Obama Drone Speech: Legal No-Man's Land On Drones Could Come Back to Haunt U.S.


What will the United States do when other countries have the same drone technology as it does? This is a question that too few Americans ask themselves, and one that President Obama looks to address in a speech Thursday afternoon re-evaluating his drone playbook.

Countless civilian — and four American — deaths, largely a result of “signature strikes,” have prompted international outrage over the Obama administration's drone policy. Signature strikes “target individuals whose identities are unknown, but who exhibit certain patterns of behavior or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity,” which basically equates to “death by association.”

Despite anger over these attacks, the majority of Americans don’t seem to mind, as long as the U.S. is technologically superior. A few civilians in some remote land is evidently deemed a small price to pay for America’s safety.

But in a world where U.S. drones are no longer technologically superior — if, say, Russia carries out a drone strike in which Americans are killed — would U.S. leaders be justified in denouncing it as illegal?

The short answer is no.

While drone strikes outside of a war zone are, according to many, already illegal, technology has developed so rapidly that lawmakers have not been able to develop a comprehensive rulebook on the issue. This has left the U.S. to essentially make it up as it goes along, which it can afford to do when other nations don’t have the same capabilities. However, this sets the precedent that when it comes to drones, anything goes — a point not lost on other international players.

This is likely the Obama administration’s motivation for laying out a few rules for drone strikes today. These rules “will impose the same standard for strikes on foreign enemies now used only for American citizens deemed to be terrorists.” The administration will likely phase out signature strikes and increasingly pretend that they never happened.

According to the New York Times, the president’s effort “appears to be a step away from the less restricted use of force allowed in war zones and toward the more limited use of force for self-defense allowed outside of armed conflict.” Although some will correctly laud the effort, it is important not to confuse the hard American security interests at play with a morally driven policy designed to protect innocents. The idea is, in fact, to limit civilian casualties, but only as a means to the end of protecting future American lives and interests, not as an end in itself.

Up until now, Obama has been slippery on justifying the use of drones. Today is his opportunity to lay a legal foundation, which can then be built upon in combination with global partners and codified in international law.