There is a new normal in warfare developing as drone technology becomes more widespread. The downing of a CIA drone is the most recent episode in the secret war against Iran and it is to be presumed that American drones are also flying out of Turkish bases to monitor developments in Syria. In the past, the use of drones both to monitor and to kill has been justified by Washington in situations where the local government presumably does not have the resources to police its own territory. As least that has been a major part of the argument in Pakistan and Yemen, where it has been claimed that terrorists would proliferate if they were not under siege by the drones. But that is clearly not the case with either Iran or Syria, so the presumption has to be that drones are now being used as a weapon of choice to intervene in those situations where there is neither war nor peace. Shooting down a drone does not produce a Francis Gary Powers U-2 type incident and it can always be claimed that the pilotless vehicle was off course for technical reasons, a form of the plausible denial always sought in covert operations. But intrusion into someone else’s airspace is nevertheless an act of war and can have unintended consequences when things go wrong. CIA briefly considered launching a rescue mission for its downed drone in Iran in an attempt to keep its high tech avionics, surveillance capabilities, and stealth technology from falling into Tehran’s hands. If that option had been pursued, it might well have resulted in a shooting war.
The question of how and when America should send its sons and daughters into armed conflict is answered in the Constitution of the United States, which stipulates that only Congress has the power to declare war. Since World War 2, however, the executive has been the decider, involving the nation in one undeclared war after another. The use of drones, which lower the threshold for becoming engaged aggressively with a foreign power, makes it all too easy to enter into conflicts that are essentially bloodless for a high tech Washington therefore requiring little in the way of justification or explanation. They also tend to be invisible, fought largely in secret and making it impossible for the American public to know what is going on in its name.
One of the most discouraging aspects of the current Republican presidential candidate debates is the discussion of drone warfare, or rather the fact that it is not being discussed at all except to approve of the practice. Only Congressman Ron Paul has disagreed. There is clearly an underlying assumption, shared by Republican and Democrat alike, that the United States has the freedom to use its high tech armed forces to attack anywhere and at any time whenever there is any perception of an emerging threat. That assumption challenges efforts made over the past hundred years to make wars less frequent and more humane and it creates a new principal of world disorder in which the United States is judge, jury, and executioner whenever a foreign nation, group, or individual steps out of line. It is not a development that anyone should necessarily welcome.