When America’s leading statesmen met to frame a new constitution for the young republic, they hoped to transform their ideas and principles into a framework of law. Not all of them got their way, however. Elbridge Gerry proposed that the Constitution limit standing armies to five thousand men. George Washington applauded the motion, but added that they should consider limiting invading armies to three thousand men. The convention laughed the motion out of consideration.
Washington was in many ways the original conservative. During the Revolution, he had worked tirelessly to defend traditional American liberties and dedicated himself to keeping the Colonies unified. He also worked to keep the radicals in check, from liberals who dogmatically opposed any governmental action to nationalists who dreamt of a global mercantilist power. The Washington who ridiculed Gerry’s motion also believed that an excessive military establishment could impinge upon personal freedom. He hoped to maintain the military America needed and nothing more.
Fast forward to 2012: rows of musketmen have been replaced by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) armed with everything from advanced detection equipment to high-explosive missiles. The issue divides Democrats and Republicans alike; even conservatives have no unified position. To some, drone warfare is part of a hallowed military estab- lishment that must be never questioned. For others, the UAV is a terrifying encroachment of big government. Those who leap to either conclusion may well be die-hard nationalists or liberals. A conservative, however, must apply George Washington’s test: Is it potentially dangerous and/or necessary to self- government?
First: Are drones a threat to American liberty? Sadly, the answer is yes. Any policy grants the government power, which in the hands of a cabal is a threat to liberty – especially when it involves an exclusive claim on blowing things into little pieces. Further, the modern drone is not like a welfare check or a fancy new tank. It has incredible, almost inconceivable destructive potential.
The drone supports a myriad of aerial capabilities. The military and police can outfit it with a wider array of weapons, surveillance equipment, and other devices than any helicopter or fighter plane. Flying lower and more slowly, its precision with these tools surpasses most other aircraft, watching individual rooms or targeting particular people for annihilation. Its small profile and quiet propulsion make the drone almost unnoticeable.
Drones are also incredibly cost efficient. Uncle Sam can buy thirty Predator drones for the price of one F-22 fighter, forty for an AC-130 aerial gunship, and 250 for a single B-2 bomber. In addition, there is no need to risk skilled flight crews, and it is fair easier to train remote operators than pilots. A few drones can cover more area than an AC-130 at lower cost and to greater effect. Will America’s humane and democratic government use this power against its citizens? Everyone—Left and Right, Occupier and Tea Partier – has witnessed the willingness of government to use violence against “dangerous dissidents”. Drones have already claimed American victims: Anwar and Abdul-Rahman al-Awlaki and Kamal Derwish, jihadi sympathizers killed by drone strikes in Yemen, were not saved by their United States citizenship. Law enforcement use of UAVs for surveillance purposes has already begun in American cities.
The greatest danger, however, lies in a drone’s stealth. Unlike the siege at Waco or the clashes in Oakland, a UAV flying overhead is inconspicuous. Pakistanis have reported that one does not know a drone is around until a missile strikes. This is a deadly problem because Americans are oblivious to any problem not shoved in their face by the 24-hour-media. Consider our budget deficit: until right-wing commentators and politicians discovered how useful the issue was, nobody cared. Frankly, Americans would revel in their limitless freedom even if drones watched their every move. Our apathy towards the deaths of innocents at the hands of America’s militarized police force indicates that drones could murder our compatriots without inciting protest.
On to the second part of the test: might drones be crucial to our national defense? They have obvious potential: everything a drone can do to Americans can be done to jihadists. But potential and actuality are separate questions. So, is the United States making such productive use of this weapon that it is absolutely necessary?
Today, the United States uses drones primarily for reconnaissance and precision airstrikes in the Middle East, especially Pakistan and Yemen. These strikes can kill jihadis, civilians, or both. What’s the ratio? Generally, locals think that most drone strikes kill the innocent. Most sources say that one or two civilians die for every militant neutralized. The CIA, on the other hand, claims that a series of strikes which killed over 600 militants resulted in absolutely no collateral damage.
The ratio that really matters, though, is how much this campaign helps or hurts America. To the extent that drone strikes kill Taliban or Al Qaeda members, they are good and helpful. On the other hand, they serve as a propaganda windfall for terrorists, which is a problem. The New America Foundation reports that drone strikes have killed between one and three thousand militants, but the local population perceives the cost to innocent life and local sovereignty as excessive. The government of Pakistan has publicly asked the United States to end the campaign.
These perceptions may be false, even ridiculous in some cases. But this war is an ideological one, in which those same perceptions draw the battle lines. Middle-Easterners who see the jihadists as monsters will aid the US in their defeat, but those who see America as the murderous party will align themselves with the enemy, contributing opinions, money, or rifles. The immediate family of a target often turns to militancy in response to the death of one they consider innocent. To justify itself, the drone campaign would have to kill as many militants as it creates—an unlikely prospect.
Ultimately, the use of drones is a detriment to American foreign policy. The United States could solve this problem with a massive propaganda campaign or by abandoning the hearts-and- minds doctrine, but these options are politically impossible. The US must either abandon the drone program altogether or replace it with something better suited to the present conflict.
Like President Washington, conservatives should be wary of an expansive military. That said, the shifting realities of geopolitics may someday make UAVs an integral part of America’s defense. Until then, however, we should not offer one iota of tolerance for a program that unnecessarily endangers our liberty.
James Inwood is a junior studying the liberal arts.