No resistance: an anti-drone protest in Pakistan.
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Eyes in the sky: the legal and philosophical implications of drone warfare

Regardless of its critics, drone warfare is here to stay.

Drone Theory
Grégoire Chamayou. Translated by Janet Lloyd
Penguin, 292pp, £6.99

Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral and Geopolitical Issues
Edited by Marjorie Cohn
Olive Branch Press, 296pp, £15.99

The US army defines a drone as “a land, sea or air vehicle that is remotely or automatically controlled”. Missing from that jarringly prophylactic description is the use of drones as tools of death. The French writer Grégoire Chamayou, in what might be termed a philosophical investigation into drones and their implications, defines them more pithily – and accurately. “Their history,” he writes, “is that of an eye turned into a weapon.”

This weapon is now at the centre of American military doctrine. The US, Chamayou tells us, trains more drone operators than “all the pilots of fighter planes and bombers put together”. This is, perhaps, unsurprising, given that the number of US armed drone “patrols” increased by 1,200 per cent between 2004 and 2012. And these patrols are deadly. During the same period, drones killed between 2,640 and 3,474 people in Pakistan alone.

In conflicts from the Vietnam war to those in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has always had to contend with its soldiers returning home in body bags. Dead Arabs are an acceptable consequence of war; dead Americans, not so much. This is the problem faced by super­powers since their concept first existed: exerting influence requires sending in troops. The beauty of drones is that they nullify this. In the euphemistic words of the air force officer David Deptula, “The real advantage of unmanned aerial systems is that they allow you to project power without projecting vulnerability.” Chamayou is, as ever, more blunt. Drones, he explains, allow war to go from being possibly asymmetrical to “absolutely unilateral”. They radicalise existing processes of remote warfare and extend them to their logical conclusion: doing away with combat altogether.

Yet this is true only for one side. To the many Pakistanis and Yemenis on the receiving end, these all-seeing eyes – Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon given wings – make combat not only deadly but perennial. The result is that the drones often torture before they kill. Buzzing overhead, sometimes for days before striking, they reduce subject populations to nervous wrecks, all of this achieved from the comfort of a Nevada control room in which drone operators eat M&M’s and hope they “get to shoot the truck with all the dudes in it”.

Chamayou’s moral outrage seeps on to almost every page, even if the language never loses its precision (a rarity in philosophical works). The book opens with a transcript of a conversation between members of a drone unit, in which it becomes clear that confusion (“Did they blow that up? They did, right?” “They did, yeah.” “No, they didn’t”) combined with boredom (“months of monotony and milliseconds of mayhem” is how their job is described in the introduction) are the dominating impulses of 21st-century warfare. Fear is almost entirely absent, as it would be when you’re thousands of miles from your target and he or she has no chance to strike back against you.

If the “just war” theory holds that certain criteria must be met for a conflict to be considered morally justifiable, the book makes it clear that drone warfare fails. Supporters may laud the precision of drones (especially when compared to, say, aircraft bombing) but it doesn’t matter how precise your weapon is if the humans manning it cannot discern exactly who the target is – or, indeed, if targets are decided on almost whimsically, as this 2010 conversation regarding a situation in Afghanistan shows:

Mission intelligence co-ordinator: Adolescent near the rear of the SUV.
Sensor operator: Well, teenagers can fight.
Mission intelligence co-ordinator: Pick up a weapon and you’re a combatant, it’s how that works.

Similar themes are covered in Drones and Targeted Killing, a series of essays that stress the immorality and illegality of drone warfare. The book’s tone is made clear in its foreword, written by the anti-apartheid hero Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who damns “Obama’s drones” that “have been killing thousands of people with no due process at all”. Tutu is particularly enraged by the way in which Americans called for special courts to rule in cases when their government found it necessary to kill US citizens (on US soil, no less) – but non-Americans would be afforded no such consideration. “Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours?” he asks.

Such are the moral contradictions on which drone warfare is built. We learn, for example, the absurdly vague (and terrifying) way in which the Obama administration has counted drone casualties. The criterion is simple: “All military-age men killed in a drone strike zone are considered to be combatants ‘unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent’.” One suspects again that this approach would fail the “just war” test.

Even when the administration attempts to be more specific, differentiating between “personality strikes” (on “named, high-value terrorists”) and “signature strikes” (on “training camps” and “suspicious compounds”), the effect is often to strike large crowds of people, giving the lie to the supposed precision of drone killings. These lax standards have become an unpleasant joke among state department officials. When the CIA “‘sees three guys doing jumping jacks’, the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp”, one said. But sceptics argue: “Men loading a truck with fertiliser could be bomb makers – but they might also be farmers.”

Regardless of its critics, drone warfare is here to stay. It’s too easy, too cheap (in terms of American casualties) and too established in US security and political apparatuses to be discarded now. These books remind us that, contrary to some received wisdom, using drones is not necessarily a more ethical form of warfare. And, although they may fly overhead, they do not provide governments with what they always crave in war: the moral high ground.

David Patrikarakos is the author of “Nuclear Iran: the Birth of an Atomic State” (I B Tauris) and a Poynter fellow at Yale University

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.