3 Ways Obama Could Improve Drone Policy

These steps would make drone use more transparent.


It's time to build a better drone policy.


January 23 marked the five-year anniversary of President Barack Obama’s first ordered drone strike, a phenomenon that has since become a lightning rod for the administration. No doubt, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, has allowed the United States to “carry a big stick,” thus making them attractive to military and political planners alike. Drones give unprecedented access to hard to reach regions, cost very little to operate and don’t directly risk American lives. The policies behind their use, though, have failed to keep pace with the technology that drives them.

Here are three steps the administration can take to help clarify when and where the use of UAVs makes sense. These steps would likely result in greater transparency, fewer civilian casualties and, to some extent, tone down the controversy surrounding their use.

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

1.) Clarify drone strategy: As Obama noted in his May 2013 speech on U.S. drone policy, “the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it.” These abuses have been perpetuated by an ad hoc drone strategy. Any strategy should take into account civilian deaths, adding congressional oversight and a stricter set of standards for executing strikes.

In terms of civilian casualties, one U.N. official recently estimated 400 civilians and another 200 possible “noncombatants” have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan. Others, such as the New American Foundation and Bureau of Investigative Journalism, have lower estimates, but still in the triple digits. (Meanwhile, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., claims fewer than 10 civilians are killed each year by drones.)

The degree to which drone use falls under the control of the Central Intelligence Agency has impeded congressional oversight. It's hard for the government to regulate something it can't officially or legally acknowledge exists. In May 2013 Obama promised to shift drone operations to the Defense Department to encourage oversight. However, a classified addendum to a 2014 $1.1 trillion dollar budget plan restricted using funds to move the program from Langley to the Pentagon.

A stricter set of procedures to govern drone strikes would both increase accountability and set limits on the program’s operations. In declared combat zones like Afghanistan or Iraq drones fall under “well-established rules of engagement and chain of command.” Outside of declared combat zones, however, rules of engagement and the chain of command are not explicit.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

2.) Discuss policies, not tools: While drones may be an easy-to-swallow weapon for a war-weary public, they do not exist in a policy vacuum.

The open-ended legal framework for counterterrorism activities implemented during the Bush administration beginning in 2001 and inherited by the Obama administration has allowed the current drone program to be nurtured by and in secrecy.

The geographically “boundless” nature of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (or AUMF), a loose definition of “imminent threat” and the Bush administration’s declaration of a global war on terror have enshrined themselves into U.S. drone policy. As the Washington Post noted, one of the first questions routinely asked in counterterrorism operations today is if “a proposed target is ‘AUMF-able.’”

The Obama administration has tried to set an official drone policy, signaling an attempt to institutionalize, not do away with, targeted killings. Obama has put himself at the head of the “nomination” process, which determines whether targets are captured or killed. These “kill lists” became the base for the administration’s “disposition matrix,” a more sophisticated database of terrorist targets. In May 2013 the president published the White House’s standards for lethal force, which identified five criteria that must be met before lethal action can be taken.

However, these policies do nothing to move away from a perpetual war on terror; indeed, they seem to assume that drone strikes will continue. Yet this is at odds with Obama's ostensible desire to avoid falling into the pit of an unending war. Questions about the “video game-ification” of war must be secondary to getting the policy right.

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

3.) Realize we’ve been here before: In the "Great Decisions" 2014 briefing book, the Brookings Institution’s Peter Singer cites a quote attributed to Mark Twain — “History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.” Rhyme it does: The shift from ground to aerial warfare — and later the rise of intercontinental ballistic missile technology — gave rise to concerns similar to those surrounding drones regarding the destructive power of the state and the widening distance between two warring powers.

One of the favored answers to any security threat has been the development and acquisition of more technology, which is exemplified in the developments of the 20th century. For World War I, this meant a race for the best warships, the rise of tanks and the beginning of air war. World War II secured the shift from ground to aerial warfare — and later the rise of intercontinental ballistic missile technology. The need to retain an upper hand during the Cold War drove this technological boom, and the need to retain a gargantuan Defense Department became increasingly important after the collapse of the USSR in order to retain military prowess and economic superiority.

The wake of 9/11 has seen another arms race, but with a twist. Previously, arms races were attempts to counter the (real or perceived) threat posed by rival nation-states' conventional military might. Terrorism flips that logic on its head. Instead of vainly attempting to match American military hardware with their own, terrorist networks use asymmetrical methods to render traditional military superiority useless. But this time, instead of nuclear warheads, the race was on for 87-plus countries to develop sophisticated weaponry to target a more hidden, illusive enemy.