The Debate on Push-Button War Are Drones Worth Their Drawbacks?

Although the United States' drone war has succeeded in killing a number of terrorist leaders, many worry that the price in civilian casualties is too high and its ultimate effectiveness too illusory. But that isn't stopping the Obama administration from expanding the project's activities and increasing its funding.

Obama has expanded unmanned drone warfare and increased its funding.

Obama has expanded unmanned drone warfare and increased its funding.

By in Washington

It's unusual to see Richard Holbrooke casting about for words. But questions about the United States government's drone program leave the otherwise very eloquent US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan at a loss. If the questions keep coming, he'll usually make a lame attempt at a joke along the lines of "Are we really doing that?" before indirectly admitting that the US does, indeed, often send unmanned aircraft over the territory of its ally Pakistan.

Holbrooke's hemming and hawing also somewhat reflects the White House's stance. For a long time, it flatly denied the existence of the CIA drone program. By now, though, the scale of the program has made it harder and harder to keep under wraps. Experts counted 55 airstrikes in Pakistan's tribal areas in 2009, or about twice as many as were carried out during the entire Bush era. In 2010, there have been more than a dozen strikes, which has led David Ignatius of the Washington Post to calculate that this year's total could climb as high as 100.

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The New Yorker notes that CIA Director Leon Panetta has called the drones the most important weapons in the fight against terrorists. "These tools were not Obama's creation, but he has accelerated their use," says Thomas Sanderson, an expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. But criticism of the program is increasing. After all, drone strikes essentially amount to state-sanctioned execution without clear rules.

Dead Terrorists Don't Talk

When Barack Obama assumed office, he pledged to evaluate and, if need be, put an end to the ways of waging war on terror that were introduced by George W. Bush. But Obama has adhered to the policy of indefinitely holding certain detainees and dragged his feet on his promise to shut down the controversial military prison in Guantanamo Bay. Both of these have disappointed the left wing of his party, which is following Obama's virtual war with increasing frustration.

"The problem," Marc Thiessen, who worked as a speechwriter for the Bush administration, told Fox News in February, "is that Obama is escalating the Predator attacks at the same time that he has eliminated one of the most important intelligence capabilities we have, the CIA's program to detain, capture and … interrogate terrorist leaders. Dead terrorists cannot tell you their plans for new attacks."

The ability to kill with just the press of a button from CIA headquarters in Virginia raises the question of just how faceless modern warfare can be. Experts in the US intelligence community now enjoy a certain degree of free rein in their drone attacks, and the president no longer needs to approve each and every strike. The legal basis for the drone strikes is set forth in a memo signed by George W. Bush, which allows the expedited killing of presumed terrorists in cases marked by some degree of urgency.

The potential for killing innocent bystanders is also very high. The first drone strike of Obama's term, which was carried out in the Pakistani mountains on his third day in office, reportedly left four terrorists -- and up to four times as many civilians -- dead. Human rights activists calculate that drones have killed hundreds of innocent civilians. Still, since hardly any media outlets can report on drone strikes, such figures are difficult to prove.

Likewise, monitoring who is targeted is often difficult. For example, the CIA is believed to have repeatedly expanded the list of possible drone targets, often leaving the selection of targets up to the Pakistani government.

Apparently Worth the Expense

Even the gains achieved by these unmanned airstrikes are a subject of controversy. Some security experts even believe that the men replacing leaders killed in the strikes are even more lethal and reckless than their predecessors, which makes claims of progress in the war on terrorism -- measured in terms of "body counts" of terrorist leaders -- misleading or unfounded.

Still, a renunciation of drone warfare is not in the cards. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case, seeing that next year's budget for the technology is to be greatly increased. As Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for the White House, told reporters in February: "We only weaken ourselves when we fail to use our full arsenal."


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