'Messengers of Death': Are Drones Creating a New Global Arms Race?

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But he dreads a world with a lot of fighter drones and few rules, and believes the US is setting a bad example with its remote-controlled executions. "How are we supposed to put up protest when Russia, for example, buys these aircraft to carry out targeted assassinations of alleged terrorists in Chechnya? Or Turkey to do the same with PKK representatives in Iraq? Or China with insurgents within the country?" Ignatius asks. He writes, "A world where drones are constantly buzzing overhead ... risks being, even more, a world of lawlessness and chaos."

Another detraction is that these precision weapons are not effective for use against large military forces. But they're very well suited for so-called surgical strikes, even in high-population areas. This means civilians will suffer in future drone wars, as they already do in Pakistan.

Peter Bergen, an American expert on terrorism, has calculated that drones in Pakistan kill seven times as many low-level followers as top terrorists. According to estimates, 20 percent of those killed are civilians, despite the precision of the remote controls.

However, for Obama drones are the miracle weapons that will allow him to bomb his way to victory in the "War on Terror," a victory his predecessor never achieved. America could become "addicted to drones," Ignatius fears -- and then be left wondering as both exports and competitors' business take off.

American's enemies, be they nations or terrorists, will eventually possess these weapons too. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has referred to his country's first domestically built drone model as "messengers of death," although experts doubt the drone's capabilities.

"Our next great challenge is to deal with the fact that our enemies also have this technology at their disposal," says Deptula, the former Air Force general.

Clear international conventions could help to regulate the use of drones, but the Obama administration is digging in behind legal guidelines established by George W. Bush, which say that those responsible for terrorists attacks may be hunted anywhere, in any manner, with the president deriving the right to use drones from the obligation for self-defense.

A Divide in Thinking

But even for some within the Obama administration, this justification has grown too thin to hold up to the current volume of drone strikes. This September saw an open disagreement between the US State Department, which wanted to allow drone strikes only to counter direct, imminent terrorist attacks, and hawks within the Pentagon, who wanted to keep all options open, everywhere.

Obama's top anti-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, made a trip to Harvard University's renowned Law School to deliver an address on the legal principles behind the war against terrorism, a speech that lent support to the hardliners. According to Brennan, drone strikes against terrorists are also allowed in regions such as Yemen or Somalia, which are not in a state of war as Afghanistan is, but where he says al-Qaida supporters hide out to plan further attacks on the US.

This line of argument has raised concerns even among some Republicans. Presidential candidate Ron Paul wondered whether it might lead to "a precedent of an American president assassinating people who he thinks are bad." Other drone detractors talk of "extrajudicial murder."

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