Similarly mounting opposition to U.S. drone strikes is already apparent. Between February and June 2012, U.S. support for drone strikes fell from 83 percent to 62 percent -- less support than enhanced interrogation techniques received in the mid-2000s. At the same time, there is overwhelming international opposition to U.S. drone strikes that could lead to the end of U.S. access to regional airbases, overflight rights, and overt or tacit host nation support, all of which are critical to conducting drone strikes. Just as the U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunships were kicked out of Ethiopia in 2007 and the CIA drone fleet was evicted from Pakistan in 2011, this could happen elsewhere. Alternatively, the United States may not receive permission from any southern European or northern African state to conduct drone strikes against, say, Mali. This would severely limit the geographic reach of drones, as it will be another seven to ten years before the United States is flying armed drones off carriers.
Third, the United States is the unrivaled leader in using armed drones. Other than Israel -- which overwhelmingly uses manned aircraft -- in the Gaza Strip and the United Kingdom in the traditional battlefield of Afghanistan, the United States is the only state to conduct drone strikes on the sovereign territory of another state. If the United States hopes to have normative influence on how others use drones -- and administration officials repeatedly claim that they do -- then U.S. leadership must provide a legal framework, a coherent and plausible explanation of the scope of legitimate targets, and a rationale for how targeted killings are coordinated with broader foreign policy objectives. The problem is that the administration's public articulation of its drone strike policies -- used only against specific senior al Qaeda officials who pose an imminent threat to the U.S. homeland -- are fundamentally at odds with how they are actually employed, such as the use of signature strikes against suspected militants predominantly engaged in domestic insurgencies.
To address these issues, the Obama administration should bring its drone strike practices in line with its stated policies by: exclusively limiting its targeted killings to the leadership of al Qaeda or those with a direct operational role in past or ongoing terrorist plots; immediately ending the practice of signature strikes, or publically explaining how they plausibly meet the principles of distinction and proportionality; and reviewing the current policy whereby the executive authority for drone strikes is split between the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command, which have different legal authorities, degrees of permissible transparency, and oversight.
There is intense interest in drone strikes on Capitol Hill from virtually everyone except senior members in both parties who possess the authority to convene hearings. Nevertheless, the relevant congressional committees should hold hearings to examine how drone strikes are coordinated with broader foreign policy objectives; discuss the short- and long-term effects of U.S. targeted killings with government officials and nongovernmental experts; and assess the geographic and temporal limits of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force and the legal justifications for targeted killings of U.S. citizens. At a minimum, professional staff members of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees should receive general briefings about drone strikes and other targeted killings that occur in countries and regions that they oversee. They have repeatedly requested such briefings -- and even threatened to withhold funding -- but the White House has steadfastly refused.
President Obama's second term provides a narrow window for his administration to pursue politically or diplomatically sensitive issues. Many hope that Obama will accelerate the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan, close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, or push for Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea and Comprehensive Test Ban treaties. While the Obama administration did not initiate the controversial practice of drone strikes of suspected terrorists, or signature strikes against anonymous "military-age males," it is vastly expanding the scope and intensity of such operations. Consequently, the administration has a responsibility to capitalize on the opportunity to significantly reform its drone strike policies.
A leading proponent for more transparent and defensible targeted killings policies was White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, nominated yesterday to be the next CIA director. Since he will be unable to lead or oversee any U.S. government-wide reforms in armed drones from the covert world at Langley, it must be a personal priority for President Obama. Either the Obama administration proactively shapes U.S. and international use of armed drones through transparency, self-restraint, and engagement, or it continues with its current policies and risks the consequences -- a world characterized by the proliferation of armed drones used with little transparency or constraint in which targeted killings occur with impunity against anyone deemed an "enemy."