For a country exhausted after more than a decade of war, remote-controlled drones—unmanned machines that deliver swift death to terrorists—are undeniably tempting. President Obama has ordered hundreds of strikes on “high-value,” as well as medium- and low-value, targets in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The administration says these killings have decimated al-Qaeda’s top ranks and done significant damage to the Taliban but refuses to say much more. Obama has yet to explain the basics of the broader policy: how decisions are made to send drones across sovereign borders; how officials determine a target is dangerous enough to merit assassination; what oversight is in place; and what is done to limit civilian casualties.
That wall of silence is starting to erode. Squeezed by news leaks leading up to the confirmation hearing for John Brennan, Obama’s choice to head up the CIA, the White House agreed to share with Congress a classified memo explaining the legal justification for targeting U.S. citizens abroad who are members of al-Qaeda. In his State of the Union address, Obama pledged to work with Congress to ensure “our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists” is consistent with American laws and “even more transparent to the American people and the world.” He did not use the word drone.
This new pledge of accountability comes amid growing international criticism. Because of the success rate and perceived bloodlessness—at least for Americans—of drone strikes, the U.S. public and Congress have until now been highly supportive. Pretty much everyone else sees the campaign as a symbol of American arrogance and impunity—much like torture (which Obama ended) or the detention camp at Guantánamo (which he tried and failed to close).
The drone war isn’t going away. As the U.S. slashes budgets, the lethality and cost-effectiveness of drone strikes will likely make them an even more attractive option. But that doesn’t mean the current policy is wise or even sustainable. The administration’s refusal to talk has made it easier to claim drones are producing vast numbers of civilian casualties, even though outside experts say those numbers are declining. Drones may make waging war too easy, and the potential for abuse is real. And like it or not, the U.S. is setting a precedent for this new kind of warfare. Dozens of countries are seeking military drones to go after their own enemies.
There’s little debate about drones’ effectiveness at picking off terrorists. They can cross borders, hover over a site for hours, and locate a target with incredible accuracy, unleashing a missile that takes only seconds to find its mark. Navy SEALs were sent to kill Osama bin Laden. But of the more than 20 other top al-Qaeda leaders the administration claims to have killed, nearly all were taken out by drone strike. This is all the more impressive because it’s done with few risks to American personnel. If a drone is shot down, the pilot at the controls thousands of miles away gets up from the monitor unscathed.
None of this make drones popular overseas. A Pew Research Center poll last year found that while 75 percent of the French public supported U.S.-led efforts to fight terrorism, 63 percent opposed the drone strikes. In Germany, 60 percent supported anti-terrorism efforts, but 59 percent opposed the drone strikes. The opposition from America’s traditional allies in the Islamic world, including Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt, is even fiercer. In Pakistan, where 350 of the estimated 400 strikes since 2004 have taken place, 97 percent of the people who were aware of the strikes opposed them.
Why do drones inspire that reaction? Shuja Nawaz, who heads up the South Asia program at the Atlantic Council, says that for Pakistanis it is “the insult to their country,” no matter that Pakistan’s army and civilian leaders have privately endorsed the U.S. program, even as they publicly denounce it. Automated death from on high is also terrifying, as is the sure knowledge that there’s no way to fight back. Retired General Stanley McChrystal told Reuters that most Americans don’t realize how the strikes “are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one.”
Outside the U.S., President Obama’s foreign policy still gets higher marks than did George W. Bush’s (except in Pakistan, where they both earned 7 percent approval). But the president should ask himself if the potential blowback from the drone campaign is damaging U.S. interests, especially with most of al-Qaeda’s leaders eliminated and the strikes focusing increasingly on mid- or lower-level militants, many of whom will never threaten the U.S.
According to Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, most of those killed by drones have been unknown militants or people suspected of being militants because of where they are and how they behave. “These are not names that appear on a kill list. They are not vetted,” he says. Even if operators think they know who they want, drones “are only as good as the human intelligence behind them,” says Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution. The drones’ sensors can look at a crowd from a mile overhead and identify “which individual fired his gun in the last hour by picking up the heat off the barrel.” What the sensors can’t do, though, is tell you why the AK-47 was fired. “Was it fired by a Taliban or a tribal policeman chasing away Taliban? Or was it fired 20 minutes ago celebrating a wedding?”
The New America Foundation has compiled a database on drone strikes from news accounts. It estimates that since 2004, between 1,963 and 3,293 people have been killed in Pakistan, of whom 430 to 635 were civilians. Peter Bergen, who oversees the project, says that with improvements in intelligence and munitions, the percentage of civilian deaths has dropped from about 40 percent in the Bush years, to “low single digits” now.
Bergen says the administration’s refusal to discuss the program has “allowed conspiracy theories to flourish” and made it harder to refute claims of massive civilian deaths. “If you had a less covert program,” he says, you could openly tell the Pakistani people: “We killed [Taliban commander] Baitullah Mehsud, who had the blood of hundreds or even thousands of Pakistanis on his hands.” Zenko calls the silence “the worst strategic communications strategy in the world.”
If the administration wants to maintain some freedom of action—and calm international anxiety—it needs to come up with a clear and proportionate set of rules for drone use. Among Zenko’s recommendations: The president should follow his declared policy and limit targeted killings to the leadership of al-Qaeda and related forces or individuals directly involved in past or current terrorist plots. The administration should explain its procedures for preventing harm to civilians and investigating errant strikes and commit to providing restitution for families of civilian victims. And the U.S. should begin talking to other countries about the principles and limits of drone warfare.
The Brookings Institution’s Singer says 76 other countries and an ever-wider group of nonstate actors have or are seeking drones, which makes the need to come up with international norms even more urgent. The U.S. has used drone strikes against militants in Pakistan and Yemen whom it deems “terrorists.” But, Singer asks, what if it’s Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad “asking Iran to use drones against Syrian rebels? Would we have a leg to stand on?”
Before last fall’s election, Obama aides scrambled to come up with a set of formal rules for the use of drones, just in case Mitt Romney won. Among the ideas now being discussed are a secret court to review kill orders for U.S. citizens (an official says that may be too hard to organize) and shifting more of the program from the CIA to the military, which could raise accountability and transparency.
“The president trusts himself … to do this the right way, but he doesn’t know about the next government,” the U.S. official says with no apparent irony. “[He] also knows that in 5, 10 years, the Russians and Chinese will be using drones. The only way we can influence their use is by being as public and transparent as possible.” Better late than never.