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What’s the Alternative to Drones?

Is “America’s Drone War Out of Control”? That is the provocative headline—minus the question mark—of Gideon Rachman’s Financial Times column. He is not alone in attacking the policy of using drone strikes against terrorist targets abroad—a policy initiated by the Bush administration and greatly expanded under President Obama. Such strikes are coming in for increasing criticism for supposedly being just as lawless as “renditions,” detentions without trial, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” warrantless wiretapping and all the other features of the war on terrorism to which civil libertarians object. One suspects that the criticism, now a mild buzz, would reach a crescendo if a Republican were in the White House: Obama’s policies are harder to criticize for the left than those of a President McCain or Romney.

It is perhaps just as well to have a more open debate about what has so far been a relatively covert policy, which has extended from the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan to other lands, from Pakistan to Yemen, where U.S. ground troops are not committed. Critics of drone strikes do, in fairness, make some legitimate points about what criteria are used to designate targets and how, in the absence of judicial review, we can achieve accountability for mistakes. There is also legitimate fear that by creating collateral damage such strikes may create more enemies than they eliminate and, less persuasively, that such strikes could create a precedent for authoritarian regimes to follow suit. (Do countries like Russia and Iran really need American inspiration to target their perceived enemies abroad?)

But what critics do not have is a compelling alternative to offer. Should we simply stop all drone strikes and declare that our response to terrorism will be limited to trying to arrest and extradite suspects?

Not even Rachman goes that far. At the end of raising lots of objections to the drones he offers a meek proposal that drones should “be reclaimed from the realm of covert warfare” and should instead be employed “by the military and openly scrutinized by politicians and press.” This rather ignores the reality that the segment of the U.S. military most likely to take control of drone strikes is the Joint Special Operations Command, whose operations are super-secret and hardly “scrutinized by politicians and press”—unless they have either a monumental success or screw-up.

No doubt there are more extreme drone opponents who would be willing to simply stop all such strikes. How, then, do they suggest that we deal with the threat of terrorism emanating from countries such as Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia, where it is simply not practical to send FBI agents to arrest terrorist suspects? Indeed, we are facing this very quandary today in Libya, where the administration is relying on the FBI to identify suspects in the Benghazi consulate attack—so far with no luck. Remember: the whole reason why the drone strikes started in the first place is because fighting terrorism through domestic law enforcement was tried before 9/11 and found badly wanting.

I have my own problem with drone strikes—I don’t think they are the complete answer to terrorism. They are, in fact, only part of what should be a broader counterinsurgency and state-building strategy in at-risk countries. Unfortunately, we have failed to develop such a comprehensive approach and instead rely too heavily on targeted drone strikes. The answer, however, is not to end the drone strikes. They remain our best instrument for disrupting terrorist plots that, if successful, might well force the U.S. to put large numbers of ground troops in harm’s way. The answer is to maintain the drone strikes while building up our softer instruments of suasion so as to help defeat Islamist extremists.


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