Obama’s False Choice on Drones, and a Syllogism of Sorts

A few remarks about President Obama’s address last week, specifically relating to his defense of the immoral drone strikes the US government continues to use (You can read the full transcript of President Obama’s remarks here.) Ultimately, I argue President Obama’s defense of drone strikes relies on a false choice between kill or do nothing and some poor logic.

In addressing drones, he sets the stage by reminding Americans of just how remote those the government hunts are considered, hiding in lawless nations like Somalia and in the deserts and caves of the Middle East. Geographic difficulties, national sovereignty concerns, and risk to surrounding populations all mean using troops is implausible most times. The hunt of ‘terrorists’ is necessary, the means are limited, the challenges are many: cue the drones.

The president’s first defense is that drone strikes are “effective.” So much for a discussion on ethics. His quotes from al-Qaeda communications that worry about the effectiveness of the drones as evidence, concluding, “Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.” It seems President Obama is making the ethical argument that the ends justify the means, and this discussion seems to be all about effective tactics for the just end of…well, I’m not so sure.

To appease the lawyers, he then references the terrorism of September 11th and the Congressional authorization for the War on Terror as the legal basis for this war of self-defense. Relying on the theory of Justified War, the president concludes: “So this is a just war — a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.” I have no legal training, so perhaps this War on Terror is legal under domestic and international law (though I’m inclined to think not). I do know Justified War theory and its Catholic roots, and definitively these drone attacks are neither proportional, a last resort, nor in self-defense as the theory traditionally understands imminent threat.

Finally, President Obama admits that merely possessing an effective technology is not actually a moral defense for drones. In his own words:

“To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance…And that’s why, over the last four years, my administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists…”

Unfortunately, he dodges the moral question again. Merely having a framework implemented again does not answer the jarring questions raised by drones. His words are shallow, and painfully ironic, for those who know the truth about drone strikes. The president claims these strikes are constrained, respectful of national sovereignty, used only when capture is not possible for “terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” and when there is “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” There may be this framework, but it is a failed one and the body count tells a different truth.

President Obama’s defense of drones comes down to the false choice he presents, excluding the voices of nonviolence and peacemakers, development individuals and educators, leaders of civic society and democratic reformers. The choice is between accepting massive civilian death tolls, tacitly acknowledged as a “gap” between official military estimates and those of nongovernmental reports, and not using drones to stop terrorists who would kill us all if only we let our guard down.

As he reiterates, sending in US troops would be too costly and there may be governments who would not allow the US to operate militarily within their nation (shocking). There may be a plethora of reasons why we cannot use conventional means to attack these terrorists, so the only option that is left is drones. For the president, when this choice is all that exists, ” Doing nothing is not an option.” And that something to do is a drone strike.

There is more in the speech I hope to digest, about the killing of American citizens using drones and the expansiveness of their use, about Congress role and the over-empowered Executive branch, about many other issues. I think these are separate issues than the moral justification of a drone strike itself though, and in this moral defense President Obama fails gravely.

Fundamentally, when President Obama made a defense of drone strikes it was this:

(1) Drone technology is effective in getting around the nasty bits of warmaking, like US soldiers being killed, accountability to the American people, or foreign governments rejecting our ‘aid,” and we have a good end to justify this questionable means;

(2) The Obama Administration’s lawyers concocted a way to ‘legally’ justify these drones strikes under domestic, and international law, but there is no need to explain this to the American people. Just trust the Administration that the strikes are ‘legal’;

(3) It is necessary to violently strike/kill at whomever the US government secretly ordains ‘terrorist’ because the only other choice is inaction, and conventional uses of force are impractical for a number of reasons thus necessitating the use of drones;

(4) Therefore, drone strikes are morally acceptable.

That syllogism may not make sense because of my poor articulation, but more likely it may not make sense because the muddling of premises into a cloud of confusion is the only means through which the President can arrive at the unjustified conclusion. The limited imagination at the White House does not allow for new thinking or for the realization violence perpetuates violence.

What if Obama admitted, as we are well aware, that schools, healthcare, democratic institutions and the rule of law, enough food on one’s table from a stable economy, and all the varied benefits of peace will defend Americans and the whole world much more than more drone murder? For this awareness, I continue to pray to God.


P.S.Drone strikes remain immoral, illegal, and ineffective – and they’re ongoing! If you’d like to take action consider speaking out against them join the monthly witness at CIA headquarters the second Saturday of every month from 10am-12pm.


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