Stuck Between a Rock, a Drone, and a Hard Place

Using drone strikes is a way to avoid outcomes for which Americans won't stand.

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A crew chief conducts a post flight inspection of a RQ-1 Predator drone at Balad Air Base, Iraq, Sept. 15, 2004.

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The debate over the use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles ("drones") in prosecuting the war against al-Qaeda and its affiliated movement continues to grow. While the use of these weapons began during the George W. Bush presidency, they have been employed dramatically more during Barack Obama's administration.

[See a collection of political cartoons on President Obama's drone policy.]

What explains this increased use? In today's New York Times Scott Shane writes:

This policy on targeted killing, according to experts on counterterrorism inside and outside the government, is shaped by several factors: the availability of a weapon that does not risk American casualties; the resistance of the authorities in Pakistan and Yemen to even brief incursions by American troops; and the decreasing urgency of interrogation at a time when the terrorist threat has diminished and the United States has deep intelligence on its enemies.

Though no official will publicly acknowledge it, the bottom line is clear: killing is more convenient than capture for both the United States and the foreign countries where the strikes occur.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

But such justifications aren't good enough for some. For instance, as Wake Forest University visiting professor of politics and international affairs Jack L. Amoureux wrote over at the Christian Science Monitor last week: 

The American public is not debating these issues and engaging in dialogue with those most affected by US drone policies. If Americans elicited those voices, we could ask: Are we creating acute conditions of insecurity in other countries when individuals constantly live in fear of death falling from the sky? Is it fair to search for security for ourselves at the expense of perpetual insecurity for others? Are drones really the best alternative for the welfare of everyone, both in the short term and long term?

While it is true that these strikes have caused the deaths of those beyond the targeted fighters (i.e., the antiseptic expression "collateral damage"), the numbers there do not support the claim of "perpetual insecurity of others," unless one includes the mid- to senior-level folks that are being targeted precisely because they have done bad things to get on the targeting list in the first place. After all, it is not like these armed drones are flying all over the entire Middle East randomly delivering death and destruction.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

Of course, it would be a mistake to too quickly dismiss all of the concerns over using drones. As the Naval Postgraduate School's Anna Simons has pointed out in a new monograph:

Intimidation has to be sustained to work. Yes, drones hover and then assassinate. But – because they go after individuals they don't sow generic fear. They don't make populations alter their behavior or shift their support from bad guys to good guys. In this sense, despite their technical wizardry, drones are actually less effective than IEDs when it comes to a population-centric impact. This is because drones, unlike IEDs, are supposed to be discriminate, and so they should cause no collateral damage. When they do, or when they kill the wrong (meaning innocent) people, our mistakes are immediately turned against us. Those whom we are targeting whip up public wrath. All sorts of other people try to take advantage, to include foreign governments which demand concessions. At the very least we end up hoisted on a variety of our own petards – since violating other countries' sovereignty in order to kill people against whom we have not declared war defies the essence of how we say "war among the people" should be fought: transparently, by earning trust, building relations, respecting our partners, etc.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Has Obama Gone Too Far With His Drone Policies?]

This creates somewhat of a strategic Hobson's choice. Either we don't use drone strikes and bad people do bad things to others and to us, or keep using the strikes and cause some good or neutral people to think that we are the bad guys. Absent the national will to do something more assertive, drones will continue to be used because no politician, even in a war weary 2013 America, wants to risk another large-scale terrorist strike happening in the United States.

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