Commentary Magazine


We Cannot Afford to Stop Drone Strikes

The New York Times engages in some scare-mongering today about a drone ams race. Scott Shane notes correctly other nations such as China are building their own drones and in the future U.S. forces could be attacked by them–our forces will not have a monopoly on their use forever. Fair enough, but he goes further, suggesting our current use of drones to target terrorists will backfire:

If China, for instance, sends killer drones into Kazakhstan to hunt minority Uighur Muslims it accuses of plotting terrorism, what will the United States say? What if India uses remotely controlled craft to hit terrorism suspects in Kashmir, or Russia sends drones after militants in the Caucasus? American officials who protest will likely find their own example thrown back at them.

“The problem is that we’re creating an international norm” — asserting the right to strike preemptively against those we suspect of planning attacks, argues Dennis M. Gormley, a senior research fellow at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Missile Contagion, who has called for tougher export controls on American drone technology. “The copycatting is what I worry about most.”

This is a familiar trope of liberal critics who are always claiming we should forego “X” weapons system or capability, otherwise our enemies will adopt it too. We have heard this with regard to ballistic missile defense, ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons, land mines, exploding bullets, and other fearsome weapons. Some have even suggested the U.S. should abjure the first use of nuclear weapons–and cut down our own arsenal–to encourage similar restraint from Iran.

The argument falls apart rather quickly because it is founded on a false premise: that other nations will follow our example. In point of fact, Iran is hell-bent on getting nuclear weapons no matter what we do; China is hell-bent on getting drones; and so forth. Whether and under what circumstances they will use those weapons remains an open question–but there is little reason to think self-restraint on our part will be matched by equal self-restraint on theirs. Is Pakistan avoiding nuking India because we haven’t used nuclear weapons since 1945? Hardly. The reason is that India has a powerful nuclear deterrent to use against Pakistan. If there is one lesson of history it is a strong deterrent is a better upholder of peace than is unilateral disarmament–which is what the New York Times implicitly suggests.

Imagine if we did refrain from drone strikes against al-Qaeda–what would be the consequence? If we were to stop the strikes, would China really decide to take a softer line on Uighurs or Russia on Chechen separatists? That seems unlikely given the viciousness those states already employ in their battles against ethnic separatists–which at least in Russia’s case already includes the suspected assassination of Chechen leaders abroad. What’s the difference between sending a hit team and sending a drone?

While a decision on our part to stop drone strikes would be unlikely to alter Russian or Chinese thinking, it would have one immediate consequence: al-Qaeda would be strengthened and could regenerate the ability to attack our homeland. Drone strikes are the only effective weapon we have to combat terrorist groups in places like Pakistan or Yemen where we don’t have a lot of boots on the ground or a lot of cooperation from local authorities. We cannot afford to give them up in the vain hope it will encourage disarmament on the part of dictatorial states.