In Defense of Drones

If fight we must, drones are the best tool du jour, bar none.

Rarely has a critic made a stronger case for the program he is opposing than David Rohde’s brief against drones. Mr. Rohde—a Pulitzer Prize winner and widely read reporter—told NPR that there is one element of the Obama foreign-policy doctrine of multilateralism, transparency, and a focus on direct threats that “undermines that whole approach”: the lascivious use of drones.

Rohde told NPR in March that there has been an “extraordinary” increase in the use of drones by the Obama administration. It is five times larger than it was during the Bush era. Bush had forty-four strikes; Obama, by now, 239. However, if one takes into account that we are dealing with terrorists and insurgents in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Horn of Africa, among other places, over three years, one may wonder if the number is not rather small.

Rohde acknowledges that we are dealing with people who make and plant bombs and train suicide bombers, and people who otherwise could not be reached. He reminds us that those we are going after, in the case of Pakistan, are in "the remote tribal areas, which is basically this Taliban safe haven, where they retreat from Afghanistan, and rest and train and recoup. So the only way the United States can sort of pressure the Taliban once they cross the border into Pakistan are these drone strikes.” Well put, but hardly a reason we should not order more drones rather than stand them down.

Why are drones so bad? Mr. Rohde, who was kidnapped by the Taliban and held by them for seven months, a period during which drones were buzzing above his head, tells us that the drones are "haunting.” He found that once the drones were widely used, "the Taliban did not gather in large groups for trainings. . . . And so they're very nervous. . . . They don't move in large convoys. So it definitely slows them down.” I can understand those who argue that we must find a political solution to the conflicts and that military means alone will not suppress the Taliban nor prevent the area from serving as a staging ground for the next 9/11. But as long as fight we must, what exactly is wrong with slowing down our adversaries, making them nervous and preventing them from training in large groups?

In addition, Rohde argues that drones are bad for public relations. He says that "in every country that they're carried out, they are seen as this sort of oppressive American weapon. They attract tremendous public attention and they also fuel tremendous resentment." True enough, but in nations in which the United States uses no drones, it is much resented—in Egypt, for instance. Muslims have many reasons to resent Washington, including its support of Israel and of autocrats in the Middle East, torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, the burning of Korans, the collateral damage of bombers other than drones—and above all, American attempts to much change their ways of life.

Moreover, few things agitate Muslims around the world, polls show, more than the presence of American troops—which would have to be used if drones were parked. This was recently highlighted when the Libyan rebels welcomed American and other NATO forces’ bombardment of the Qaddafi forces, even after, in some cases, the rebels suffered casualties as a result of friendly fire—but they strongly opposed any foreign boots on their ground. Drones are alienating, but not more so, and often less, than other things we must do if we are going to fight terrorists and those who harbor them.

What about collateral damage? Rohde notes that “across Pakistan, there's a belief that the overwhelming majority of people killed in these strikes are simply civilians.” Actually, he candidly notes, “roughly 70 to 90 percent of those killed are actually militants.” Rohde hence says that he “would involve local governments, and force Pakistan and Yemen . . . [and] Somalia as well to support” the drones so they would be less misunderstood and hence could be used, albeit on a less “extraordinary” scale.

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. The notion that if we ask these governments to explain to their people what’s up—including that while they are providing us with targeting information they denounce the drones—they would do so (or that we could make them speak truth to their people) is a lovely sociological fantasy.

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