A strange thing happened in the United States earlier this month: A freshman senator named Rand Paul stood on the Senate floor and spoke for 13 hours about the dangers of weaponized U.S. drones if targeted against American citizens in the United States.
The marathon ended only when the U.S. attorney general pledged in writing that this would never happen unless there is armed combat on American soil. But that guarantee — and the continued outrage against drones by many around the world — points out how tactical advantage can risk strategic defeat.
In a stunning Foreign Affairs magazine interview, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (I.S.A.F.) and the Joint Special Operations Command, reflects on lessons he learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, he says, the first question was “Where is the enemy?” As things evolved, the question became “Who is the enemy?” Then “What’s the enemy doing or trying to do?” and, finally, “Why are they the enemy?”
This catechism is so revealing. In short, the tactic of taking out bad guys may ultimately create more of them. A thoughtful academic in Israel named Boaz Ganor calls this the “boomerang effect.” His idea is that there is often a contradiction between dismantling the capability of terrorists and removing their motivation.
Without a clear legal framework around our counterterrorism tactics, they can become inadvertent recruitment tools (think Abu Ghraib). Moreover, playing whack-a-mole will not win the argument with the kid in rural Yemen deciding whether or not to put on a suicide vest. Finally, as Senator Paul’s filibuster showed, the American public is also tuning in and insisting on clear limits on tactics like drone use.
Other countries are already in the game. Drones, and other evolving tools in what might be called “remote-control” warfare, are not limited to the United States, though most weaponized strikes to date are attributed to the U.S. More than 70 countries have or are developing drones, and the total absence of international rules is troubling.
The United States needs to develop a strict legal framework. Inside the U.S., without exception, an American suspected of plotting a terror attack should never be targeted by an armed drone. In “ticking-bomb” situations — when a person in the U.S. is poised to push the button and create large-scale mayhem — SWAT teams and helicopters can do the work. This is consistent with long-standing law enforcement protocol.
Internationally, the United States has experience in constructing protective, rule-based foundations for our most sensitive programs. The framework established in the 35-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act should be used to cover targeted killings of U.S. citizens abroad and for offensive cyberoperations. Crucial probable-cause judicial determinations used in the current F.I.S.A. can be easily applied in the context of new counterterrorism tools.
America has seen the “creeping executive power” movie before. Using lethal tools without public debate or clear legal authority is a mistake and a slippery slope.
In essence, the means of combating terrorist threats may have changed, but the end for preserving international security remains the same. We need strategies, not just tactics — and a necessary part of that equation is creating a durable legal structure for remote-control warfare that will secure buy-in from a global audience.
This op-ed first appeared in The International Herald Tribune.