The Brewing Backlash Against the Drone War
For most Americans, the so-called drone war is a no-brainer: maximum lethality delivered at low economic cost, with zero risk to American personnel—all buffered by the virtual-reality nature of a delivery system that keeps the consequences safely out of sight. That explains why a stunning 83 percent of the country supports President Barack Obama’s use of drones to target suspected terrorists. But the rest of the world isn’t as comfortable with this remote-controlled, auto-pilot war. Indeed, international watchdogs have begun to raise concerns.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of drones. First and foremost, drones are the closest thing to risk-free war man has ever invented—at least for those of us on this side of the unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) prowling the skies of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. While the political cost is high when a commander-in-chief loses a pilot, it’s negligible when a commander-in-chief loses a pilotless plane. Compare, for example, the ho-hum reaction to the loss of drones in Iran and the Seychelles under Obama with the international crises other presidents faced when U.S. pilots were shot down over enemy territory: President Dwight Eisenhower was publicly humiliated after the Soviets brought down Gary Powers’ U-2. President John Kennedy was pressured to go to war when Rudolf Anderson was shot down during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And President Bill Clinton had to deal with a hostage crisis after Michael Durant’s Blackhawk was shot down in Mogadishu, and later had to launch a massive search-and-rescue operation deep behind enemy lines when Scott O’Grady’s F-16 crashed in Bosnia.
Most UCAV operators, however, are some 7,000 miles away from their targets—and 7,000 miles away from danger. With no risk to U.S. personnel and a high return—the Brookings Institution estimates that as many as 2,209 militants have been killed by drone strikes—Washington has latched on to UCAVs as an important tool in the national-security toolbox and arguably the primary weapon in the post-9/11 campaign against jihadist groups: