The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
The Brewing Backlash against the Drone War
Published on June 19, 2012

For most Americans, the so-called drone war is a no-brainer: maximum lethality delivered at low economic cost, with zero risk to American personnel—all buffered by the virtual-reality nature of a delivery system that keeps the consequences safely out of sight. That explains why a stunning 83 percent of the country supports President Barack Obama’s use of drones to target suspected terrorists. But the rest of the world isn’t as comfortable with this remote-controlled, auto-pilot war. Indeed, international watchdogs have begun to raise concerns.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of drones. First and foremost, drones are the closest thing to risk-free war man has ever invented—at least for those of us on this side of the unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) prowling the skies of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. While the political cost is high when a commander-in-chief loses a pilot, it’s negligible when a commander-in-chief loses a pilotless plane. Compare, for example, the ho-hum reaction to the loss of drones in Iran and the Seychelles under Obama with the international crises other presidents faced when U.S. pilots were shot down over enemy territory: President Dwight Eisenhower was publicly humiliated after the Soviets brought down Gary Powers’ U-2. President John Kennedy was pressured to go to war when Rudolf Anderson was shot down during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And President Bill Clinton had to deal with a hostage crisis after Michael Durant’s Blackhawk was shot down in Mogadishu, and later had to launch a massive search-and-rescue operation deep behind enemy lines when Scott O’Grady’s F-16 crashed in Bosnia.

Most UCAV operators, however, are some 7,000 miles away from their targets—and 7,000 miles away from danger. With no risk to U.S. personnel and a high return—the Brookings Institution estimates that as many as 2,209 militants have been killed by drone strikes—Washington has latched on to UCAVs as an important tool in the national-security toolbox and arguably the primary weapon in the post-9/11 campaign against jihadist groups:

  • In the past decade, the U.S. drone fleet has swelled from 50 planes to 7,000.
  • There has been a 1,200-percent increase in combat air patrols by UCAVs since 2005.
  • America’s unmanned air force—including drones deployed by the military and the CIA—has struck targets in Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.
  • Annual drone strikes in Pakistan increased from one in 2004 to 117 in 2010, when they peaked, before falling below the century mark in 2011. The drone war is following a similar upward trajectory in Yemen.

But what looks like a successful counterterrorism campaign to Americans, looks very different to international observers.  “In 17 of 20 countries,” a recent Pew survey found, “more than half disapprove of U.S. drone attacks targeting extremist leaders and groups in nations such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.” According to Pew, the ongoing drone war feeds “a widespread perception that the U.S. acts unilaterally and does not consider the interests of other countries.”

The simple reason for this is that the drone war is completely unilateral and wholly focused on U.S. interests. After all, there’s no UN resolution blessing Washington’s war by remote, and nobody in Pakistan or Yemen is clamoring for Reaper-launched hellfire missiles.

Thus, the drone war has reinforced the very image of American unilateralism that Obama once promised to erase, which must come as a shock to the president’s supporters overseas. What many international observers didn’t realize is that historically there has been a remarkable amount of continuity and confluence across administrations in defending the national interest. The Bush-Obama handoff was no exception.

Even so, the drone war re-reminds us that, while unilateral action is sometimes necessary, it usually isn’t the most effective way to serve U.S. interests over the long haul. To this point, UN officials have begun to suggest that aspects of the drone war may not conform to international law. “Drone attacks do raise serious questions about compliance with international law,” according to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who worries about “indiscriminate killings and injuries of civilians.”

“Targeted killing is only lawful when the target is a ‘combatant’ or ‘fighter,’” according to a report issued by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). “Everything feasible must be done to prevent mistakes and minimize harm to civilians.”

Setting aside the UNHRC’s internal legitimacy problems, critics of the drone war would argue that the U.S. has not always met these standards in Yemen and Pakistan. The use of drones to cripple Anwar al-Awlaki’s branch of al Qaeda, for instance, killed dozens of other people, many of them apparently not affiliated with al Qaeda, including a 16-year-old relative of al-Awlaki born in Denver. The Brookings Institution estimates that, along with the 2,000-plus militants killed by drones in Pakistan, perhaps more than 470 non-militants have been killed.

This raises a number of concerns. First, according to The New York Timesportrait of the inner workings of the drone war, the Obama administration has embraced a controversial method for counting civilian casualties that “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” Equally worrisome, the president is described as “at the helm of a top secret ‘nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture.” He attends regular “Terror Tuesday” gatherings, where he studies “mug shots and brief biographies” of people nominated for execution, insists on “approving every new name on an expanding ‘kill list,’” “signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan,” and often decides “personally whether to go ahead” with a drone strike.

Again, to many Americans, that sounds like a commander-in-chief fulfilling his primary responsibility (albeit a bit more hands-on than we might expect). But international observers could see something far more menacing in these Jupiter-like exploits. Just consider the preceding three paragraphs in the context of the Rome Statute, which spawned the International Criminal Court. The statute considers launching an attack “in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects” as a war crime and defines “widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population” as a crime against humanity.

Noting that the United States “has used drones and airstrikes for targeted killings,” the UNHRC also has raised questions about the drone war’s legality based on sovereignty issues. “A targeted killing conducted by one state in the territory of a second state does not violate the second state’s sovereignty if either (a) the second state consents, or (b) the first, targeting, state has a right under international law to use force in self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter.”

We know that many drone strikes have not had the consent of the Pakistani government. And while the U.S. government contends that a state of war has existed since September 11, 2001—a reasonable and defensible contention—the UNHRC argues that it is “problematic for the U.S. to show that—outside the context of the armed conflicts in Afghanistan or Iraq—it is in a transnational non-international armed conflict against ‘al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other associated forces.’”

It pays to recall that the drone war is an outgrowth of Washington’s post-9/11 campaign against terrorist organizations and regimes—a campaign authorized by the Use of Force Resolution of September 18, 2001. That measure directed the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”

It is a stretch to say that the September 18 measure authorized—11 years later—an autopilot war against targets in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond. Those targets may indeed be enemies of, and threats to, the United States. But aside from Ayman al-Zawahiri, who remains at large, few of them could have “planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” Underscoring this point, The Washington Post recently reported that a growing number of drone strikes in Yemen have targeted “lower-level figures who are suspected of having links to terrorism operatives but are seen mainly as leaders of factions focused on gaining territory in Yemen’s internal struggle.” (Emphasis added.)

This is not an argument against America’s right to target its enemies. Washington has every right to kill those who are trying to kill Americans. But the brewing backlash against the drone war reminds us that means and methods matter as much as ends.

Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues. His work has appeared in Policy Review, Parameters, Military Officer, The American Legion, World Politics Review and other leading publications.