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Drones and the Rule-Based Global Order

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Drones and the Rule-Based Global Order"

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By Matthew Yglesias

Trouble in droneland:

The American military released a scathing report on Saturday on the deaths of 23 Afghan civilians, saying that “inaccurate and unprofessional” reporting by a team of Predator drone operators helped lead to an inadvertent airstrike this year on a group of innocent men, women and children.

Obviously killing civilians is horrible, as well as strategically counterproductive, and killing civilians by the dozens is just awful stuff. But the relevant authorities do seem to me to be quite earnest and at least somewhat successful in their determination to mitigate the extent to which these things happen. The problematic aspect of the drone attacks that I haven’t seen discussed as much as it deserves is really on the Pakistan side of the border and concerns the National Security Strategy’s stated aspiration to create a rules-based global order.

Simply put, having the CIA conduct a secret undeclared de facto war in Pakistan is kind of the reverse of rules-based activity. There’s a colorable rationale under existing rules for unilateral military action in Pakistan under the UN Charter’s absolute recognition of a right to individual and collective self-defense. But this isn’t military action, it’s CIA action. And by definition covert use of force is not rules-based. Now I think you could fairly say that a world of “liberty under law” is a regulative ideal rather than an actual reality, so it’s not per se a violation of the relevant principle to engage in activities outside the rules. Simply pretending that an airtight rules-based global order exists doesn’t make it so. At the same time, to say “the rules-based global order is an aspiration rather than a reality, therefore we can operate outside the rules whenever it’s convenient” actually makes a mockery of the aspiration. And the covert actions in question are some of the worst-kept secrets in the world. So I think there’s a real problem here that’s worthy of more critical thinking.

Ultimately the United States is judged more by what actually happens than by what policy documents say, and I think it’s important to do more to align what we’re actually doing in this regard with our big-picture policy aims.

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