The Droning President

March 15, 2012 Topic: Military Strategy Blog Brand: The Buzz

The Droning President

In three years, President Obama has carried out a whopping 239 covert drone strikes. (George W. Bush authorized only forty-four.) But has all this droning done more harm than good?

David Rohde, writing in the March/April issue of Foreign Policy, thinks so, claiming that under Obama, “drone strikes have become too frequent, too unilateral, and much too associated with the heavy-handed use of American power.” But unlike many of the president’s critics, Rohde summons a bevy of facts to support his depiction of Obama’s unconventional war doctrine—one dedicated to “[expanding] the executive branch’s ability to wage high-tech clandestine war” and promoting a new “unilateral, get-tough approach” in places like Yemen and Pakistan.

He explains how Obama morphed the nature of drone attacks from “a carefully focused effort to kill senior al Qaeda leaders” to a “bombing campaign against low-level Taliban fighters,” noting how backlash has both damaged Washington’s relations with targeted countries, such as Pakistan, and swollen al-Qaeda’s ranks. Rohde also claims Obama’s Libya campaign “invoked the drones to create a new legal precedent,” one in which congressional authorization is optional at best.

After marshaling an impressive amount of evidence to support his characterization of Obama’s misguided war doctrine, Rohde brings up, almost in passing, what is perhaps his smartest point: covert strikes, drones and commando raids, no matter how effective at thinning the echelons of al-Qaeda leadership, amount to attrition warfare. They “are no substitute for the difficult process of helping local leaders marginalize militants” as they “do not strengthen economies, curb corruption, or improve government services.” With this in mind, is Obama’s approach to warfare sustainable—or even particularly effective? The question bears breaching, and Rohde’s approach to it is a notable one. Maybe Obama’s challengers should be taking notes.