A couple months ago, the blog left its Washington, D.C., cave, put on its turtleneck and fake goatee, and attended a small talk on drones given by a left-wing group that would have been monitored by the FBI when that sort of thing was allowed (wait a second…). We felt frisky: radical people were saying radical things! And, no bourgeois site is this, we even agreed with some of them! The meeting was at first oddly think tank-esque: A three person panel spoke on their experience and opinions on drones. One of the speakers had just returned from a fact-finding mission to the tribal areas of Pakistan, so she had no shortage of interesting things to share. The thrust of the talk was that the tribal areas are getting pummeled by illegal drone strikes and these weapons are out of control. There were even stickers demanding “Stop Killer Drones!”
Then the moderator asked the vanguard if they had any questions and—here’s where the format stopped resembling Brookings—comments. From that point, with the exception of a couple queries, the meeting became a guerrilla grad school sociology class. Opinions were shared at length, and occasionally in impressive paragraph form, in attempts to connect the vastness of American foreign policy and capitalism to the current policy towards Pakistan. Men and women, young and old, denounced the US government and the president with distaste conservatives would understand, sometimes consulting their one capitalist-enabled guilty pleasure, the iPhone, to check facts. Idealism was dripping 1. Secular amens were flowing. Everyone agreed. Lest you think we’re insulting: The discussion was definitely more interesting and thought provoking than CNN.
We found one aspect of their agreement curious. The speakers, who clearly knew quite a bit about UAVs, politics, and Pakistan, focused on the perfidy of drones. They went over the usual suspects: they aren’t accurate and kill innocents, they create enemies, other countries will get them, and they represent a new way of unsustainable war. It was a strange discourse—focused on the instrument of policy—you see fairly often (here, here, and here). In effect, the drone is often and unnecessarily anthropomorphized: How inherently evil are these machines! After all, they only carry out policy. Drones themselves are no more perfidious than rifles or tanks or lead paint-infused toys. And they’re certainly less deadly (at least than the first two). Yes, they kill innocent people, but in a climate of aggressive US counterterrorism, drone use must be compared to the alternatives.
Of course, airplanes can’t really win wars by themselves. Air strikes can kill people, degrade capabilities, and influence the target to do what one wants, but truly intransigent enemies are unlikely to give up due to bombs falling from the sky. Nor can we pretend that UAVs conduct missions based solely on their own surveillance. Signature strikes are common, but many strikes have other intelligence feeding into them. How many conflicts need we see the US enter into before it is acknowledged that air power is potent, but hardly a “war winner”? It’s part of something bigger, both within the military and US foreign policy as a whole, which those at the meeting acknowledged but did not focus enough on.
Another common refrain among those opposed to drone warfare is some form of the Golden Rule. “How would you like it if someone else’s robots dropped bombs on your homeland?” This is more than merely a question of international law. In the case of Pakistan, the complaint is unrealistic. The Pakistanis are capable of shooting down UAVs, and yet they choose not to. They deem the threat of militants, who have killed thousands of Pakistani civilians and soldiers, to be the greater of the two evils. The Afghan government could demand that the US not fly them, but Kabul does not make such a demand. The use of drones in places like Somalia, Afghanistan, and Yemen occurs because those countries either cannot prevent it, welcome them, or ignore them. The US and other powerful countries worth “worrying” about can deny drones airspace. (They fly slowly and have no appreciable defense mechanisms.)
Moreover, the “warning” over other nations acquiring such technology rings rather hollow (while acknowledging that the legality issue is important). First of all, even if the Pentagon stopped funding these programs, other nations would continue to do so. American non-use of UAVs will not change this, and, as we tried to explain above, the platform itself is neither indiscriminate nor deadly, meaning there will never be a treaty banning them. UAVs are not WMDs. Second, these aircraft patrol the aforementioned places for a reason—counterterrorism—and the US would use force in these areas regardless of the capabilities of Predators. Obviously, Milwaukeeites don’t want Chinese drones interfering in the Sausage Race. Using such far-fetched notions as an excuse, however, totally ignores the circumstances in Pakistan and the capabilities of the US.
There is a certain logic to UAVs expanding or prolonging wars, but their use today doesn’t appear to support that. In Somalia, for example, Special Ops units were killing people long before drones got in on it.
These arguments appeared to rest on the notion of temptation. Much as Congressional Republicans took extraordinarily hardline positions on the budget after years of their own profligacy (so government spending must be indiscriminately slashed), our socialist friends were worried about the notion of UAVs making war too easy (so UAVs are terrible). The US, in possession of amazing platforms capable of killing enemies without risk to itself, would then see opportunities everywhere to flex its muscle and oppress people. It’s easy to sympathize with the logic of this position, but reflect for a moment: Is the US “winning” the wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan? Has President Obama sent drones roaring into Syria in order to stop what every talking head has said is a slaughter the US must “do something” about? Would the CIA not be interested in Mali if it did not have drones? We do not criticize caution in the face of an industrial complex and political-class predisposition toward using force, but, as poll numbers on Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan show, Americans are skeptical of commitments “because we can.”
As we teased through armed intervention options in South Asia (and Yemen) and kept arriving at the status-quo as more or less the best choice, the questions of whether drone attacks create enemies kept coming up. Most everyone seems to think so, whether or not they deem the operations “worth it.” Most Pakistanis, surprisingly, don’t really know much about the “Drone War” in the FATA and Peshawar. But granting that these attacks tarnish America’s image and bolster support for radical groups, should drones be the focus? The other options include land invasion, arming proxies, manned-aircraft bombardment, and so on. While “double taps” and other such tactics are disgraceful, the carnage in Nicaragua in the 1980s serves as one of many reminders that the pursuit of the national interest can be extremely bloody whether or not robots are involved.
In short, our new acquaintances should edit their stickers to read what they really want, “Change current US policy toward South Asia!” As Slouching Towards Columbia put it some months ago, “The Drone War Does Not Take Place.” Drone warfare does. The US conducts targeted killings of individuals it believes threatens its citizens and interests. Washington uses violence to compel others to do its will (in this case, one supposes the will would be not targeting Americans, but it seems more like whack-a-mole). Drones are used as a convenient, and possibly enhanced, tool to pursue this objective, but they are by no means necessary or sufficient for carrying it out. We might have written this post much more succinctly: “Does it matter whether F-18s, Special Ops Forces, or UAVs blow up houses in the tribal areas if Pakistan?”