U.S. President Barack Obama has been making the case that it is incumbent upon the U.S. to use military force against Syria, if necessary, to uphold international norms that draw the line on the use of chemical weapons.

But for many Americans - not to mention many people around the world — the U.S. has itself crossed the line and broken with international norms through its use of drones. 

Where George W. Bush approved 50 drone strikes during his eight years as president, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Obama has authorized more than 400 such attacks, primarily in Pakistan and Yemen. 

Sunday Edition

This week on CBC radio's The Sunday Edition:

  • Myths about policing: Policing is not one of the most dangerous occupations, police don’t have sufficient training for crises, and they must submit to civilian oversight.
  • Ann Dowsett Johnston: The author and journalist talks about her battle with addiction, and the growing issue of alcoholism among women worldwide.

Tune in to the CBC Radio broadcast at 9 a.m. ET on Sunday, Sept. 22, or visit The Sunday Edition's website to listen to them online.

By some counts, more than 3,000 leaders and members of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other jihadist organizations have been killed by drones – many of them through the controversial practice of targeted killings.

Drone strikes have been a deeply polarizing issue. Proponents say drone technology enables an unprecedented level of precision and that they’re the best counterterrorism tool the U.S. has. Critics, such as the journalist Jeremy Scahill, argue that drones amount to mass murder or war crimes and that they’re on very shaky ground under international law. 

Opponents point to incidents in which drones mistakenly killed entire families, as well as other civilian casualties that resulted from errant strikes or faulty intelligence.

Debate over drones 'ill-informed'

But according to Mark Bowden, the best-selling author of such books as Black Hawk Down and The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, the debate over drones is largely “ill-informed.” Bowden recently wrote a lengthy article on drone warfare, and the ethical issues arising from it, in The Atlantic Magazine.

“I think at the heart of that debate is the question of whether the United States is at war or ought to be at war,” Bowden told Michael Enright, the host of CBC Radio One’s The Sunday Edition. “If you feel that somehow war against al-Qaeda is not justified, then obviously, you’re not going to warm to the idea of striking them with drones.

“If you think the United States ought to be at war with al-Qaeda, I think you are delighted that we have a weapon that will seek out these folks that are planning acts of mass murder and will kill them.”

To the Obama administration, one of the selling features is the fact that they’re relatively inexpensive and can be operated by remote control from thousands of miles away, without putting American troops in harm’s way.

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By some counts, more than 3,000 leaders and members of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other jihadist organizations have been killed by drones – many of them through the controversial practice of targeted killings. (Reuters)

The power that drones have given the U.S. to kill its enemies with apparent impunity is deeply unsettling to many and has engendered a good deal of resentment globally, but Bowden also points out that the precision of drone strikes allows the U.S. to minimize civilian casualties.

“Once you’ve made the decision to go to war, the drone is an ideal tool for a variety of reasons, one being that you don’t place any of your own people at risk, which is a clear positive.

“And secondly, it is something that enables the United States to fight much more in line with the ethics of warfare, which call for discrimination and proportionality. I think drones allow a far higher degree of discrimination and a far more proportional method of striking than any previous military tool.”

You can hear Mark Bowden’s full conversation with Michael Enright this weekend on The Sunday Edition, airing on CBC Radio One at 9:05 a.m. on Sept. 22, or in the audio link at the top of this page titled The Moral Stain Of Drones.