I think the Washington Post gets the right position on the utility and effectiveness of drones in targeted killing – including their limits. The editorial principally addresses two different things, both raised in John Brennan’s summary statement of the administration’s counterterrorism policy at Harvard Law School a week ago. The first is the question of whether there is a “legal geography of war,” as I have put it; the administration’s answer, as is mine and the Post’s, is “no.” The second is the question of whether drones, just as a strategic matter for the US, have knock-on bad effects that should put a damper on them.
A few days ago I criticized the eminent columnist David Ignatius and his view that the US is “addicted” to drones. His view is that the “blowback” effects of drone use can easily, and apparently already do, outweigh their utility to the United States, at least used to the extent the US does today and proposes to use them into the future – and that is so, he says, even though he concedes that they are indeed more precise and sparing of collateral damage. I criticized that quite sharply – mostly because he then stops short, without telling us what the alternative is, except to launch fewer or no attacks. After all, he doesn’t seem to want to urge that we launch attacks with less precise weaponry. I guess I’d sum up Ignatius’ view – I think this is fair, not snark – that he regards drones as tactically precise, strategically incontinent.
That could conceivably be true, as a matter of fact about US strategy; it can never be ruled out as a possibility. But for the reasons stated earlier, I wouldn’t want to start from that position as a matter of strategy. It leaves one with a dangling question for Ignatius of whether, if one presses to know what to actually do, taken down to brass tacks it amounts to saying “don’t attack,” even with civilian-sparing weapons, because of generalized blowback. I agree thoroughly with the Obama administration that this is exactly the time to strike, when Al Qaeda is weakened but far from finished, in retreat but not in organizational collapse, seeking new safe havens but not well-entrenched as they were in Afghanistan. I applaud the Obama administration’s ruthlessness and relentlessness.
Nonetheless, drones and targeted killing have their limits, and the Washington Post editorial is correct to note them. The virtue is that drones are not a counterinsurgency campaign on the ground. (Though one should never underestimate just how much ground level intelligence is required in order to make the apparently free-floating, death-in-the-jet-stream drone strategy successful. The necessity of that granular intelligence for drone success in targeted killing appears to me the strongest argument for the CIA’s involvement in operations, but that’s another discussion.) But drones and targeted killing, while taking the fight directly to the terrorists and their leadership, cannot stabilize the places where they seek haven. They can’t fix Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia. The WP’s point is well-taken, but it is not an argument against the aggressive and ruthless use of drones and targeted killing (nor does the Post intend it to be). I would add, though the Post does not, that it is not obvious that there is anything that could stabilize, let alone fix, any of these places.
Ignatius, I believe, would argue, contra me and the Post’s editors, that the aggressive use of drones makes it much more difficult, perhaps even impossible, to stabilize any of those places, and moreover that they are affirmatively destabilizing. Two responses. First, he might of course be right, though I doubt it. In any case, it is a counterfactual that we do not have the luxury of testing. We have to make choices today with the weapons and strategic tools available against the terrorists, and drones are the most useful in actually attacking transnational terrorists. We don’t have the possibility of trying out different alternatives to see what works best and then backtracking in time to revamp things according to our experiments. As I remarked in my last post, blowback is always a consideration, but a second order strategic issue (Cf. George McClellan), and one that runs particularly to counterinsurgency, not pure counterterrorism; the Obama administration is right to try and get us out of counterinsurgency wars, and so blowback is frankly less of an issue than it might otherwise be.
Second, insofar as this is an argument to use drones less while recognizing their utility – that’s fine, strategic choices involve tradeoffs. But in that case, doesn’t this amount to counsel to attack less? Because the alternatives are likely to lead to greater civilian harm, and that is not a good idea. That includes the supposedly less bellicose alternatives – such as sending the local gendarmerie to attempt an arrest; is it really morally okay to insist on using the local forces, send out twenty police and easily have twenty police casualties, rather than using the force that makes sense in the circumstances, a drone strike with minimal collateral damage? Again, it is easy to say that drones are addictive – and then stop short of drawing the implication, which is either attack less or not at all, or else use less discriminating means. The alternatives are often much less discriminating even if they consist of “police” alternatives that sound conceptually less harmful – it’s just law enforcement, not war! – but in actual fact are far more damaging, to themselves and others.