David Ignatius has a new column in a long series of columns criticizing the use of drones. Those concerns largely amount to the “blowback” hypothesis – that the use of drones creates such resentment and ill-will that they produce more harm than good. He frames this in today’s Washington Post as a comment on the John Brennan speech on US counterterrorism policy delivered at Harvard Law School last Friday that addressed, among other things, the question of whether there is a “legal geography of war,” as I put it in a recent Hoover Institution essay.
Three comments on Ignatius’s long-standing dislike of drones and targeted killing. First, of course blowback is always a possibility; it can never be ruled out. However, it has to be considered a follow-on strategic concern, not the primary driver of strategy. Blowback as a possibility has to be evaluated and considered, yes, but as a general heuristic, starting from a strategic stance of “First, do no harm” and “Don’t anger the locals” is to start at the wrong place, even though blowback, like other follow-on effects, has to be considered. Blowback can’t be ruled out and it might always be decisive; at the same time, it is a second order concern because it is also a mostly counterfactual, “but for” analysis of strategic harms. The United States had a general, after all, who started and ended with a blowback thesis, and his name was George McClellan.
Second, the primary theorists of blowback in the Afghanistan war are theorists of counterinsurgency, and the specific application of the blowback thesis is that even if the counterterrorism drone policy works on its own CT terms, it undermines the counterinsurgency war because it damages the ability to win over populations. The extent to which the campaign actually has those effects can be debated. That has to include that asking populations if they’re resentful is not a purely neutral measurement of social science; it tends to signal to them that they get advantages out of being resentful. An awful lot of blowback has to do with the expectations of the population. Telling the local population (as the US did, for example, early on in the Iraq war) that if our war has not made them happy, then it is our fault, is very much a mechanism for foolishly raising the bar of expectations. But David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum, in their writings, for example, are talking about counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism’s effects on that. The Obama administration’s whole effort, however, is to get out of counterinsurgency, and quite rightly is worried far less about blowback arising from a switch in strategy to transnational CI.
Ignatius keeps talking, in column after column, about our “addiction” to drones. Why, instead, doesn’t he talk (as the Obama administration implicitly does) about our “addiction” to counterinsurgency, and see drones as the “cure” for that? It’s not as if counterinsurgency warfare in Afghanistan doesn’t have plenty of downsides and its own forms of blowback and bad unanticipated consequences, as the Obama administration and, for that matter, most of the American people, see it. Downsides starting with no end in sight and no clear avenue to a victory that allows an exit. The Obama administration sees counterterrorism as a realistic and, to date, functioning strategy against our actual long term adversary, and an exit for our addiction to the cul-de-sac of counterinsurgency, and why isn’t it right about that?
Third, and quite disturbingly, in today’s column, Ignatius explicitly concedes that drones and targeted killing might indeed reduce collateral damage. He then goes on to criticize their use, and America’s deployment of them, anyway, as being “unwise.” But he conveniently runs out of column space here. So I invite him, in his next column, to explain the wise alternative. We should … do what? Use less precise weapons systems in order not to create the blowback impression that we are targeting specific individuals? Use weapons with greater collateral damage in order to persuade us to … what exactly? Not attack as much, or even at all? In order to induce us, through the threat of greater collateral damage, to stick with counterinsurgency strategies that, whatever their other virtues, do tend to produce a lot more damage from war? Ignatius has left himself at a fork in the road: either go for military strategies that, as he himself concedes, will produce more collateral harms, or alternatively, not attack at all.
The first of those, especially for the purpose of persuading the United States not to engage in attacks, is morally pernicious, partly because it is morally wrong to use civilians as mere means of inducing us to use the “correct” level of resort to force. This is to use civilians as implicit hostages against what Ignatius seems to think is our wrong policy. The second is an argument at a level of policy altitude that cannot be driven by a mere technology of war; it is about the appropriateness of engaging in this counterterrorism war at all. Stopping the argument where Ignatius stops it allows the impression that one can give up our “drone addiction” and have it both ways. You can’t. So I would ask Ignatius to take the next step forward and tell us what the alternative is, and we can measure whether it is to take the civilians hostage to our policy of force or not to use force at all, or whether there is genuinely something else available as a third alternative.
(Implicitly, much of this goes to the simmering argument over whether drones and targeted killing, ironically by reducing civilian collateral damage and reducing risk to US forces, increase the propensity to use force in the first place to some … “wrong” or “inefficient” level. I think this is a bad, indeed pernicious argument; I explain why in this quite academic essay, intended for a volume on philosophical issues in just war and targeted killing. The paper is a tough read; sorry. On the other hand, Ignatius’ last novel, Bloodmoney, is deeply informed by his blowback views – and is a terrific read, really excellent thriller novel.)