Micah Zenko

Addicted to Drones

Is the allure of war by remote control the root cause of America's dangerously unbalanced foreign policy?


"The military’s impressive, isn’t it?," U.S. President Bill Clinton remarked to his aide George Stephanopoulos in 1994, as the 82nd Airborne Division stood by for orders to invade Haiti to remove the Raoul Cédras’s regime from power. For civilian officials, the military’s ability to find and destroy things from a safe distance never ceases to amaze. The CIA’s ongoing drone strike campaign is a particularly redoubtable example, with drone operators in the United States taking out targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In September alone, the agency launched more than 20 unmanned drone strikes against suspected al Qaeda and Taliban operatives in Pakistan.

These recent drone strikes epitomize an important trend: When confronted with a foreign-policy problem that threatens U.S. national interests, civilian policymakers routinely call on limited military force such as drone strikes, cruise missile attacks, and special-operations raids. Many experts — from pundits to anonymous U.S. officials — laud such drone strikes as a low-cost, highly responsive, and effective military tactic. In practice, however, drones — like other uses of limited force — have substantial downsides that deserve attention given their increasingly prominent role.

One largely ignored downside is procedural and pertains to an unsexy and wonkish aspect of policymaking: interagency coordination. Under pressure to act in response to a threat and seduced by the allure and responsiveness of limited force, presidents elevate military options above other instruments of statecraft. Inevitably, after the missiles are launched, they announce their intention to keep the pressure on targeted adversaries with a follow-on campaign using all elements of national power. Once the bombs have been dropped, however, and the politically necessary "do something" box has been ticked, complex, robust secondary measures rarely come to fruition.

For example, in August 1998, in retaliation for bombing U.S. embassies in East Africa, the Clinton administration launched cruise missiles against a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan suspected of producing nerve gas and against al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden was thought to be hiding. The Clinton administration announced the strikes as the opening phase of a long-term fight against al Qaeda, with one White House official promising: "This is not a one-shot deal here." Yet, as the 9/11 Commission revealed, subsequent attempts to apply political, diplomatic, and economic pressure on al Qaeda and the Taliban floundered. Nothing focuses the attention of senior policymakers more than the quick prospect of using military force, but once they do so, competing interests soon eclipse the original threat.

Another shortcoming is that the readily available option of limited force compounds the persistent underresourcing of non-military instruments of statecraft. Most civilian and military officials recognize the dire need to strengthen the civilian expertise required to implement the long-term development, capacity-building, and governance programs designed to handle the underlying terrorism and other security challenges — as best stated by none other than Defense Secretary Robert Gates, "Military success is not sufficient to win." But compared with the celerity, tangibility, and political expediency of military force, long-term and laborious diplomacy and development policies almost invariably lose out. Congress is just as guilty of this mindset as are executive branch policymakers — legislators are on the verge of whacking around $4 billion from President Barack Obama’s foreign-affairs budget, which is projected to be only 7 percent of the forthcoming defense budget.

Perhaps most troublingly, limited force undermines its own political objectives by tarnishing the image of the United States regionally. In Pakistan, for example, CIA drone strikes are increasingly perceived as the face of U.S. foreign policy and denounced by mainstream figures from media commentators to pop singers. (According to a recent poll in the tribal areas, more than three-quarters of residents living there oppose drone strikes.) The sensationalist Pakistani media amplifies misperceptions by presenting harmful untruths that go unchallenged by U.S. officials, who are gagged by rules governing covert operations — even though the drone strikes are the world’s worst-kept secret.

As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius noted with alarm on Sept. 29: "The U.S. military has been working hard to provide flood assistance, but most of that is invisible to Pakistanis. They read about American drone attacks but not about helicopters bringing food supplies."

On the bright side, there is a growing recognition in U.S. policymaking circles that limited force alone is not the answer. In April 2009, while heading U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus worked with the U.S. intelligence community and the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen to produce the first comprehensive military strategy for that country. In December 2009, Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed the Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy that details the key initiatives, resource requirements, and milestones for all relevant U.S. government agencies. Confronting threats from Pakistan, Yemen, and other troubled states requires exactly this sort of comprehensive, coordinated, and prioritized strategy that integrates all available elements of national power to provide security and opportunity to affected populations, while countering the rise of violent extremism.

President Bill Clinton was correct: The military is an impressive foreign-policy tool. But senior officials must appreciate that limited force is simply a tactic, and not a substitute for a strategy.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola