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Drone Warfare Is Fraught with Danger

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One can understand why Libyans would celebrate the end of the Qaddafi dictatorship. But the American people should nonetheless be concerned about what the U.S. government did in North Africa.

On the day Qaddafi was killed, the New York Times reported that “the death … is the latest victory for a new American approach to war: few if any troops on the ground, the heavy use of air power, including drones, and, at least in the case of Libya, a reliance on allies.” The Times noted that this minimalist strategy was not in favor a few months ago.

 But the last six months have brought a string of successes. In May, American commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. In August, Tripoli fell, and Colonel Qaddafi fled. In September, an American drone strike killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a top Qaeda operative and propagandist, in Yemen. And on Thursday, people were digesting images of the bloodied body of Colonel Qaddafi, an oppressive strongman who spent decades flaunting his pariah status. 

 The danger is that President Obama and the war party will be further emboldened now that they apparently have found an approach to war that minimizes if not eliminates the risk of American casualties and keeps a lid on financial costs. The last thing the American people need is a government that feels it can intervene costlessly anywhere in the world. Empires are expensive, but the budgetary consideration was never the most important reason for opposing America’s imperial policies. It is grossly self-centered to think only of the potential for American casualties when the U.S. government intervenes in foreign conflicts. We should be just as concerned that the lives of other people are threatened.

Thus, the fact that America can fight foreign wars “safely” with drones piloted from far away should be of no comfort to the American people. Drones invariably kill innocent people, who have the same rights as Americans to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The fact that the U.S. government menaces foreign populations who present no threat to us should offend all decent people.

Americans have wearied of drawn-out, expensive wars waged by thousands of U.S. ground troops. One gets the impression that the policy elite is now delighted it has found a way of making war that avoids precisely what the public most abhors. But such interventions are nonetheless dangerous. Dropping bombs on people tends to make them vengeful. Drone warfare over Yemen and Somalia has radicalized individuals there (and here), heightening the threat of terrorism against Americans.

Thus, the apparent safety of the new form of intervention may be misleading.

Moreover, no one can be sure that the minimalist tactic won’t lead to bigger commitments, because the U.S. government could be drawn into conflicts that flare out of control. The Libya matter is not over yet. If chaos erupts there, as it did in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, can we be sure Obama won’t send in ground troops to restore order? Ominously, he also recently sent a so-far-small force into central Africa against the Lord’s Resistance Army. Who knows where that will lead?

The danger lurking in the minimalist strategy is hubris — the pretence of knowledge. When embarking on an intervention, no one knows how things will end up. Randolph Bourne, who coined the phrase, “War is the health of the state,” also said, “If it is a question of controlling war, it is difficult to see how the child on the back of a mad elephant is to be any more effective in stopping the beast than is the child who tries to stop him from the ground.” That Libya “went well” is no reason to feel good about this sort of intervention.

Americans live under a government in which the president can unilaterally and arbitrarily inflict lethal force on foreign countries, unchecked by Congress or the courts. He can order the assassination even of American citizens without indictment, charge, or trial. Nothing could more flagrantly violate the principle of checks and balances, which supposedly distinguishes the American constitutional system from other forms of government. When one contemplates the autocratic war-making power today held by the president, it is hard to conclude other than that America is a rogue state.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.