Can the U.S. Stop Drones From Creating a More Dangerous World?

In an op-ed in today's Washington Post, retired Army general John Abizaid and Rosa Brooks, a former Defense Department official, warn that "[t]he United States' drone policies damage its credibility, undermine the rule of law and create a potentially destabilizing international precedent—one that repressive regimes around the globe will undoubtedly exploit." Their argument, which comes from a report they produced for the Stimson Center together with a task force of former defense and intelligence officials, is essentially that unmanned aerial vehicles make the use of lethal force across borders too easy, and we need to establish strict policies limiting their use.

True enough. But the question I'm left with is, how much will the United States' policies really determine the worldwide future of drones and their use?

Before we get to that, we should acknowledge that President Obama has declared his intention to establish rules restraining his own and future presidents' use of drones. In a May speech, he argued that drone strikes should only be undertaken "only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is no certainty—there is near certainty of no civilian casualties. For our actions should meet a simple test:  We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield." Which sounds good, were it not for the fact that we've been regularly been creating more enemies than we take off the battlefield, in all kinds of ways.

One of the core problems with drone strikes is not just that they often kill civilians, but that they carry symbolic meaning in the places where we've used them. They can come to be seen as a representation of American arrogance and power, with the global hegemon granting itself the right to rain down robotic death from above at any time, at any place, across any border where it might perceive a threat.

You don't have to agree with that perception to acknowledge that it exists. But it isn't hard to see why drone strikes have been so attractive as a military tool to this president. He inherited two grinding wars started by his predecessor, which cost trillions and resulted in thousands of American deaths. Drones, on the other hand, offer the possibility of achieving finite military objectives at limited cost and with no risk to American personnel. Although the number of strikes has been tapering of late (they peaked in Pakistan in 2010 and in Yemen in 2012, and have declined since then), they remain a central tool of our military policy.

The Stimson report argues that if the U.S. uses drones arbitrarily, other nations will follow our lead, which seems like a reasonable prediction. But it's less clear why, if we establish careful legal and procedural restraints on our use of drones, other nations would do the same. Reading the report, I was struck by the general presumption that other nations are going to be taking their cues from us, both in positive and negative ways. For instance, members of the task force write, "US practices set a dangerous precedent that may be seized upon by other states—not all of which are likely to behave as scrupulously as US officials." If those nations are unscrupulous, then why would they care how responsible we're being?

This is important because pretty much every country with a military either already has drones or will be getting them soon (most of those are for surveillance and not yet weaponized, but they will be eventually). We can impose all kinds of checks and balances on our drone policy, but no matter how thoughtfully they might be developed, that doesn't mean that China or Russia, not to mention smaller states, would do the same.

The result could be a democratization of certain kinds of military force. Incursions across borders will become cheap, easy, and relatively low-risk. Assassinations could become a lot more common, and just imagine how we'd feel if, say, China sent a drone to blow up a dissident who was living in Santa Monica.

That's unlikely, of course, since pissing off the United States could have dramatic consequences. But drones could serve to quickly escalate low-level conflicts between small states, or even not-so-small ones like India and Pakistan. Or Iran.

To be clear, the recommendations in the Stimson report about setting up tight procedures, oversight, and transparency around American drone use are all good. But they may not do much to prevent drone technology from making this a more dangerous world. 

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