The Great Drone Debate

The good, the bad and the ugly on unmanned aircraft.

The Obama administration is criticized for greatly increasing the use of drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and, most recently, in Yemen and Somalia. The Pentagon reports that these drones have been successful in taking out leaders of al-Qaeda and various insurgent groups. The State Department is raising concerns about the use of drones against “rank and file” members of these organizations. Critics are up in arms against all drones. A recent investigative report on public television’s Frontline made much of one case in which Afghans reported that election workers were killed by a drone, while the U.S. military claims that the dead included Taliban fighters. And Frontline points to an incident in which it seems that the wrong Afghan leader was killed. As I see it, the real issue is: Should we be involved in such fighting in the first place? Only after answering that should we ask: If kill we must, should we use drones? These questions represent an analytical turning point.

They are a turning point because, once we engage in war, we must assume that there are going to be a considerable number of casualties on all sides and that these will include innocent civilians. Often discussions of war—and calls for carefully targeted, “surgical” killings—strike me as though they have been written by people who yearn for a nice, clean war—one in which only “the enemy” will be killed with little, if any, collateral damage. The fact is that very few armed confrontations unfold in this way. Hence, when we deliberate whether to fight, we should assume that once we step onto this escalator, it is likely to carry us to places we would rather not go. The drones are but a step on this woeful journey.

Indeed, if kill we must, drones have a major advantage over bombers, missiles and Special Forces: drones can linger for hours over their target before they take it out. This unique attribute allows the military to sort out whether it found the right target and whether the resulting collateral damage is tolerable. There is even time for lawyers to review troublesome cases.

The U.S. military developed a set of criteria that must be met before a drone strike can be authorized. Less reliable intelligence about the target and greater potential collateral damage trigger more extensive reviews of the information by higher-ranking military officers before a strike is approved. The reviews may go all the way up to the commander in chief.

Drones are said to antagonize the population, create martyrs, invite retaliatory attacks and undermine the legitimacy of the local government (for cooperating with Americans). All this is true, but the same holds for other means of warfare. Using bombers often generates even more collateral damage and resentment. Attacks by Special Forces—as we saw when bin Laden was killed—are considered more alienating than strikes by drones because they entail an even more blatant violation of sovereignty. Nor are there fewer mistaken targets or less collateral damage when Special Forces or regular forces are used.

Finally, drones are criticized on the grounds that they are manned by people sitting in air-conditioned trailers in Nevada and Florida, playing with joysticks, before they go home for dinner and to coach Little League. Their victims remain faceless, and the damage caused by the drones remains unseen. It makes killing too easy and entices people to go to war.

This kind of pop sociology does not stand up to minimal critical examination. Would we or the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan—or, for that matter, the terrorists—be better off if they were killed in close combat? Say, knifed by Special Forces, blood splashing in their faces?

Granted, if all or most fighting were done in a cold-blooded, push-button way, it might have the feared effects. However, we are talking about a few hundred drone drivers; what they feel or don’t feel has no discernible effects on the nation or the leaders who declare war or make it drag on. There is no evidence that the expanded use of drones (and before that, high-level bombing and cruise missiles, which were criticized on similar grounds) has deepened the United States’ commitment to stay the course in Afghanistan. On the contrary—it was followed by the unveiling of a plan to leave by 2014.

If fight we must, then bring them on. Make more drones.

Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard, University of California at Berkeley, and is a professor at The George Washington University.