The recent assassination by drone of al-Qaeda's second-in-command has fanned an already lively discussion of such attacks. If they are good, then for what, and if they are bad, then how? Are they a useful military tactic, or is their appeal in their political theatrics?
Barack Obama is not the first president to embrace drones. Here, as mostly elsewhere, he has continued (without attribution) the anti-terror policies of George W. Bush. Far more than Mr. Bush, however, he has hitched his political wagon to the image of a drone warrior. Consider, for example, a lengthy recent New York Times piece that relied on the co-operation of the White House. (This wasn't a leak, it was a tsunami.) Mr. Obama figured in it as America's assassin-in-chief, meeting with aides every Tuesday to review individuals for possible targeting. The final decision as to who lives and who dies the President reserves to himself. This bravura performance received mixed reviews: the Times's own editorialists recoiled from it
For Mr. Obama, who forever reinvents himself, there are strong political reasons for hugging his drones so tightly. In an election year when his foreign policy has proved largely ineffectual, he badly wants to remind voters that he's as tough as he claims to be. Like cyber attacks (but more so), drone attacks provide the satisfactions of war while avoiding its most obvious risks.
None of which is to deny the obvious military utility of drones. Mr. Obama has always maintained that America's “real enemy” is al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda makes a point of avoiding the reach of conventional U.S. and allied forces. Even in the Afghan theatre, both al-Qaeda and the Taliban enjoy refuge in Waziristan across the Pakistani border. The greatest threat of an attack on the American homeland now emanates from al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, entrenched in regions of Yemen in revolt against the central authority there. In the Horn of Africa, Somalia's al-Shabab harbours similar deadly aspirations. All these groups have quite reasonably pitched their tents in ungoverned regions and among populations friendly to them. But while they control the ground, America can still dominate the skies. Enter drones: relatively cheap, highly portable and easily based, and liable to neither IEDs nor PTSD.
Drone attacks are highly effective, at least in the most immediate sense. They have eliminated several first-tier terrorists and an unknown number of lesser ones. In Abu Yahya al-Libi, the most recent victim, the drone knew to eliminate someone of real talent. In war (and this is one), one should always take the battle to the enemy. Subjectively, the obliteration of a murderous terrorist is a rousing spectacle. It certainly beats merely foiling their plots or assisting dismal local allies against them.
Even so, such attacks can accomplish only so much. Hardly anyone thinks that they will suffice to defeat al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Decapitation has its limits; no one has ever won a war with troops composed entirely of snipers. Shave off the tip, and the iceberg remains. There is no evidence that al-Qaeda lacks for recruits; in fact, the danger is that these attacks have multiplied them.
The basic problem with drones is now well-attested: blowback. Imagine the presence overhead of these only too visible foreign objects, agents of a distant evil empire, a terror visited by the technologically advanced upon the backward. They hover there in their impunity, testifying to your pervasive weakness, ever vigilant, ever ominous, unpredictable until the moment when they will belch their consuming fire. This presence is simultaneously terrifying, humiliating and infuriating.
That the drones are a gross affront to the sovereignty of states unwillingly subjected to them is clear enough. They thereby strain necessary co-operation whether against the terrorists or to other ends. This is already a significant cost; relations with both Pakistan and Yemen have deteriorated as a result of the drones.
As the most unwelcome of guests, drones are also obnoxious to ordinary people. They don't dispose hearts and minds in the Americans' favour. For all their justly vaunted precision, the strikes inevitably kill some civilians. (Which means that even where they haven't – as the Americans assure us was the case with Mr. al-Libi – the enemy gets away with insisting that they have.) They have thus stoked the ire of the locals on whom al-Qaeda and its affiliates depend for recruits and other forms of support.
Yes, removing an al-Libi is worth a stiff price. The further down the terrorist hierarchy, the less the price is worth paying. As long as the drones remain the public face of Mr. Obama's warlike resolve, the temptation to overuse them will be great. If he must play the Grim Reaper, let him do so only sparingly.