Terms of Engagement

The Indispensable Nation’s Indispensable Weapon

Obama can't live without drones, Pakistan can't live with 'em. So the president bowed to the Islamic street.

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

Men and women on the street of the Islamic world often say that they feel helpless in the face of American power — but in President Barack Obama’s decision to restrict the use of drones they won a victory which the administration’s domestic critics could never have achieved. As Obama pointed out in his speech, drones do an incredibly effective job of killing America’s adversaries, do not violate the laws of war, and — a fact he didn’t adduce — enjoy the overwhelming support of the American people. Obama was reacting to public opinion — but less in the United States than in Pakistan or Yemen. And the fact that this is so tells us a great deal about the changing face or war, and of statecraft.

Stanley McChrystal, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, summarized the problem with drones with perfect clarity when he said, "They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who have never seen one or seen the effects of one." Drones have an extraordinary capacity to provoke anger throughout the world in which America’s greatest threat — Islamic terrorism — originates. What Obama said in his speech was that the reduced threat from al Qaeda — thanks in part to the use of drone warfare — means that the United States no longer needs to incur this cost. He might have more honestly said that he has not been prepared to acknowledge that cost until now.

That’s a very powerful reason to restrict the use of an otherwise effective weapon. But think for a moment how very novel is the situation I’ve just described. In the past, America has deployed weapons whose effect on civilian populations has been immeasurably greater than even the highest estimate of collateral damage caused by drone strikes, whether carpet bombing in World War II or napalm in Vietnam (or, of course, the atomic bombs dropped on Japan). Some Americans recoiled from the moral horror of these devices, but presidents did not think to end or limit their use for strategic reasons.

U.S. policymakers cared about public opinion abroad, but it was generally a second-order issue — and outside of the West barely even that. Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. knowingly supported anti-Communist leaders despised by their own people without losing sleep over the consequences. "He might be a bastard, but he’s our bastard," as Harry Truman is rumored to have said about the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. Diplomacy was carried out over the heads of mere citizens; and of course diplomats liked it that way. In his recent song of praise for Henry Kissinger, Robert Kaplan notes that this remove permitted diplomats to make the kind of tragic choices required to advance state interests, no matter how much the armchair moralists of the day objected.

That era is finished, thanks to a combination of instantaneous communications and the growing unwillingness of people to be manipulated by their own rulers, or by the great powers. Citizens now exercise at least a potential veto over the acts even of great powers. The turning point probably came in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter agreed to let the ailing Shah of Iran come to the United States for medical treatment, a humanitarian gesture designed to show allies that Washington would stand by them. Big mistake: The revolutionary movement that forced the Shah out then turned its ire on the United States. Mass politics trumped elite diplomacy. There is no better proof of how U.S. leaders have internalized this lesson than Barack Obama’s decision in the spring of 2011 to cut loose another autocratic ally, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, despite accusations that Washington was abandoning its friends. Being hated carries a much higher price than it used to.

It isn’t just the war on terror, that is, but diplomacy itself, which now constitutes a permanent struggle for hearts and minds. We live in the age of Wikileaks; the U.S. leaders can no longer keep its war, or its deals, secret. That means no more Kissingerian tragic realists taking the measure of our fallen world. Indeed, though realists recoil at the argument that the United States should do this or that in order to enhance the way it is seen in the world, the way states are seen has increasingly become a matter of vital national interest.

And this brings me back to the question of drones. It is hard to dispute the effectiveness of drones in Pakistan, where the United States has no other means of targeting al Qaeda and other radical Islamist forces who launch attacks against Afghanistan — and, undisturbed, might well threaten the United States and the West. Drones have killed about 3,500 people along the border between the two countries, according to a recent report by Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations; and almost all of them have been intended targets. The three studies he cites estimate civilian deaths at 5 percent, 7 percent, and 23 percent of the total. According to a report from the New America Foundation, the civilian death rate has declined sharply since 2008 and is now very close to zero.

Drones work; and yet Pakistanis hate them. A 2012 poll of Pakistanis found that only 17 percent of respondents would support drone strikes even if carried out with their government’s cooperation. The same poll found that disapproval of U.S. policies has grown every year since Barack Obama became president, a finding that may have something to do with the steady growth of drone strikes, at least until the last year. Whatever you think of it, Pakistan is a democracy. This means that its rulers both respond to public opinion and actively exploit it. Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders have quietly collaborated with drone operations, but at the same time they reinforce their public legitimacy by denouncing the policy as a violation of national sovereignty — which in turn further inflames public opinion. The net consequence is that U.S. relations with this vital and profoundly brittle country are a disaster.

Like the V2 rockets which the Germans used in World War II, and whose apocalyptic effect Thomas Pynchon evokes in Gravity’s Rainbow, drones have gained a powerful grip on the public imagination. The rage and dread they cause, at least in the places where they are used, has more to do with their remote, silent, super-high-tech lethality than with their actual effect. And it doesn’t matter if that hatred is justified or not; the argument can’t be waged on the merits. Obama’s speech seems to signify an acceptance of this elemental fact (though of course some of the other decisions he announced, including shifting responsibility for drones from the CIA to the military, has more to do with domestic criticism about the program’s lack of transparency).

Obama knows that the war on terror requires that the United States kill or capture a very small number of implacable enemies, and change the minds and the lives of tens of millions of others. Indeed, in his speech he acknowledged that "in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways." Even former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once worried that the United States was making enemies faster than it was killing them. But the short-term urgency of killing bad guys inevitably eclipses the long-term goal of changing the conditions which produce terrorism. So even a figure as
conscientious as Obama slides down the slippery slope from approving the rare drone strike against "high-value targets" to approving the less discriminating "signature strike" against unidentified individuals engaged in a pattern of threatening activity. Both ending that practice and closing Guantanamo, which Obama also vowed in his speech to take steps to do, constitute an implicit recognition that the time has come to restore that balance.

Of course, the deep sense of embitterment which citizens of the Islamic world feel towards the United States is not going to be much diminished by Obama’s decision to end "signature strikes," or to transfer control of the drone program from the CIA to the Pentagon. Pakistan’s leaders will keep feeding their people a steady diet of anti-Americanism even if the Obama administration ends the drone program altogether, and doubles foreign aid. In his speech, Obama was careful to say that the United States had to be humble about what it could do to improve the lives — and, presumably, the opinions — of people in the Middle East. But it has no choice save to try.

Drones thus illustrate the conundrum of modern diplomacy. They are indispensable weapons whose eerie effectiveness infuriates people, and thus harms U.S. national interests. President Obama has found that he can’t live with them and can’t live without them. Now he has tried to split the difference. I applaud the decision; but we are not remotely finished with the debate.

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