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Ground the Drones?

Author: Sarah Kreps, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow
December 4, 2013
Foreign Affairs

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Recent efforts to ban armed drones have conflated technical questions with policy ones. One prominent coalition of activist groups has emphasized that targeted killings are a violation of international law. They conclude that the United States should ban drones, which, in their argument, are vehicles for the bad policy. But arguments that exonerate drones go too far in the opposite direction. Other scholars maintain that the real problem is the policy of targeted killings and that drones, in and of themselves, are nonissues. Both of these camps sidestep how the technology informs policy.

The policy and the technology should not be confused, nor can they be separated, because drones circumvent the domestic, operational, and diplomatic constraints that are imposed on their manned counterparts and, therefore, make otherwise unviable policies viable.

First, drones make for good domestic politics. As one Washington Post headline put it, the American public loves drones. Drones seem to offer a way to kill bad guys without producing American casualties. No body bags come home from a drone operation. It is not surprising, therefore, that members of Congress generally look fondly on drones; drones mean that they don't hear from outraged constituents about losing loved ones in combat. In turn, they have few incentives to maintain strict oversight over the program. As a result, drones have essentially flown below the radar of legislative checks and balances. It is only now, ten years into the program, that there have finally been concerted legislative efforts to win back more control over drones.

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