The decisions America makes today regarding drone policy could come back to haunt it sooner than later.Micah Zenko of the Council of Foreign Relations makes this argument in a new report:
A major risk is that of proliferation. Over the next decade, the U.S. near-monopoly on drone strikes will erode as more countries develop and hone this capability. In this uncharted territory, U.S. policy provides a powerful precedent for other states and nonstate actors that will increasingly deploy drones with potentially dangerous ramifications.
The situation places the U.S. in a possibly very brief window of leadership — and transparency is the key first step to this leadership.
U.S. policy is to consider “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” America targets these individuals using a “disposition matrix” that serves to keep track of the ever-evolving procedures and legal justifications for placing suspects on the U.S. “kill list.”
And the Obama administration refuses to reveal its methods or justifications for bombing a target, indicated by a recent ruling to deny a FOIA request regarding the targeted killing of the 16-year-old American-born son of former Al-Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki.
From Judge Colleen McMahon’s opinion:
I find myself stuck in a paradoxical situation in which I cannot solve a problem because of contradictory constraints and rules – a veritable Catch-22. I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the Executive Branch of our Government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.
So the U.S. has the benefit of the doubt, even when it carries out “signature strikes” in which the identities of those killed on the ground is unknown and the decision to strike hinges upon recognition of certain undisclosed behaviours and tendencies.
That’s a powerful precedent.
Imagine China conducting strikes inside Japan, or its own borders (e.g. Tibet) while using the current administration’s same opaque, one-size fits all statement that each strike only happens after “rigorous standards and process of review” — essentially, “nevermind the evidence, trust us.”
That wouldn’t fly, but right now America is not in a very strong position to criticise such a situation. That’s why, as Zenko argues, the U.S. must reform its policies or risk losing its moral and strategic advantage.
A few months ago, the election spurred Obama to codify its rules and regulations regarding drone strikes because “there was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands,” one anonymous official told Scott Shane of the New York Times.
Well that time is approaching, and it won’t be a Mitt Romney or Marco Rubio in control. It’ll be North Korea’s Kim Jung Un, China’s Hu Jintao, or Iran’s Ahmed Ahmadinejad.
Which means that it may be time to show the drone “playbook” so extrajudicial killings don’t become a blindly accepted aspect of international foreign policy.
[UPDATE 10:19 p.m.] As Daphne Eviatar, Senior Counsel in Human Rights First’s Law and Security Program, noted last week in Reuters, laying out U.S. policy “would be a brave and principled move on Obama’s part. It would also go a long way toward developing global confidence that, despite past mistakes, Washington is waging its fight against terrorism in accordance with the rule of law.”
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