The old saw that the road to hell is paved with good intentions could be altered to suggest that the road is paved or at least signed with rhetoric. I have been having a Twitter DM chat with someone about the drone war and pondering how it is distinct from Assad's massacres. It started with a joke about the massacres being defined away if Assad made it clear that all of the targets were males of military age, referring to the Obama standards for the drone campaign.
My responses to this were: oy! um! yuck. I have had a bunch of drone conversations in the past few days. My basic take is that I see drones like any weapon system as a tool that can be handy but is not useful for everything. I am not opposed to using force to kill people who are seeking to kill Americans and allies of Americans. But I do think we need to think about the consequences. Drones should not be used nor air strikes from F-15s or whatever for ordinary targets in sovereign countries (different rules for operating in a war). The strange thing about the American drone wars in Yemen and Afghanistan is that we seem to be either finding a heap of top level folks, given the number of strikes, or we are targeting mid-level folks. And mid-level folks are not that hard to replace, so it is not clear what such strikes accomplish given that the costs, especially the side effects down the road or beyond the event are hard to calculate. So, I basically favor a very limited, very discriminate drone campaign, and I don't exclude hitting Americans who are based abroad if they are major players in terrorism against the US.
Back to the original question, how does the US distinguish itself from Syria these days? My twitter answer was: intent and scale. I do think intent matters, and I do think that trying to attack only those who are planning to use violence against you is superior to attacking civilians who are protesting your regime. I also think that scale matters: that drone strikes, even with civilian casualties, cause far less harm than Assad's assaults. On the other hand, the US did a heap of damage to Iraq's civilians through its bungled war and its bungled occupation. There is much controversy over the exact numbers--tens of thousands versus hundreds of thousands--but no doubt that the US did a heap of harm there. Of course, people can say that Saddam Hussein did worse and would have done more, but that does not address the reality that the US could have done far better if it had executed the bad decisions well.
Anyhow, it is a gray world out there, but some folks very much wear black hats while the folks who think they are wearing the white hats need to be far more careful and judicious in how they deploy the use of force. The Bin Laden mission, aside from the unfortunate Polio doctor escapade, was pretty close to perfect in terms of the discriminate use of force. If only we were as careful the rest of the time.