David Cortright states that his “objection to drones is not that they ‘keep our forces safer’” as Ritika Singh and I had suggested. “That is a misreading of my argument,” he protests. But read further in his reply and he makes clear that this concern is, in fact, integral to his objection.
“My concern,” he says immediately after protesting our characterization, “is that the availability of these weapons may weaken necessary moral and political constraints against the use of force.” Why? “Because drone weapons reduce the costs and risks of armed action” and thus “lower the inhibitions against using military force [emphasis added].”
Cortright’s example, the use of drones along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, is a case in point. He notes Defense Secretary Panetta’s argument that drones are the “only game in town” and explains why this is: They are more precise than conventional air strikes, and “Ground operations by commando units … would entail severe risks to our troops” (emphasis added). The result is that the availability of drones creates a military option where none would otherwise exist.
Just to be clear, I prefer that American troops be deployed with a minimum of “severe risks.” And Cortright’s confidence that absent drones, policymakers would not perceive “severe risks to our troops” as risks worth taking to confront al Qaeda seems misplaced to me. One cannot assume that because major troop commitments are politically unthinkable given the availability of lesser uses of force that they would be similarly unthinkable in the absence of these alternative military means. Cortright assumes that absent drones, the United States would simply not be engaged militarily in Pakistan. His assumption is naive. Absent drones, American involvement in Pakistan would probably be militarily messier, greater, and bloodier on both sides. It is a mistake that colors his entire argument.