The “Predator War” and Self-Defense

There is a body of opinion which holds that the use of new war-fighting technology is illegal and tantamount to murder. Those who hold that opinion have particular reference to the Predator drone, which the U.S. has used to some effect in the Middle East. The position of the nay-sayers permeates a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer, entitled “The Predator War.” By the standards of Mayer and the anti-predator critics upon whom she leans heavily, David (of “David and Goliath”) and the English longbowmen at Agincourt were war criminals, just because they used superior technology to defeat their enemies. This pseudo-legal nonsense is merely a pretext for anti-American Americans, and others, to find fault with the United States.

The correct view of this matter is taken by Kenneth Anderson here, here, here, and here. In the fourth-linked item, Anderson outlines the legal position that the U.S. government should take (but has not):

  • Targeted killings of terrorists, including by Predators and even when  the targets are American citizens, are a lawful practice;
  • Use of force is justified against terrorists anywhere they set up safe havens, including in states that cannot or will not prevent them;
  • These operations may be covert—and they are as justifiable when the CIA is tasked to carry them out secretly as when the military does so in open armed conflict.
  • All of the above fall within the traditional American legal view of “self-defense” in international law, and “vital national security interests” in U.S. domestic law.


The U.S. government should . . . defend what its officers in fact believe to be the case—that targeted killing from drone platforms is not merely a question of hard-edged military necessity, but is also a humanitarian step forward in technology. The president believes that and so does the vice president, and they are correct. These technologies are lessening, not increasing, civilian damage, are being applied in ways (because it is killing that is, indeed, targeted) that lessen collateral damage from what it would otherwise be in traditional war. The U.S. government should react with outrage to the charge, implied or express, of American cowardice or some abstract increased propensity to violence on account of drone strikes, and assert its humanitarian moral ground.

For that matter, hostile journalists ought to be pressed to explain why drone attacks are significantly different from missiles fired from aircraft or offshore naval vessels​—save for the vastly greater ability to monitor the circumstances of firing through sensor technologies. Senior officials believe that drone warfare allows the United States to take far greater measure and care with collateral damage than it can using either conventional war or attack teams on the ground. The U.S. government should say so, rather than simply falling back on narrow arguments of military necessity, operational convenience, and force protection, while ceding the moral high ground to the international soft-law community.