A Source of Our Strength

The Obama Administration’s Drone Program as a Case of Ontological Security


  • Nicholas Millot Carleton University




Eighteen years after the first American drone strike, the US drone program now operates in a record-setting number of countries across the Middle East and Africa. This paper examines the Obama administration’s expansion of the US drone program through the lens of Ontological Security Theory, wherein states fulfill their need for security as a sense of being by engaging in uncertainty-reducing and identity-building international relationships, including dilemmatic conflicts. This paper argues that President Obama and his administration failed to adequately address the drone program’s domestic, constitutional, and international legal brokenness due to an ontological attachment to the morality behind the conduct of drone operations. In their public statements, administration officials rationalized the program as a medical tool eliminating “the cancerous tumor called an al Qaida terrorist” and presented drones as a morally superior alternative to the use of torture and of indefinite detention in Guantanamo Bay. As such, the Obama-era drone program existed both as an uncertainty reduction routine vis a vis the dilemmatic conflict of terrorism, as well as a reflexive, identity-building international relationship that established the program as a key element of the ‘forever war’ against al-Qaeda and set the stage for Trump-era program expansion. As this expansion proceeds, the program will only become further at odds with America’s long-term rational interests.