Beloit professor explores issue of U.S. drone strikes

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Anna Marie Lux
Monday, January 20, 2014

BELOIT--Missiles fired by a U.S. drone slammed into a group of vehicles traveling to a wedding party in Yemen last month.

A U.S. official said the intended targets were al Qaeda militants, and up to 14 were killed.

It was unclear whether any militants were traveling with the wedding convoy, the Associated Press reported.

But the incident is one of the most recent to raise questions about U.S. drone strikes.

Beth Dougherty of Beloit College wants to raise awareness about the issue.

The professor of political science will talk about the use of drones for targeted killing in a public talk Wednesday on the Beloit College campus.

“The U.S. argues that drone strikes are the most effective counter-terrorism tool that we have,” she said. “I'll be looking at the different pieces of that argument and evaluating them.”

Dougherty teaches courses in international politics, including Middle Eastern politics, human rights and U.S. foreign policy.

“The most important claim about drones is that they kill terrorists and minimize civilian casualties,” Dougherty said. “But it's difficult to evaluate the claim. One of the biggest problems about drone strikes is that we don't have good information about who is killed.”

In the aftermath of a drone strike, normally the press or the U.S. military would report on the outcome.

But many strikes occur in remote areas where there is no press coverage or no U.S. military.

“What you get are two conflicting claims,” Dougherty said. “The U.S. argues that drones are very precise, and we are only killing terrorists. The other side says civilians are killed. A respected human rights organization released a report two months ago saying scores of civilians have died in drone strikes.”

Dougherty referred to a Human Rights Watch report, released in October.

Prior to the attacks of Sept. 11, the United States opposed the use of drones for targeted killing.

“But after 9/11, the government embraced the idea,” Dougherty said. “Later, (former President George W.) Bush ordered the arming of drones. The use of armed drones is a direct result of the 9/11 attack.”

President Obama continues to use armed drones.

“It is not a partisan question,” Dougherty said. “Both administrations have used the same arguments and the same tools against terrorism. There's the whole question of whether the U.S. is killing civilians without cause.”

Civilian deaths have bred resentment, sometimes undermining U.S. efforts to turn the public against the militants, she said.

“It clearly has increased anti-American sentiment overseas,” she said, “particularly in places that we consider important in terms of battling radicalism, including Pakistan and Yemen. In the long run, the use of drones may be a counterproductive strategy.”

Dougherty said the United States is setting precedent for future use.

“What rules do we want China or Russia to follow, for example, when they have drones?” she asked. “What if China started using drones to take out the leadership of the Tibetan freedom movement in exile?”

Lack of information makes it hard to evaluate the drone program, she said.

“We do not know how many drone strikes have been carried out or how many citizens have been killed,” Dougherty said. “The administration is operating at an extraordinary degree of secrecy. The question is: Do we want the executive to carry out targeted killings with no oversight and no public scrutiny?”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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