The advocacy groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are accusing the administration of US President Barack Obama of possible war crimes for drone strike campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen. These charges won’t have much weight within the US — after all, even Hollywood now portrays the way America tortured detainees, and no one has been held to account.

But the reports presage what will probably become history’s verdict on drone strikes taking place off the battlefield in weak states: Bad for human rights, bad for the rule of law — and bad for US interests in the fight against terrorism.

Most of the blame for the adoption of drones as systematic policy will land, rightly, on policymakers. Largely civilian, but partly military, these officials considered drones a convenient and clean way of killing the enemy without endangering US troops. Enamoured of technology and of war from a distance, they failed to consider the consequences.

The deaths of innocent civilians mistakenly targeted are horrible, of course. But innocent civilians can also be mistakenly killed by manned aircraft, not to mention ground troops. The strategic error was failing to realise that drone strikes away from the battlefield would systematically alienate the populations in whose midst they occurred. Far from strengthening the governments of Pakistan and Yemen by killing terrorists, the strikes undercut the sovereignty of those already weak governments.

Even when strikes successfully targeted Al Qaida members or other terrorist groups, they reminded the local public that their governments weren’t actually sovereign in their own territory. A 2011 poll in Pakistan’s Waziristan region, financed by the British government, found 63 per cent of respondents saying the strikes were never justified.

This trend went directly contrary to the basic doctrine of counter-insurgency developed in the later Bush years, according to which the overarching goal is to strengthen the local government and win support from the population to defeat the insurgents.

Although the tactical appeal of drone strikes is significant, it doesn’t fully explain the Obama administration’s preference for them. Part of the policy choice resulted from the practical impossibility for the president of doing anything with Al Qaida-linked terrorists if they should be captured.

Having pledged to close the prison at Guantanamo during the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama could hardly add detainees there. But why had Obama come out against Guantanamo in the first place?

The answer had everything to do with legally inflected criticisms of detention as practised by the Bush administration. You remember the tune: There was no clear legal authority to hold detainees. Harsh interrogation tactics violated domestic and international law. Guantanamo itself was a legal black hole, chosen because it wasn’t inside the US, but also (according to the US) wasn’t under Cuban sovereignty because of a disputed 100-year-old treaty.

Then came the drones — and with them a series of legal justifications that arguably went much further than the Bush administration had gone in expanding executive power. One Justice Department memorandum, which has still outrageously not been released to the public, apparently justified the killing of US citizens by drone strikes in part through the argument that due process had been satisfied by internal deliberations within the executive branch.

If the reports are accurate, this amounts to the first time I know of in US tradition since the Magna Carta in 1215 that due process has been deemed satisfied without giving the victim of a government deprivation of life and liberty the opportunity to be heard by a neutral decision-maker.

The costs to the rule of law under this system match those of the Bush administration. And though the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports aren’t likely to go anywhere, it seems clear that the targeting and killing of civilians based on loose ‘signatures’ without detailed intelligence almost certainly violates the law of war.

Courtesy Washington Post.