A debate is raging about President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as the next United States Secretary of Defense. Behind this debate is another debate about the future role of the United States in the world. On the one hand, conservative critics are accusing Hagel of being reluctant to intervene militarily to protect Israel or to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. On the other hand, progressives are cheering the potential national security team of John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and John Brennan as being realistic about the limited possibilities for projecting U.S. power. Their preference for “light footprints” or “leading from behind” is seen in stark contrast to George W. Bush’s bellicose foreign policy.
The debate about military intervention has a very long history, recently brought to the fore in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali and potentially Syria. Whereas the United States seems less and less inclined to intervene militarily, it continues to be more than generous in providing weapons to allies or future allies. The U.S. provided material to the French during the Libyan intervention and has been said to indirectly supply opposition forces in Syria. While a policy of no indirect intervention has the advantage of not involving U.S. lives, it has certain unintended consequences that should not be ignored
There is, however, another debate that should be taking place. That debate would involve the implications of using new means of power projection. Instead of sending troops or material overseas, a new focus of defending the country has become drones and cyberwarfare.
Drones have become a crucial part of United States military hardware. Their primary advantage is that they put no American lives at risk. Often used for intelligence gathering in difficult to reach regions, they have frequently been used to fire on suspected terrorist leaders. Two criticisms of the use of drones have emerged. The first is that there has been considerable collateral damage. Targeting terrorists has led to civilian deaths which have inflamed local populations. While the military insists that civilian casualties have been reduced, the accuracy of drones remains suspect.
Moreover, and this critic needs further elucidation, the use of drones has for the moment been limited to the United States. Are we naïve enough to believe that other countries or groups will not have them in the future? And further, would it be legally defensible for a group to target a region in the U.S. in the name of self-defense if that region was the site of drone command and control?
The same self-defense argument could be used in terms of cyberwarfare. The advantage of cyberwarfare, obviously, is that it does not directly involve human lives. It has been rumored to have been used to slow down Iran’s nuclear weapons program. But, what would happen if a hostile group were to use cyberwarfare against the West? Can we imagine electricity being crippled in Europe? Are there any rules for cyberwarfare? The Geneva Conventions were developed as the normative laws for war beginning in the 19th century. Are there any rules for modern cyberwarfare? Or for drones? International humanitarian law has not kept pace with the military.
The old saying goes that generals are always preparing for the last war. Drones and cyberwarfare are part of a technological evolution. For the moment, there seems to be a monopoly of this technology in the hands of the United States and perhaps its allies. While the West has for the moment technological advantages with drones and cyberwarfare, people should also be thinking about the consequences of their use by others, thinking about unintended consequences, and thinking about how to limit their use in the future. To paraphrase the expression for consumers: Let the user beware!