As documented in the recent Post series “The Permanent War,” the United States increasingly relies on drone strikes as a principal and permanent component in fighting global terrorism. This is effective at killing terrorist leadership and is relatively painless politically at home, as it does not require massive military engagements or put U.S. soldiers or pilots at risk. There appear to be no short-term consequences.
Yet as necessary as some drone strikes have been — and will be in the future — over-reliance on drones raises problems. In establishing a long-term approach, a good rule of thumb might be that we should authorize drone strikes only if we would be willing to send in a pilot or soldier to do the job if a drone were not available.
There are four principal issues with excessive reliance on drones.
The first is moral. More people have been killed in U.S. drone attacks than were ever incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay. Can we be certain there were no cases of mistaken identity or innocent deaths? Those detained at Guantanamo at least had a chance to establish their identities, to be reviewed by an oversight panel and, in most cases, to be released. Those who remain at Guantanamo have been vetted and will ultimately face some form of legal proceeding. Those killed in drone strikes, whoever they were, are gone. Period.