In his recent speech, President Barack Obama set forth what he described as narrow, reasonable guidelines for using drones to carry out targeted killings overseas. The U.S., he said, will only use drone strikes "against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people." Moreover, the U.S. will only act when other governments are unwilling or unable to stop terrorists in their territories and we do not have the ability to capture them.
These guidelines still give the U.S. a self-granted license to use remote-controlled planes to kill people at its discretion around the world, and, worse, they further institutionalize this dangerous new type of warfare. To understand how dangerous it is, just consider what the world will be like when leaders of other nations adopt Mr. Obama's guidelines — as they surely will.
Consider, for instance, the Cuban case. Mr. Obama's guidelines would seem to give Havana abundant justification for sending killer drones to Florida. For decades, Cuban exile groups based in Florida have organized lethal attacks against Cuba with impunity. The U.S. has refused to prosecute members of these groups and has rejected Cuban requests for extradition. As a result, they continue to operate freely in Florida and continue to threaten Cuba.
The most prominent leader of these groups is Luis Posada Carriles. Mr. Posada worked for the CIA for many years; he helped organize the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and helped funnel arms to the Nicaraguan Contras. There is overwhelming evidence that he planned the bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner in 1976, which killed 73 people. He has admitted organizing the bombing of hotels and restaurants in Havana in 1997, in which an Italian tourist was killed and many others injured. In Panama in 2001, he was convicted of plotting to blow up an auditorium where Fidel Castro was to speak. After being pardoned by the Panamanian president, he returned to Miami, where he currently lives, a free man. Although the U.S. Justice Department has called Mr. Posada "an admitted mastermind of terrorist plots and attacks," U.S. authorities have failed to prosecute him for any of these crimes and have refused to extradite him to Cuba.
The crimes committed by Mr. Posada and his confederates constitute terrorism by any definition. There is little prospect of extradition, and it's not feasible for Cuban authorities to arrest them in Florida. So, according to Mr. Obama's reasoning, would the Cuban government be justified in sending drones to take out Mr. Posada and his friends in a Miami cafe? What's good for the goose should be good for the gander.
One might argue, using the logic of a bully, that Cuba would never dare attack the U.S., and that's probably true. But many countries will treat Mr. Obama's guidelines as an invitation. For now, only the U.S. and two close allies — the United Kingdom and Israel — conduct drone strikes. But this monopoly will not last. Scores of countries are rushing to add drones to their arsenals. This year, China (the third-largest producer of drones after the U.S. and Israel) pointedly announced that it had considered using drones to kill a fugitive Myanmar drug trafficker, held responsible for murdering 13 Chinese sailors, in the highland jungles of Laos (in the end China decided to capture him instead). The U.S. is not the only state that can identify enemies around the world who are a danger to national security. What happens when dozens of countries begin deploying drones in "self-defense"?
What is truly alarming about militarized drones is that they lower the threshold of war. The U.S. is leading the way to a new type of warfare in which the killing is done by remote control. When governments can dispatch robots rather than soldiers, it will be easier for political leaders — not only in Washington, but around the world — to go to war. The U.S. is setting up a global network of drone bases from which to launch strikes against suspected enemies. Looming on the horizon is an era of warfare without beginning or end and without defined battlefields. Will robotic weapons make the world a safer place? Not likely.
Many would argue that the genie is already out of the bottle and by now there is no way to stop the drone race. But we need not be so fatalistic. Chemical weapons were first used, to devastating effect, in World War I. Debate about these weapons began during the war, with many arguing they were so dangerous they should be outlawed, but it was 80 years before an international convention banning production of chemical weapons went into effect. That should also be our goal for robotic warfare.
Joel Andreas, an associate professor of sociology at the Johns Hopkins University, is author of the graphic novel "Addicted To War." His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.