On Aug. 21, it was reported that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces may have used chemical weapons in Damascus, killing 1,300 people, many of whom were civilians. The death of so many all at once, even in a war that according to the U.N. has killed at least 90,000, is as tragic as it is repulsive to our sense of justice: How could a man whose titular mandate is to protect his country slaughter his own people with such impunity?
On Aug. 18, reports came out of Yemen that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, have killed 40 people in the country in the past three weeks. In the wake of President Barack Obama’s recent speech, which claims that his administration would be more discriminating when carrying out drone strikes, doesn’t the death of 40 people in three weeks prove that his rhetoric of restraint was an empty promise?
More worryingly, don’t the deaths of Anwar al-Awlaki and his son (both of whom were American citizens) set a dangerous precedent? Could drones be obliterating Americans on American soil before receiving their Fourth Amendment-mandated day in court? Drones, it seems, are an affront to our sense of patriotism and our sense of honor. They are maybe even counterproductive to the prosecution of the War on Terror; drone strikes reportedly provide fodder for those looking to recruit for al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations.
In both cases, as is so often true, dichotomy is dangerous. The use of UAVs has been subject to a more nuanced debate than has al-Assad, though revelations of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance may make us yet more wary about the government’s potential to abuse power, lethal or non-lethal. Assad, though, has been cast as a monster. And it’s true: The man, like his father, is a ruthless autocrat committed to preserving his power at any cost. To do that, he has killed tens of thousands and should be condemned for doing so.
But in both cases, insufficient attention has been paid to the other side. Assad is not a good man, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the opposition is not some paragon of democracy. The al-Nusra Front, now the most powerful rebel faction, flies the Islamic flag and has pledged its allegiance to al-Qaida. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), another powerful rebel faction, is also committed to al-Qaida and the implementation of Sharia Law in Syria. Even the Free Syrian Army, a group that started out as secular, is now dominated by fundamentalists.
Say what you will about Assad, but under him Shiites, Muslims and Christians lived side by side in relative peace. So too, women enjoyed rights afforded to them precious elsewhere in the Middle East. Assad was no liberal, and the rights he doled out were nothing more than largesse to buy acquiescence, but next to al-Nusra and ISIS he seems almost tolerant. Looking at Libya, Egypt or Iraq, it should be obvious that punting one bad man out of power is hardly a panacea, and in fact more die in the ensuing chaos than under dictatorial rule.
Turning back to UAVs, what should be at the forefront of our minds is not whether drones will start raining down missiles in New York or Boston. Instead, what we should be asking ourselves is: Does a drone do a better job, all things considered, than a ground invasion in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia or Afghanistan would? The answer is an obvious, resounding “yes.” Drones cost nothing compared to fighter jets, tanks and troops. In human costs, both civilian deaths and the deaths of our own soldiers are far lower than they would be in a ground invasion.
And regardless of whether the drone is a useful symbol of American imperialism for terrorist recruiters, you’d better believe that there is no shortage of people in the world who hate America and want to harm it. Drones’ efficacy for recruiting is marginal — what’s 100 more recruits to a cause that already has hundreds of thousands?
It is, of course, impossible to know the counterfactual. But looking at the Middle Eastern countries now absent of any rule, and looking at the toll a decade of war took on American lives, it’s safe to take a guess.