Thursday, February 09, 2012

Democrats for Drones

The Washington Post reports on a poll today about the Obama administration's counterterrorism policies, including its vastly expanded use of drones. Key paragraphs:

Obama has also relied on armed drones far more than Bush did, and he has expanded their use beyond America’s defined war zones. The Post-ABC News poll found that 83 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s drone policy, which administration officials refuse to discuss, citing security concerns. 
The president only recently acknowledged the existence of the drone program, which some human rights advocates say operates without a clear legal framework and in violation of the U.S. prohibition against assassination. 
But fully 77 percent of liberal Democrats endorse the use of drones, meaning that Obama is unlikely to suffer any political consequences as a result of his policy in this election year.
The poll's results are lamented by some on the left, who see the results as exposing hypocrisy - after all, liberal Democrats opposed the Bush administration's much more sparing use of drones. asks "Do you surrender your autonomy by joining a political party?" while Glenn Greenwald calls it "repulsive progressive hypocrisy." People on the right agree, with Instapundit calling the previous opposition to Bush-era drones "partisan crap" and linking to Hot Air's sardonic overview.

We can stipulate that the poll results reflect hypocrisy, but that misses what I think is the important strategic picture. Why have consecutive administrations stepped up the use of drones, and in particular, why has the Obama administration scaled up its use of drones so much? If we step back and take a broader view of military development over the past few decades, the expanded use of drones looks like an obvious answer to a conundrum our political leaders face.

That conundrum is concisely explained in John Arquilla's excellent 2008 book Worst Enemy. On the one hand, the US finds itself involved in an increasing number of theaters, due in part to political pressure to do something. (Today's possible intervention targets include Syria.) On the other hand, we dearly want to minimize soldier casualties - especially now, with an all-volunteer army and 24/7 news covering each casualty. So how do we satisfy both conditions? Arquilla's suggestions in 2008 included reinstating the draft and leaning more on influence operations, both of which he preferred to Powell-era airstrikes that minimized US casualties at the expense of increased civilian casualties. But he also suggested that better organization and communication could give an advantage to comparatively low-tech dispersed solutions such as drones.

The problem is that weaponized drones have functioned like small Powell-era airstrikes. They reduce the likelihood of US military casualties - to zero - and they expand the number of theaters in which the US can practically operate. But they retain the likelihood of civilian casualties, and in doing so, reproduce the problems of the Powell Doctrine on a smaller, more dispersed scale: "staggering expenditures, major collateral damage inflicted upon innocents, and growing global resentment of the United States" (Arquilla p.xi).

For now, the political advantages of projecting force without risking our volunteer forces outweigh the disadvantages. So of course the Obama administration - and administrations of either party in the near future - will continue and expand drone strikes. And this expanding drone policy will continue to garner broad public support - unless the public becomes more isolationist, relieving the political pressure to intervene in a broad range of theaters.

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