April 2012: The downsides of Obama’s “war-by-drone”

A tip of the hat to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

President Barack Obama has substituted “war-by-drone” for the “boots-on-the-ground” tactics employed by the Bush Administration in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While this approach has helped to remove American solders, sailors, and marines from harm’s way, it has raised a host of other questions about how Obama and those around him plan to deal with Islamic extremism.

Here are four reasons why we need a national discussion over whether “war-by-drone” should represent American foreign policy in the Middle East in the years ahead.

  • The drone war encourages an exclusively tactical approach to the challenges facing the U.S. in dealing with Islamic extremism. What is the strategic end game? An approach aimed at “decapitating” Al Queda and Taliban and other leaders of jihadist groups through drone strikes ignores more important ideological questions. How can support for jihadism be eroded? How can Islamic governments be pushed to address the underlying conditions that breed violent extremism (for example, Saudi-sponsored Wahbahi indoctrination and the high unemployment levels of young males in the Arab countries)? Relying on “whack-a-mole” tactics, like special ops and drone strikes, doesn’t get at the underlying problem.
  • The justification under international law for American drone strikes hasn’t been clearly articulated, and this will cause problems down the road. Many in the United Nations international law community regard them as nothing more than illegal targeted killings. While we should never cede our right to self-defense, the Obama Administration should establish clear standards for the strikes (who is targeted and how; who makes the decision to approve a strike; what checks and balances apply) and seek clear Congressional authorization.
  • Drone attacks or special ops missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, helps foster the misperception that there is a widespread U.S. campaign against Islamic countries. Citizen casualties add to the anger and resentment these attacks generate. Are the gains (a few dead terrorists) worth the damage to the perception of America in the Middle East?
  • The perceived low cost of drone attacks encourages a certain adventurism in foreign policy decision-making. It allows civilian officials to take much more aggressive actions than they would if American troops had to be committed were involved. That’s a recipe for potential trouble down the road.

Candidate Obama made much of his understanding of the Islamic world. One of his unfulfilled (implicit) is that we would see greater support for anti-terrorism efforts in the region. That hasn’t happened. For example, Muslim allies like Turkey have reduced their troop commitments in Afghanistan and our standing in the Arab world (as measured by ublic opinion polls) has actually declined.

It’s understandable why the White House would turn to drones as a “quick fix” solution to projecting force. Unfortunately, like most band-aids, it doesn’t do anything to cure the festering wound and at some point it will be painfully ripped off.

Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
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