The debate began as a simple discussion of weaponry, but quickly spiralled into a complex debate over the justice and long term impact of US military intervention in the Middle East.
Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, stated the “obvious” conclusion on the side of the proposition in what he deemed an “exceptionally narrow debate”.
He summarized the question as: “is it sometimes ethical and effective to watch a target for a long time before you incinerate it?” He argued the drones’ “long loiter time” enables them to identify their targets with greater certainty, and pick moments to strike that “minimize harm to other people” ensuring that drone warfare is both ethical and effective. He cited the Libya intervention as an example, in which the US provided unmanned drones, that proved to be “crucial to the effectiveness of the operation”.
In opposition, Chris Cole, founder of the campaign group Drone Wars UK, emphasized the impossibility of achieving “pinpoint precision”. He derided the “Hollywood” idea that the drone strikes constitute a kind of “inverse version of the rapture”, in which the “bad guys” are smoothly and effectively removed.
Cole went on to warn that the ease with which drones deploy lethal military force encourages a damaging “playstation mentality”. Without potential footage of the “grieving relatives” of soldiers who put their lives at risk, politicians “are under more pressure to send drones because there is no perceived cost in doing so”, and will thus increase the numbers of conflicts.
But proposition speaker Ken Anderson, a legal professor and expert, condemned the idea of “putting forces at risk to put political pressure on leaders”. Having witnessed in the 1990s the devastating effects of indiscriminate weapons such as land mines and tomahawk missiles, he claimed that the audience should be “down on their knees thanking US military engineers” for the superior capabilities of drones. Instead of seeking to limit force at all costs, he contended that: “the right amount of force depends on the justice of the cause.”
Naureen Shah, a lecturer in human rights at Columbia University, called this ‘justice’ into question. She asked “for whom” the drone strikes are effective, focusing on their impact upon the ordinary citizens of Pakistan and Yemen.
She balanced her argument with a clear understanding of the grim realities of terrorism, referring to the major attacks that take place almost weekly in Pakistan as well as the recent bombing in Boston, but maintained that drone strikes are “fundamentally ineffective”. She pointed out that terrorist attacks have not decreased, but are increasingly “shifting to the cities”.
Since the US carries out drone strikes with the support of corrupt or ineffective governments and against the people’s wishes, she accused them of “sustaining and building up military power” and “undermining democracy”.
Times journalist and author David Aaronovitch, however, forcefully defended the US’s actions, claiming that the opposition has “no answer for dealing with anything”. He flourished a list of Al-Qaeda terrorist leaders killed and pointed out that hundreds more innocent civilians have died in terrorist attacks than drone strikes.
When a student claimed that without the drone strikes, there would be no terrorists, he witheringly replied, “that may not be quite as good a point as you thought it was when you started it.” Approaching the opposition speakers, he declared: “you don’t escape from this with your hands clean. People will die”, to which Naureen Shah replied: “people will die anyway”.
Professor Jeremy Waldron, political theorist and All Souls professor, rounded off the debate by condemning the “lack of accountability and transparency” in America’s use of drone strikes. He pointed out that drone strikes increasingly target political leaders rather than combatants and are conducted in secrecy by “unlawful combatants” like the CIA.
He concluded with a grim vision of a “world of death lists and death squads”. He emphasised the power of a drone’s unique design to compromise fundamental principles of justice and human rights.
As speakers questioned the long term impact and purpose of drone warfare, scientific fact became inseparably bound to issues of morality.