The Wrong Option

Daniel Goure is right about one thing. My major concern with drones is not with the weapons themselves but with the militarized counterterrorism policies they are intended to serve. The use of military force is not an appropriate or effective means of fighting terrorism. Violent movements such as al Qaeda resemble criminal networks more than conventional military formations. They thrive in countries that lack development, democracy, and governance, where economic and social opportunities are few. Launching missile strikes into such regions will not eliminate the underlying conditions that give rise to these extremist movements and that sustain them once they are created. The best “weapons” against terrorism are political and economic, not military.

Killing the mafia dons who control these violent networks may cause some temporary disruption, but it will not end the threats of violence and could make matters worse. U.S. military attacks—of all kinds, including ground operations, conventional bombing and drone strikes—may arouse popular resentment and hatred toward American policy and increase the terrorist recruitment rate. Donald Rumsfeld asked the right question years ago, “Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrasas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us?” In Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia the answer is clearly no. After years of war in Afghanistan and hundreds of drone strikes into Pakistan, the Taliban insurgency is stronger than ever. Why do we think more of the same will produce a different result?

I have argued, as have many others, that the availability of drone weapons may increase the temptation to use force. This assertion, Goure claims, lacks logic. He seems to be suggesting that concerns about casualties play no role in decisions about military intervention. In democratic societies, however, military casualty levels are a major issue. Some operations have been called off because of military casualties, for example after the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and the “Black Hawk down” disaster a decade later in Somalia. Because of the political sensitivity of military casualties, government officials often try to lower or hide the human costs of war. Drones change these dynamics. The ability to launch military strikes without the risk of American casualties removes one of the principal political burdens associated with the decision to use force. How much influence this may have in shaping particular decisions is certainly debatable, but to suggest that it has no influence is, well, illogical.

Goure’s quote from Joshua Goldstein is misleading. He is correct in observing that without the use of drone strikes, the only option for precise military strikes in Pakistan would be ground invasion. As Goldstein notes, these would be much bloodier and far more dangerous operations. They would carry a high risk of failure. Goure does not take the argument to its logical conclusion. If drones did not exist, and if invasion were the only option, would the United States really launch major ground operations against Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Pakistan? Highly unlikely. Without drones there would be no campaign of military strikes against Pakistan, and probably none in Somalia either. And that’s the point. These weapons allow the use of military force in settings where otherwise it would not be an option.

Goure ignores Goldstein’s main argument. The use of force has indeed become less frequent in recent decades, but the reasons for this important historic development have nothing to do with precision weaponry. Goldstein emphasizes the importance of international peacekeeping missions as a decisive factor in creating stronger mechanisms of global governance. He and Steven Pinker also emphasize the influence of the global spread of democracy, heightened economic interdependence, the rise of international organizations, increasing levels of education, and the empowerment of women. Goldstein and Pinker also note an emerging global norm against violence and war. In many parts of the world people increasingly recognize that security depends less on high tech weaponry than on creating social and economic conditions for human flourishing, so that people can settle their differences through peaceful means rather than the use of force.

This is not about utopia or the second coming. Conflicts are inevitable, and armed violence will probably always be with us, but we can learn to settle differences in more peaceful ways. Placing our faith in weapons technology will not make us more secure or eliminate the underlying social and economic conditions that breed violent extremism in places that lack democracy, development and governance.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • David Cortright argues that drones are making warfare cheaper and less visceral — for us. This may sound like a good thing, but it also means that we may be drawn into more wars, and we may inflict more harm on innocent bystanders. This collateral harm is not only immoral, it’s also against our best interests, because it encourages terrorist retribution against us.

Response Essays

  • Benjamin Wittes and Ritika Singh argue that drones certainly do increase the distance at which deadly force can be delivered. In this they resemble the large majority of weapons that have ever been developed. Humanitarians, they add, should welcome drones’ precision, which makes possible a new level of caution in avoiding civilian bystanders. They conclude that the question is not whether the United States can prevent drones from proliferating. It is whether the United States will lead or follow in this new field of military technology.

  • Daniel Goure argues that if drones are making warfare more deadly, it’s certainly not showing up in the aggregate numbers. Casualties and warfare itself have declined substantially in recent years—and, he suggests, drones might be one part of the reason why. Drones remain a small part of our overall military forces to date. They are overwhelmingly used for nonviolent purposes such as surveillance. When they do exert deadly force, they often accomplish objectives that would have been impossible without them, barring a full-scale invasion. Legitimate concerns do exist over specific acts perpetrated via drone technology, but there is at least a plausible case that drones in general are making warfare less deadly, not more.

  • Tom Barry argues that the U.S. Congress and other policymakers have uncritically accepted drone warfare as both effective and cheap, with little regard to its actual costs and benefits. Defense contractors obviously stand to gain a great deal, and they have recently been lobbying to ease restrictions on drone technology export controls. The United States should lead the way in forming international agreements to prevent the proliferation of these high-tech weapons. At home, the proliferation of drones in drug enforcement and other local law enforcement tasks is also a worrying trend.