Bad Predator?

24 January 2012, 2218 EST

Peter Singer has an op-ed in the Times which carefully makes the case against drones by carefully putting forth the proposition that their use undermines democracy:

What troubles me, though, is how a new technology is short-circuiting the decision-making process for what used to be the most important choice a democracy could make… We must now accept that technologies that remove humans from the battlefield, from unmanned systems like the Predator to cyberweapons like the Stuxnet computer worm, are becoming the new normal in war. And like it or not, the new standard we’ve established for them is that presidents need to seek approval only for operations that send people into harm’s way — not for those that involve waging war by other means… WITHOUT any actual political debate, we have set an enormous precedent, blurring the civilian and military roles in war and circumventing the Constitution’s mandate for authorizing it.

Well, as least this is a better argument than the other barbs against drones – the ones that focus on the weapons themselves as somehow uniquely offensive in terms of war law. (Last year, Lina Shakhouni and I bombed that set of arguments back to the stone age.)

But Singer narrows in on a different thread in this debate: that certain weapons are a game-changer not because they are useful, but because of how the conditions under which they are used affect our sense of how war is to be conducted, what it is, and who decides. It’s an interesting set of arguments.

But is it any better in terms of the causal claims on which it rests? Dissenting views are rolling in. The Atlantic’s Joshua Foust writes:

We should be criticizing Congress, not remote-controlled airplanes, for limitless militarism. Congress ceding all authority on lethal operations to the president is indeed a grave threat to democracy, but drones are only one tool the president uses to kill people. The bigger problem is that he was given the authority to do that.

Indeed, at Wings Over Iraq, Starbuck points out that the argument is older than the weapons system – the claim that remote-control weaponry facilitated devil-may-care foreign policy is at least as old as the Tomahawk Missile:

Though much ink has been spilled on “drone ethics“, these strikes are little removed from 1990s-era “Tomahawk diplomacy”. Though modern drones can loiter over the battlefield for hours–even days–at a time, and can hit small, mobile targets, they’re just another precision stand-off weapon. P.W. Singer’s op-ed might specifically target drones, he’s making a broader point that standoff weapons–missiles, drones, even computer viruses–might make warfare more common in the 21st Century.

As I’ve already written, I agree with Foust and Burke that “drones” are not problems in themselves but have become a synechdoche for a broader tension between the current security environment and the legal frameworks through which we’re accustomed to thinking about and legitimizing war. And I also agree with Singer that that tension is genuine and needs to be addressed (for example, by updating the War Power Act – something within Congressional control).

But is this mismatch between norms and policy bringing about the specific political outcomes he (and others) claim – especially the idea that drones cause a democratic deficit? As a social scientist I remain unconvinced, and want to see more than rhetorical arguments. In fact besides the claim Burke identifies above, I think Singer posits a number of additional causal claims about the political impact of stand-off weapons in his piece, all plausible but insufficiently backed up. He also posits some perhaps unsustainable claims about the relationship of democracy to war (though one might hope that democracy might stand on its own as a value to be preserved)… and especially, I think it’s a little fuzzy in his argument what aspect of “democracy” is really most at stake here and why.

Let’s think through the claims, and I’ll return in future posts to assessing them:

1) Proposition #1: Stand-off weapons make armed conflict easier and therefore likelier. For one thing this is a different dependent variable – war may be a public bad, but more more war doesn’t by itself undermine democracy. Also, I want someone to show me that on balance the number of militarized interstate disputes is increasing as a result of stand-off technologies, or that countries with access to these technologies are likelier to be involved in MIDs, controlling for other factors.

2) Proposition #2: Stand-off weapons are likelier to be used in ways that lead to a blurring of civilian/military roles. Civilian supremacy is a cornerstone of democracy as we know it, and certainly there has been some fudging of the civ-mil divide in recent decades, and certainly the use of CIA drone operatives is a good example of that, but can the blame really be rested at the doorstep of these weapon systems? And how would we know? Among other things, Singer’s own earlier writing on private military firms suggests this problem is not limited to stand-off weaponry…

3) Proposition #3: The availability of stand-off weapons increases the likelihood that democratic leaders will circumvent democratic deliberation about the use of armed force. It does seem to be happening in this case, but again is the technology causing this problem or simply making an old trend especially obvious?

4) Proposition #4: Democratic deliberation reduces the likelihood of militarized interstate disputes. Again, please, let’s treat this as a hypothesis rather than an assumption. I will have more to say about how convincing it is after I revisit the more recent democratic peace literature with my doctoral students this term but my sense as a political scientist is that this was always simplistic at best and has been problematized further by some new studies.

5) Proposition #5: Citizens’ and policymakers’ estimate of physical risk from war to the nation’s own citizens is a moderating influence over war initiation decisions. Makes intuitive sense, but I know too much about the strategies nations use to trick citizens into war to take this at face value. How true is this proposition in broad terms? If I wanted to find out, I’d probably look to compare democracies that did and did not have a conscription policy to find out whether institutionalized risks of war to citizens lead countries to be more risk-prone internationally, other things being equal. But I find myself doubting it, since historically war has declined along with conscription as a practice, so I wonder how this is presumed to work…

Point is, none of these propositions are obviously true or uncontroversial. I expect to explore several of them in more detail on the basis of the empirical studies I dig up in the next weeks. Readers: can you suggest sources, studies or other ways of testing these hypotheses to guide me as I dig? Or other testable propositions underlying the drone debate?