Sunday, December 23, 2012

Re: Daniel Kuehn's Defense and Counter

I've read Daniel Kuehn's response to my critique of his stance on drones. He raises some concerns about my arguments against the use of drones and comes to two conclusions. He purports I am arguing that we need more Americans soldiers to die in order to discourage war and that I think that he is unaware of the problems of blowback. I mean to address both.

The implications that I draw from the concerns that I raise are clearly not the same as those that Kuehn has in mind. This seems to me a clash of perspectives that generally oppose one another - the public choice and the public interest interpretations of government - rather than misinterpretation of the facts on either side.

I analyze government with the expectation that self-interest will dominate. That includes the self interest of the politicians, military leaders, the voters, the bureaucrats, and others that exercise some influence over  government. I am admittedly pessimistic about this. When I learn that the military is employing drones in increasing number, I am not concerned about the intended consequences. I expect intentions to have minor impact compared to incentives. Good intentions do not lead to good results. With this in mind I review my two claims.
1) The danger that war poses to American service men and women is an important factor that restrains support for war. Action in Pakistan and Afghanistan (Kuehn writes specifically about Afghanistan) carried out by drones have received less attention than intervention carried out on the ground.
In response Kuehn wrote
So our soldiers have to put themselves in more danger just so we at home will feel bad for that danger that they're put in and be less likely to send them. Do I have that right?
I want to see less military conflict not more dead troops. But for now, let's assume that war is necessary. Drone warfare may be a safer solution for our troops in the short run. I have no doubt that a soldier flying a plane by remote is safer than one that is present with the plane or those with boots on the ground in a warzone. However, by making warfare more remote, drones numb the public to the horror of war. Public sentiment has an important effect on the actions of politicians. When public resistance to military intervention fades, a major incentive for politicians to end it fade as well.

For this reason, we will more than likely see increased dependency on drone warfare over the next decade. There is reason to challenge this trend. Drones don't just kill civilians (most military inteventions do that), they make life terrifying for them. A study by NYU and Stanford - which Kuehn refers to in his comment field - reads:
Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behavior.
The constant presence of drones makes life terrifying for those below. I cannot quantify the stress and discomfort this brings these people, but I do not think these researchers are mistaken in asserting that "US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks." "Non-state groups," like the Taliban, are the organizations that attempt to bring terror to western nations. Regardless of the efficiency of drone warfare, it is a means by which U.S. intervention antagonizes bystanders and encourages them to join these groups. Kuehn appears to underestimate this effect.

About my second point I have less to say:
2) Drone warfare also separates the individual in control of the drone from the bombing he or she takes part in. As is the trend with most state interventions, foreign or domestic, economic, social, or military, drone warfare creates yet another degree of separation between those who coerce and those who are coerced.
The response to this was similar to the response to my first objection:
The same with the second point. I could see how some drone operators could treat what they're doing like a video game, and not consider the gravity of it. But again, what is the argument here - that to prevent that from happening we have to make life even worse for soldiers: make them less safe (and the countries they are operating in less safe) by being there, on the ground, with far less precision or time to make life and death decisions.
Pilots are aware that they are taking part in military offenses. I do not believe that this occurs in a "non-chalant" manner. It is, nonetheless, an offensive whose effects have been partly abstracted away. Some pilots' perceptions of these effects are certainly mitigated  some of the time. We ought to consider the marginal impact on a soldiers' willingness to use drones compared to other devices. Kuehn seems to think the impact of this is not substantial. I certainly haven't proved him wrong on that point but do think that it is worth considering.

Kuehn's argument can be summed up by one of his final statements:
Drones are safer for soldiers, they are safer for civilians, they are more dangerous for the enemy.
In considering the effects of this strategy, I cannot agree. Drone operations are conducted in secret. They lack oversight. The hours that drones spend flying above an area leaves that region in terror. I believe this terror is an under appreciated cost of drone warfare. Yet political incentives will more than likely encourage a shift toward these operations. One might suggest plausible limitation to these operations in order to fix this problem, but I don't expect to see any changes in the near future. I doubt the long-term consequences will be desirable. The NYU/Stanford study reaches a similar conclusion.


  1. re: "Drones don't just kill civilians (most military inteventions do that), they make life terrifying for them."

    Your parenthetical should probably come at the end of the sentence too, don't you think!

    re: "Kuehn appears to underestimate this effect."

    Not sure where the miscommunication is on this point, but I don't think I do. The circle of people terrorized by drones, though, is likely much smaller than those terrorized by conventional war.

    I'm a little intrigued by an opening sentence of yours that was left undeveloped - about the different perspectives and public choice vs. public interest. I take a public choice perspective on things too (one could say a "political economy" perspective more broadly, but including public choice insights) when I think about institutions and the public interest - so I'm not really sure that's the source of the disagreement.

    1. Continual surveillance by weaponized drones has a different impact that flybys from fighter jets or ground occupation. I think that the imminence of drone warfare is probably more psychologically draining than the other forms. The UN has expressed similar concerns about the implications of drone warfare and demands greater transparency just as you do.

      You have more faith than I do that the government will appropriately manage this technology. If the program is transparent, then you are correct that this is a better alternative. War is not an institution that easily lends itself to transparency. The work of journalists, academics, and activist may eventually encourage a higher level of transparency, but I am skeptical that we will see enough.