The Public and the Drone War

It’s a near certainty that President Obama will continue his drone war, including targeted strikes against American citizens. Why? Because, at the moment, there’s not much of a political price to pursuing the strategy. To wit, today’s survey from CBS News is just the latest in a list of polls that show wide support for drone strikes, and smaller—but still significant—support for strikes against American citizens. Overall, 57 percent of Americans approve of how President Obama has handled terrorism, as opposed to the 31 percent that disapprove. Seventy-one percent favor drone attacks against suspected terrorists, with overwhelming support from all partisan groups:

The picture is different when it comes to killing Americans suspected of terrorism. There, the broad public is ambivalent—just a plurality of Democrats and independents support the policy. Republican support—reflecting the party’s aggressive approach to foreign policy—is still strong, though substantially smaller than support for the general policy of drone strikes.

Politically, there’s a distinction here that’s worth making. Yes, there’s no broad opposition to drone strikes and targeted killings, but that’s only because it hasn’t become an issue of real political contention. If Mitt Romney had come out against drone strikes, and made opposition a part of his platform, you would see greater opposition from self-identified Republicans. Likewise, if George W. Bush were pursuing the same policies as Obama, you’d see far more discontent from Democrats.

There’s still time and space for enterprising politicians to come out against drone strikes and targeted killings. Indeed, if the Republican Party were interested in critiquing Obama’s foreign policy—and not just indulging paranoid fantasies—it could use this as an area of political attack. For now, as long as the drone war is removed from the realm of partisan politics, odds are low for politicized discontent from the public and sustained opposition from either party.