Examining the United States military and transnational terrorist organizations we find the relationship to be defined by asymmetry. How can the United States defend against the threat of terrorism when terrorist organizations often seem intangible and nebulous? It should be exceedingly simple to defend against a “lesser” enemy, but it is not, it is asymmetry that makes it more difficult. Asymmetry exists in multiple senses between the United States military and our terrorist enemy, in funding, relative capabilities, and of course tactics.
Many liken this relationship to the old bible story of David versus Goliath. A focus on tactics gives us the closest representation to the bible story of David and Goliath. On one side a heavily armored warrior, on the other an unarmored untrained individual. Adopting such a perspective my contention is that self-defense policies adopted by America and its allies against the transnational terrorist threat are at best insufficient and at worst illegal. One such self-defense policy employed by the United States are drone strikes. First utilized widely under the Bush administration and continued under the Obama administration, drone strikes are in the vanguard of defense against terrorism.
The legally and politically accepted doctrine of self-defense in international law goes back some one hundred and seventy six years. For a country to engage in self-defense preemptively, to use force the way the United States does against terrorists, the threat against the country must be “instant and overwhelming.” Additionally, a country or agent under threat of attack must not be afforded a moment to consider an additional course of action. You do not need to be a scholar of international law to reach the conclusion that United States policy of preemptive self-defense through unmanned aircraft does not meet the necessary criteria. While terrorists and terrorism do represent a threat to our country it is difficult to conceive of a terrorist hiding in a house in Peshawar, Pakistan as an “instant and overwhelming” threat.
This appraisal presents countries with a new set of problems. The first problem is that the doctrine of self-defense used by the United States and other countries to justify preemptive strikes using unmanned drones to target and kill terrorist suspects is outdated. The traditional doctrine of preemptive self-defense was developed during a time when the largest existential threat to a nation was invasion or defeat at the hands of another nation. Today this is rarely the case, and so countries have developed new defense policies, like drone strikes, that do not mesh well with old legal doctrine.
These new developments should alarm the American people if for no other reason then drone strikes seem to represent extra judicial killings. What drone strikes represent are an affront to the tradition of democracy and the rule of law that our country is founded on. While this is true it is also true that against the backdrop of asymmetry, in the face of this new threat – terrorism, what other choice is the United States left with? If Goliath had the ability to preempt David he surely would have. America is left with what is a disconnect between the moral, the political, the legal and the necessity of self-defense.
There is no way America can morally justify what amounts to extra judicial murder by a government that claims to value democracy and the rule of law. There is no legal way to justify unmanned drone strikes that do not hide behind a contortion of the law or thinly veiled “interpretation” of the law. And lastly, it has become politically questionable behavior internationally and domestically as has been demonstrated recently at home by congressional representatives as well as abroad by foreign dignitaries.
And so I am left wanting, and hopefully so are the American people.
Londrigan is a professor of Political Science at Pace University-Westchester and faculty advisor of the university’s award winning Model United Nations team.