Some of these anxieties seem to us misplaced. But the means and objectives of drone attacks — and the Obama administration’s steps toward institutionalizing the system — deserve much more debate than they have attracted during the presidential campaign.
Start with the misconceptions: Many critics second Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush, who wrote on the opposite page Sunday that drone strikes allow U.S. adversaries to portray the United States as “a distant, high-tech, amoral purveyor of death.” While drones may indeed prompt such propaganda, they are really a more effective and — yes — humane way to conduct one of the age-old tactics for combating an irregular enemy: identifying and eliminating its leaders. That drones do not put the lives of U.S. soldiers at risk and cause fewer collateral deaths are virtues, not evils.
Similarly, Mr. Volker asks “what we would say if others used drones to take out their opponents” — such as Russia in Chechnya or China in Tibet. The answer is twofold: Other nations will inevitably acquire and use armed drones, just as they have adopted all previous advances in military technology, from the bayonet to the cruise missile. But the legal and moral standards of warfare will not change. It’s hard to imagine that Russian drones would cause more devastation in Grozny than did Russian tanks and artillery, but if used there they would surely attract international censure.
That brings us to the question of whether the United States deserves such censure for the way it is using drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia — the three places they have been employed outside a conventional war zone. As we have written previously, the strikes meet tests for domestic and international legality. War against al-Qaeda and those who harbor it was authorized in 2001 by Congress, and the United States has the right under international law to defend against attacks on its homeland, which al-Qaeda forces in Pakistan and Yemen have launched. Moreover, the governments of Yemen, Somalia and, up to a point, Pakistan have consented to the strikes.
The Obama administration’s heavy and increasing dependence on drones is nevertheless troubling. As Mitt Romney said in endorsing the drone strikes during the last presidential debate, “we can’t kill our way out of this.” Terrorism can be defeated only by a comprehensive effort to encourage stable and representative governments and economic development in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan — a mission the administration, with its harping about “nation-building here at home,” appears increasingly disinclined to take on. Moreover, drone strikes do stoke popular hostility and therefore make U.S. political and diplomatic goals more difficult to achieve.