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The Biopolitics of Asymmetry: Interrogating the Humanity of Drone Warfare

An earlier version of the following paper was presented at the 2017 Telos Conference, held on January 14–15, 2017, in New York City. For additional details about the conference as well as other upcoming events, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

In response to a speech given by Obama in 2013 on his administration’s counterterrorism policy, popularly referred to as his “drone speech,” General William Nash commented that Obama “has begun the transition from a perpetual war to a more normalized security framework.”[1] I address this normalization of the categorization and control of life within a global threatscape. Much of the debate at policy level, in academia, and on the flickering screens of media outlets surrounding the contemporary fixture of the counterterror arsenal, the drone, focuses upon the legal and ethical implications. Administration officials continually stress the need for “transparency” and the president’s wish that the United States hold itself to “the highest possible standards” in the conduct of a just, humanitarian war—reminding us this is indeed a war, against an organization and its affiliates.[2] A war that demands secrecy, resilience, determination, and principles to win. Beyond the moralistic musings of the liberal conscience, Michael Dillon and Julian Reid point to an analysis of the martial activity of liberalism as exposing the distinct liberal power relations of biopolitics, founded in belligerence.[3] Considered the humanitarian and surgical weapon of asymmetry par excellence by advocates of drone warfare, this paper unsettles such claims, exploring the biopoliticization of U.S. (inter)national security. I argue that the supposed humanity of the drone is dependent upon the dehumanization and depoliticization of those deemed (potentially) threatening to the liberal way of life. I begin by discussing drones as a tool of a warfare with a global reach that seeks to regulate and control life.

While the logic of the liberal subject living in expansive peaceful cohabitation has deep historical roots, it is not until the 1990s that what Brad Evans describes as a “global imaginary of threat”—correlating liberalism with peace and security—could be applied to human as species. However, this moment of liberal expansion was not a Fukuyamian inevitability but, rather, intervention in local emergencies that threatened to spill outside of the bounded state and disrupt order elsewhere.[4] In the age of the drone, the practices of targeted killing are conceived in response to transnational terror networks. In the aforementioned drone speech, Obama warned “from Yemen to Iraq, from Somalia to North Africa, the threat today is more diffuse.”[5] Such an expansion of the sites of disorder sets the stage for an escalation in legitimate sites of military force. The general surveillance and targeted violence is sustained by an “expanding geography of drone bases” in and around what are termed in the National Security Strategy of 2015 as “areas of instability, limited opportunity, and broken governance.”[6] The functioning transnational regime of truth—disorder emanating from backward, non-liberal spaces—sustains the normalized exception of U.S. counterterrorism in a maximalist vision of security.

The practices of the contemporary drone war reproduce the (in)securitizing logics of biopolitics that sustain liberal rule. Foucault identifies biopolitics as a technology of power focused upon the fostering of life.[7] Distinct from discipline, which controls and—if necessary—punishes the individual to create “docile bodies,” biopolitics has a different referent object and operates on a different temporal plane. Biopolitics is directed toward man-as-species, as a biologized, regularized, measured, and managed “unitary living plurality.”[8] Bearing in mind this idea of a normalized security framework, Foucault spoke of the unprecedented violence of the wars of the twentieth century; having shifted from the defense of the sovereign, these wars are “waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity: massacres have become vital.”[9] Securing the whole from internal dangers, war regulates life.

With the advent of drone technology, the mobilization of massacre no longer demands the expenditure of life on both sides. The deadly defense of existence can be done remotely. In his philosophical analysis Drone Theory, Gregoire Chamayou explores the implications upon the law and philosophy of war minus the relation of reciprocity. Constructing a riskless warfare, placing the invulnerability of one’s soldiers as moral norm, depoliticizes the conflict in criminalizing the enemy, ultimately conducting a police action.[10] The civilians in question, to be defended by humanitarian force, are not afforded the immunity reserved for the righteous combatants—the U.S. pilots.

The legitimation of drone warfare is intimately related to the reconception of the international in terms of humanity, which suggests the transcendence of the state for the legitimate, liberal governance: a cosmopolitan ideal whereby liberal war is in service of security and eventual peace. The referenced failure of the inter-state system at specific pressure points—those governments that cannot or will not deal with threats—demands pacification to restore global order. Vivienne Jabri conceives of a matrix of war regulating populations and their relations on a global scale. This peace as coded war promotes a specific conception of life at the center of interconnected practices from war and military operations other than, to renditions and drones.[11] Invocations of humanity in the conduct of these operations rely upon the notion of the inhuman, of the barbarous.

Race enables the caesura in the species life of the population whose survival is at the center of straggles of security. Foucault interrogated the wars of formation of the modern nation state as race wars—the struggles of different peoples to rule—and this racism functions in the unifying, totalizing discourse of the state as that of the true, secure, race in power who define the norm.[12] Racism hinges the relations of war and biopolitics, whereby the death of the enemy, the abnormal, the threat, strengthens your life: “In a normalizing society, race or racism is the precondition that makes killing acceptable.”[13] Survival, the violence carried out in the name of life necessity, is enabled through the sacrifice of the Other. I will now briefly sketch out how the practices of biopolitics function within this global security problematic.

In unmistakably biopolitical language, and referring to the precision so often called upon, John Brennan celebrated the use of the drone as “essential” due to “surgical precision,” able to eliminate the “cancerous tumor” while “limiting damage to the tissue around it.”[14] How are these tumors, so expertly removed, identified in the first place? The Obama administration has bureaucratized and normalized the identification and rooting out of targets in both personality and signature strikes. The disposition matrix, popularly referred to as the “Kill List,” is a database of suspected enemies to the United States established in 2010 and designed as a permanent feature of national security.[15] The reduction of life to data is ever more stark in a practice that has been the cornerstone of Obama’s counterterrorism agenda, “signature strikes.” Individuals or groups, often defined merely as “unknown extremists,” are surveilled in “ungoverned spaces” and catalogued in a “pattern of life” analysis. “Dangerous” or “suspicious” patterns are determined according to “defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity,” that have never been publicly disclosed.[16] Beyond the targeting of identified, specific targets, signature strikes regulate the mass on the basis of signals and patterns. Not only a geographically amorphous weapon of war then, but also temporally. The threat assessment and targeting of bodies or groups is predicated upon a potential, future threat.

A pre-emptive biopolitics that is founded upon a presumptive imminent threat reconfigures war in a globalized drone conflict against a transnational network of “affiliates.” In the pursuit of preserving human life, life must be secured and controlled. That threatening life emerging from within must be disavowed of its humanness, becoming the inhuman, stripped of rights as a dangerous potential. Those populations within which such aberrations hide must undergo constant processes of securitization and surveillance. Chamayou refutes the so-called “humanitarian weapon”:

Beneath the mirages of militarized ethics and state lies, this is the assuredly humanitarian and ethical principle of drones: the targets are presumed guilty until they are proved innocent—which, however, can only be done posthumously.[17]

This non-life can only be redeemed after the fact of living. The individual bodies contributing to the mass of population being surveilled are completely stripped of their identity, reduced to patterns. They are vessels of information from which to judge the norm.

In a 1988 essay, Edward Said fleshed out the concept of the “essential terrorist.” The exclusionary limits placed around “humanity” are highlighted as the “spurious excuse of ‘fighting terrorism’ serves to legitimize” myriad state sanctioned sins. The production of the cultural image of an essential terrorist sweeps aside “our” violence in “the righteous enthusiasm for deploring Arab, Moslem and nonwhite ‘terrorism.'”[18] The discourse of legality and ethicality that dominates considerations of drone warfare rests upon an asymmetrical assessment of life. The life-to-be-secured, under constant, existential threat from those remnants of the backward, illiberal world, demands a transnational pacification force. While targeted killing is not a new tactic, dronification reflects a transformed national security strategy, a normalized security project.


1. Nash quoted in Tom McCarthy, “Obama speech: ‘Perpetual war will prove self-defeating’ – as it happened,” Guardian, May 23, 2013.

2. For examples see Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at the National Defense University,” May 23, 2013; and John Brennan, “The Ethics and Efficacy of the President’s Counterterrorism Strategy,” Council on Foreign Relations, April 30, 2012.

3. Michael Dillon and Julian Reid, The Liberal Way of War: Killing to Make Life Live (London: Routledge, 2009)

4. Brad Evans, Liberal Terror (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013) p. 61.

5. Obama, “Remarks by the President at the National Defense University.” See further Derek Gregory’s work on the “everywhere war,” theorized as a conflict characterized by transnational, asymmetrical violence in the global borderlands: “The Everywhere War,” Geographical Journal 177, no. 3 (September 2011): 238–50.

6. “National Security Strategy 2015,” February 2015, p. 9.

7. Michel Foucault, The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, trans. Robert Hurley (London: Penguin Books, 1998) pp. 135–59.

8. Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College de France 1975–76, trans. Macey (London: Penguin Books, 2004) pp. 242–45.

9. Foucault, The Will to Knowledge, p. 137.

10. Gregoire Chamayou, Drone Theory, trans. Janet Lloyd (London: Penguin Books, 2015) pp. 163–65.

11. Vivienne Jabri, War and the Transformation of Global Politics (Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010) pp. 56–59. Further, throughout the lecture series Society Must Be Defended, Foucault explores war as the foundational and organizing principle of liberal power relations.

12. For an exploration and summary of war, and specifically race war, as generative of modern power relations in Foucault’s thought, see Julian Reid, “Life Struggles: War, Discipline and Biopolitics in the Thought of Michel Foucault,” in Foucault on Politics, Security and War, ed. Michael Dillon and Andrew W. Neal (Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011) pp.79–91.

13. Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, p. 256.

14. Brennan, “Ethics and Efficacy of Counterterrorism Strategy.”

15. See the report by Greg Miller, “Plan for Hunting Terrorists Signals U.S. Intends to Keep Adding Names to Kill Lists,” Washington Post, October 23, 2012.

16. International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic (Stanford Law School), Global Justice Clinic (NYU School of Law), “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan” (December 2012) p. 12.

17. Chamayou, Drone Theory, p. 146.

18. Edward Said, “The Essential Terrorist,” in Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question, ed. Said, Hitchens (London: Verso, 2001) pp. 154–56.

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