U.S. drone policy has become a controversial and oft-debated issue among the American foreign policy establishment. While it’s an issue that has not received much public attention, I think that is merely indicative of the electorate’s general lack of interest in foreign policy. In public policy circles, though, the debate has been fierce, and each side has very serious and well-educated people supporting them. The pro-drone side, supported by military figures and liberal internationalists, argues that drones are a relatively cheap and efficient system to combat extremists. Proponents argue that the relatively light footprint of drones coupled with their extended loiter time makes them an important tool in the American foreign policy toolkit. Detractors, like Michael Zenko, argue that drones lead to radicalization and backlash among populations subject to constant bombing. Moreover, they argue that the near limitless use of drones is generating a dangerous and unregulated drone arms race.
The Stimpson Center recently issued a “Report Card” on American drone policy and unsurprisingly gave the U.S. an F. I say unsurprisingly because the report was less transparent than the drone program it criticizes. Yes, in case you can’t tell, I am in favor of drone strikes. The reason I support them is threefold. First, drones have unprecedented capabilities. They can loiter in areas for many hours, gathering intelligence and waiting to strike at the correct moment. This grants the U.S. a major tactical advantage, especially when one considers how dispersed and hidden the terrorist and insurgent networks have become. Second, it is relatively risk-free. Most drone pilots are sitting safely in Missouri while their aircraft fly over hostile territory. While losing a drone is an economic burden, at least it doesn’t cost American lives. Third, drones work. Don’t believe me? Ask Osama Bin Laden, a man whose organization has been on the receiving end of American drone strikes for years. After the raid on his compound in Pakistan, American special operators captured documents in which Bin Laden admitted that the American drone program was “the most effective US weapon” against his organization.
Of course, there are serious questions about how many innocents are killed by American drones. Fortunately, most evidence seems to support the idea that the U.S. has become increasingly discriminate in its use of force, at least regarding drone strikes. For example, in 2006, of the 105 people killed by U.S. drones, 100 of them are believed to have been innocent civilians. That is, 95.2% of drone casualties in 2006 were victims, not terrorists. However, since 2012, of the 886 drone casualties in Pakistan, only 74 were civilians. 8.6% is still far more than I would like, but it is also significantly better than 95%, indicating that the legal and targeting procedures used by American policymakers and generals have evolved and matured. Of course, I’m worried about some of the things that politicians like Ted Cruz have said about “getting the lawyers off our soldiers backs” because I think the military, just like every other government agency, requires oversight. Nevertheless, I think that the legal component of the drone program has enough institutional inertia to prevent indiscriminate killing.
I’m also unconvinced that drone strikes lead to a significant backlash against the U.S., at least when compared to other options. While I’m willing to concede that strikes probably don’t help the American image, that is probably true for any American intervention. Now, I’m on the record as saying that I think the U.S. intervenes too much in areas that are of little to no strategic importance. However, if we are going to intervene, drones seem like the best policy option because as much backlash and collateral damage as they might cause, it would pale in comparison to the issues caused by ground forces. In other words, drones might lead to some degree of resentment among local actors, but the alternative of “boots on the ground” is empirically far worse for the American image. Moreover, it is not even clear that drone strikes cause all that much backlash even in an absolute sense. While there is certainly evidence to suggest they do, there is also pretty compelling evidence that the studies linking drone strikes to anti-Americanism are overstated.
To be fair to detractors, there are serious concerns about the American drone program. Much of it is highly classified and opaque, preventing clear accountability and oversight. Moreover, U.S. drone policy is setting a dangerous precedent. After all, if it’s legally acceptable for the U.S. to be flying drones over sovereign countries without their knowledge or approval, what is to stop Russia or China from doing the same thing? Clearly, there needs to be more public and international debate about drone laws and regulations. Leaving it up to the morally questionable CIA and overly-centralized Obama administration is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if anything can be done about this for the foreseeable future simply because every presidential candidate in the mix right now will likely expand executive control over the drone program. Until the American public actually begins to care about foreign policy, the requisite oversight and scrutiny just won’t exist. Nevertheless, even with the program’s institutional flaws, if I had to pick between deploying U.S. soldiers and sending over a squadron of drones, I would choose drones every time.