Drones in Our Time

Why Obama was fibbing about America's wars coming to an end.

Philip Larkin, that famously crotchety British poet of political incorrectness, knew a lot about a lot. He knew a great deal, for instance, about the general f***ed-up-ness of families, the shimmering mirage of the sexual revolution, and the creeping fear of old age and death.

But he never even conceived of drones.

This, at any rate, was the thought that flew irrelevantly into my head as I listened to President Obama discuss "peace in our time" in his second inaugural speech. (And this, mamas and daddies, is also why you shouldn't let your babies grow up to be English majors: they will fritter away their time writing columns, and find any excuse to name-drop famous poets).

But really -- what would Larkin have made of drones?

Consider "Homage to a Government," his 1969 elegy for the British Empire.

Next year we are to bring the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly.
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working. And this is all right.

It's hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it's been decided nobody minds.
The places are a long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The soldiers there only made trouble happen.
Next year we shall be easier in our minds.

Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it's a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.

(Mandatory disclaimer: I know, the British Empire really stunk for millions of people, so one shouldn't get all weepy about its demise. But it's just a poem, damn it.)

Military commentators (probably all former English majors!) love to quote this poem, because it is (a) a fine poem, objectionable though we may find British imperialism, and (b) painfully a propos as American imperialism moves into its death throes.

But Larkin's poem is inapplicable to our current situation for two reasons. For one thing, we don't have a hope in hell of leaving our children any money. We've already squandered it, both on soldiers and on ourselves at home. And for another thing -- if I may add another poet to the convoluted mix -- the American empire will be going out, contra Eliot, with a bang, not a whimper. Or rather, with many and many a bang -- because though we may lack money, we've still got a whole bunch of drones.

This is what we'll be leaving our children.

Drones, of course, constitute the weapons that dare not speak their name: officially, the president and the rest of the U.S. government still have no comment on the question of whether or not we might be using or not using drone strikes in certain unspecified countries. You know: covert is covert, even when it's sort of overt. So President Obama didn't say a word about drones in Monday's inaugural address. Instead, he alluded to our 2011 withdrawal from Iraq and our planned 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan, assuring us that "A decade of war is now ending."

This was a crowd pleaser, as well as a somewhat less poetic variant of "Next year we are to bring the soldiers home/For lack of money. And this is all right."

And it is all right, because as Obama put it, "We, the people...believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war." This, in turn, is the president's polite way of acknowledging his suspicion that the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan only made trouble happen.

But it's also all right because perpetual war no longer requires soldiers -- because we, unlike Philip Larkin's Britain, are a nation proudly possessed of drones.

With drones, we can pretend to have peace while actually having perpetual war. We can bring the soldiers home, something the public is manifestly eager to do, but still make trouble happen in places a long way off.

And we will. Don't let the president's peculiar evocation of Neville Chamberlain fool you: we may withdraw from Afghanistan next year as planned, but we're about as likely to have "peace in our time" as the British were in 1938.

That's because even as our ground wars have wound down, our covert drone wars have been ratcheting up. We've used drones in conventional "hot battlefields" (Afghanistan, Libya) and this is relatively uncontroversial, but we've also relied on drones to go after targets in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. There have been unsubstantiated allegations of U.S. drone use in Mali and the Philippines as well. Since most to this drone activity remains covert, it's hard to know how extensive the U.S. use of drone strikes has become. Best estimates place the number of drone strikes outside conventional battlefields in the hundreds, and the number of deaths well over 3,000. (The number of civilian casualties remains hotly debated.)

As I've written elsewhere, there's nothing inherently "wrong" with the use of unmanned, armed aerial vehicles. They're just weapons-delivery systems. Aerial bombing by manned aircraft kills people just as dead as drone strikes.

But rapid technological breakthroughs in the last decade have been game-changers for how the United States thinks about the cross-border use of force. Today's UAVs don't enable the United States to strike anyone, anywhere, anytime, but they do make the use of lethal force in foreign states more economical, more precise, and less risky from the perspective of domestic constituencies: When going after a suspected terrorist requires no short-term risk to U.S. lives, the public is a lot less likely to object.

The trouble with drones is that they make it a little too tempting to use force. When you have a nifty tool that allows you to deniably knock off potential bad guys with no risk, why wouldn't you use it more and more? Thus, we've seen drone strikes evolve in the last decade, from a tool used in limited circumstances to go after specifically identified high-ranking al Qaeda officials to a tool relied on in an increasing number of countries to go after an eternally lengthening list of putative bad guys, some identified by name, others targeted on the basis of suspicious behavior patterns, with an increasingly tenuous link to grave or imminent threats to the United States.

From a legal perspective, this isn't necessarily a problem: if the law of armed conflict applies, it's not hard to make a case for the legality of U.S. drone strikes. From a rule of law perspective, though, it's beyond disturbing: unknown numbers of unnamed people executed by the United States for unspecified reasons in unacknowledged drone strikes, with no safeguard against abuse (or simple mistake) beyond the good faith and good sense of executive branch officials.

History suggests that this ain't much of a safeguard.

In his inaugural address, President Obama pledged that America would always respect the rule of law, because "peace in our time requires the constant advance of [such] principles." That's a fine sentiment, Chamberlainian echoes notwithstanding, but there's been little public sign that the Obama administration is truly interested in bringing drone strikes under the rule of law umbrella. The president's silence on the ongoing drone war in his inaugural remarks speaks volumes about his unwillingness to increase transparency in even the most minimal way.

But increased transparency is something we desperately need. Without more transparency, how can we decide if the U.S. use of drones is lawful or unlawful? More pragmatically, without more transparency, how can we evaluate whether the U.S. drone war is doing us more good than harm? How can we tell if it's actually weakening terrorist networks? How can we evaluate its second-order effects -- is it inspiring more anti-U.S. violence than it's preventing, or setting a dangerous precedent for other states? How can we tell if drone strikes are a sound strategy, or, as a military acquaintance puts it, merely a tactic in search of a strategy?

We can't. Unquestionably, there are individuals and groups out there who'd be tickled pink to do us harm. Whether our current use of drone strikes is the most effective or wise response to militant groups remains unclear, though -- and evidence is mounting that we may pay a price for it. But if the president won't even acknowledge the program, much less do anything to promote meaningful public debate, how will we ever know? How will we keep the drone program from giving us little more than perpetual war?

When in doubt, we English literature majors fall back on random scraps of verse. So -- why not? -- I'll close by saying that all this all brings to mind another famous (and even more irrelevant) Philip Larkin poem, one most certainly not written as a comment on drones, or war, or the setting of the sun over waning empires. I suddenly find myself contemplating Larkin's anguished closing lines in "High Windows":

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Which, in the end, is not a bad metaphor for America's drone war.

U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez

National Security

Counter Intelligence

Was David Petraeus the last smart general in the U.S. military?

A few days after the Petraeus scandal broke in November, Fred Kaplan's excellent new book, The Insurgents, showed up in the mail. I ripped open the package it came in (I love getting free books in the mail) and contemplated the photo on the front cover. There was David Petraeus striding towards me, leaning determinedly forward, lips pressed together in a Mona Lisa smile. Well, maybe it's a smile: with Petraeus-gate followed by Paula-gate and Jill Kelley-gate and so on, it's also possible to interpret Petraeus's expression as anything from a look of grim resolution to a well-controlled wince.

Looking at that book jacket, my first thought was a frivolous one: Huh, I bet Fred -- until recently a fellow fellow of mine at the New America Foundation -- is ruing the day he agreed to put David Petraeus on the cover of his book.

This frivolous thought was of course quite wrong. It was surely appropriate for Kaplan to have made Petraeus the central character in his finely-grained account of the rise and fall of the "counterinsurgency insurgents," and from a commercial perspective, I suspect that David Petraeus's picture has never sold more books. (Even Paula Broadwell's gooey panegyric has been lifted from the depths of obscurity to the heights of heartland airport newsstands.)

Readers hoping for salacious tidbits will be left sorely disappointed, however. Kaplan's not that kind of writer, and this is not that kind of book. On the contrary: Kaplan's book offers an important corrective to the scandal-obsessed media stories about Petraeus. Petraeus was, inevitably, many things to many people: a stuffed shirt obsessed with the nitpicky details of military grooming standards; a driven narcissist who'd do anything to succeed; the general who kept the Iraq war from being a fiasco from beginning to end; a lonely warrior too easily seduced by a younger woman on the make. But these caricatures miss a point Kaplan drives home: whatever else he was, Petraeus was a passionate intellectual, deeply committed to learning, challenging, and questioning, and to developing new talent and testing new ideas.

The counterinsurgency community, which Petraeus both symbolized and helped create, enjoyed only a brief moment of preeminence before backlash set in -- but the COIN revival also constituted a courageous and far-reaching effort to reconceptualize war and reimagine the American military.

I've been thinking a lot about Kaplan's book this last month -- partly because it's just a good read, rich in texture and never less than wise -- but partly because these last weeks have seen a resurgence of articles and blog posts lamenting the American military's fearsome resistance to change. In December, Tom Ricks ran a guest post by a young Marine lieutenant complaining that "among my peers, the ones with ideas are the ones getting out, because they just don't feel the organization values them." In January, another Marine lieutenant decried the Corps's "endemic tolerance for mediocrity or outright incompetence."

It's not just the Marine Corps that has come in for scathing criticism in Foreign Policy of late. The Army? Jason Dempsey -- a lieutenant colonel and the author of Our Army, an excellent book on civil-military relations -- argued in November that the Army values tactical know-how over strategic vision, and Tim Kane, author of Bleeding Talent, took the Army to task last week for rigid personnel policies that push out the most creative and talented officers. Ricks himself continues to go after the generals, most of whom he suspects should be fired.

The Navy and Air Force come in for their own share of criticism if you dig deeply enough into Ricks's blog, as do the service academies and the military schoolhouses, but you get the basic idea. There are a lot of disgruntled grunts out there -- and a widely shared complaint is that This Man's Army (and Navy, and so on) may pay lip service to creativity, vision, and big ideas, but in reality, big ideas are as welcome in the military as ants at a picnic.

Let's discount these complaints by 30 percent on the grounds that Foreign Policy is not likely to publish pieces by military Panglossians insisting that all's for the best in the best of all possible worlds. We're still left with a lot of complaints about the dearth of big thinkers and big thoughts in today's military.

All this makes Fred Kaplan's book both timely and poignant. David Petraeus may have had feet of clay, but he was deeply committed to nurturing creative thinkers and developing new insights. He encouraged a generation of younger thinkers (most of whom are, consistent with Tim Kane's arguments, no longer in the military). He believed the military needed "soldier-scholars," and he urged officers to spend time at civilian universities to further their development into the "flexible, adaptable, creative thinkers" needed by today's military. Just as important, he pushed his protégés to put their ideas out there in writing -- because having interesting thoughts doesn't do anyone much good if they're never shared.

When Petraeus left the Army for the imagined greener pastures of the CIA, the military lost its most visible and charismatic champion of creative thinking. When his scandal-driven resignation from the CIA pushed him out of public life altogether, the loss was multiplied.

Ah, you say -- but surely Petraeus wasn't the only dedicated and visible military intellectual! Surely there are others like him out there -- intellectual soul mates in other services, younger versions of Petraeus!

I'd like to believe there are. I'd like to believe that the military is not only a learning organization but an idea-generating organization, fertile ground for hundreds more Petraeuses. I'd like to believe that the intellectual ferment that characterized the COIN community was not a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. I'd like to believe that there are people in the military community who don't mind being controversial and don't mind being wrong -- sometimes it's the big but flawed ideas that spark the most useful debates -- and I'd like to believe the military will nurture and reward those people, not push them ignominiously out.

I'd like to believe that despite the laments of Ricks's young Marine lieutenant, there are indeed passionate and imaginative people out there in our military who are thinking and writing about the big questions: what's the role of our military in a world in which threats are as likely to stem from diffuse global phenomena (climate change, economic interdependence) as from adversarial states or even non-state actors? What skills and what institutional architecture will enable the military to take on this complex world with agility and subtlety? How can we get from where we are today -- with a system that remains, in many ways, a Cold War holdover -- to the reforms we need?

Maybe those creative military thinkers and writers are out there -- but I just can't seem to find many of them. Of course, there are a few shining examples and interesting think pieces here and there -- but where are the sustained debates? Where are the new Petraeuses?

My inability to come up with more than a few names may reflect little more than my own limited networks and insights. So, inspired in part by Kaplan's book, I've developed an annoying new habit. Despite the many perverse internal incentives, the military has plenty of bright, insightful people in it, and when I meet them, I now ask what is becoming my standard conversational gambit: who do you see as the military's leading intellects, the visionaries who ask big questions and look for big answers? Who are Petraeus's intellectual sparring partners and heirs? Who's shaking things up, sparking debates that may yet change the shape of the armed forces, and change the way we think about the military and its role?

Discouragingly, the typical response I get is a wondering head shake and a perplexed, disturbed expression. "I know we need people like that, and I'm sure there must be some," one Army officer told me. "I just can't seem to think of any."

How about you, readers? Who am I missing? Who should I -- and all the rest of us -- be meeting and reading? Who are the up-and-coming intellects, the men and women who are challenging received wisdom?

Email me here with your thoughts and suggestions.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images