere else.

Nonetheless, the polls did produce some interesting results.

There was agreement from 47% of people that drones make it ‘too easy’ for the west to conduct military strikes abroad (13% disagreed), and from 39% that they ‘give Western politicians too much personal power to pick and choose who is killed’ (15% disagreed).

These judgements are almost certainly correct.

As Kurt Volker, the former US permanent representative to NATO, put it last year: ‘[D]rone strikes [allow] our opponents to cast our country as a distant, high-tech, amoral purveyor of death. It builds resentment, facilitates terrorist recruitment and alienates those we should seek to inspire. Drone strikes may decapitate terrorist organisations, but they do not solve our terrorist problem. In fact, drone use may prolong it. Even though there is no immediate retaliation, in the long run the contributions to radicalisation through drone use may put more lives at risk.’