Commentary Magazine


Asking the Wrong Questions About Drones

William Cohen’s Politico piece on the problems involved in the use of drones is interesting, though mostly for the wrong reasons. In that he politely questions the administration’s reliance on drones, it adds to the drip-drip of Clinton camp criticism of the Obama White House that Alana noted yesterday. What he does not do is connect the dots that he lays out.

Cohen begins with a tacit rejection of the administration’s pending shift from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism in Afghanistan, moves to the argument the “sheer necessity” of financial pressure may compel a strategic shift, and ends with the argument the decision to wage war is exceptionally grave, because war can never be made simple by applying technology. [German military theorist] Clausewitz would agree with that last point, and I accept it too, just as I agree we should support effective drone strikes as part of a larger strategy, not a substitute for it.

And that is the problem. Counterterrorism is not an approach that accepts we are fighting a war in the first place. Adopting it is not an example of “strategic recalculation”: it is an effort to define the problem out of existence. It is all very well to warn against the illusion technology can make war simple, but the issue in this case is the illusion the war does not exist at all. Cohen’s article is premised on the argument that “Drones can’t change war,” but it comes to the conclusion the problems with drones are mostly about their affect on us, not about what reliance on them will have on our ability to understand or win the war we are actually in.

Thus, while Cohen poses seven questions about drones that raise “significant issues,” six of them have to do with command, control, intelligence, alliance relations, and congressional oversight. These are important issues, to be sure. But all of them are relevant to any U.S. use of military power. The only question that applies solely to drones is his sixth, which asks if the use of drones, coupled with a reduced ground presence, will “undermine the confidence of the locals that we are willing to assume shared risks?”

The answer to that is obviously that it will. But the larger problem is not that using drones undermines the confidence of our allies in uniform. It is that drones vastly reduce our ability to fight a counterinsurgency campaign by protecting local populations and collecting intelligence that allows us to prosecute the war more effectively. Moreover, drones, by incinerating combatants and their cell phones from above, reduce our ability to gain through interrogations and analysis the intelligence we need to conduct counterinsurgency as well as counter-terrorism, and police operations. The problem with drones is not that they make us think war will be easy, but that they are being used to deny the realities of the war we are fighting.

The administration has actually gone a good way toward answering at least some of Cohen’s questions. I am hardly one to offer easy praise to State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh, but his address to the American Society of International Law in 2010 on the legality of drone warfare was measured and thoughtful. What I find much more troubling than the Administration’s stance on this issue is Cohen’s easy acceptance of the argument that “sheer necessity” will compel an Afghan withdrawal.

Nonsense: it is not necessity. It is a choice, and it deserves to be acknowledged, discussed, defended, and criticized as such. The fact we have spent more than $1 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan over 10 years is insignificant when compared to the almost $1 trillion we voted in a single stimulus bill in 2009. The argument from necessity is precisely what the administration relies on to smooth over the slightly awkward questions Cohen uninsistently asks.  By using it himself, Cohen gives the game away.

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