National Security

Fear Factor

In defense of Obama's deadly signature strikes.

The impact of armed drones during the decade-plus of this intense global counterterrorism campaign is hard to overestimate: Without operational commanders and visionary leaders, terror groups decay into locally focused threats, or disappear altogether. Targeted strikes against al Qaeda leaders and commanders in the years immediately after 9/11 deprived the group of the time and stability required to plot a major strike. But the London subway attacks in July 2005 illustrated the remaining potency of al Qaeda's core in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The threat was fading steadily. But not fast enough.

So-called signature strikes -- in which target selection is based not on identification of an individual but instead on patterns of behavior or unique characteristics that identify a group -- accelerated this decline for simple reasons. Targeting leadership degrades a small percentage of a diffuse terror group, but developing the tactical intelligence required to locate an individual precisely enough to stage a pinpoint strike, in a no-man's land half a world away, is time-consuming and difficult. And it's not a perfect science; the leaders of groups learn over time how to operate more securely. Furthermore, these leaders represent only a fraction of the threat: Osama bin Laden might have been the public face of al Qaeda, but he was supported by a web of document-forgers, bombmakers, couriers, trainers, ideologues, and others. They made up the bulk of al Qaeda and propelled the apparatus that planned the murder of innocents. Bin Laden was the revolutionary leader, but it was the troops who executed his vision.

Signature strikes have pulled out these lower-level threads of al Qaeda's apparatus -- and that of its global affiliates -- rapidly enough that the deaths of top leaders are now more than matched by the destruction of the complex support structure below them. Western conceptions of how organizations work, with hierarchal structures driven by top-level managers, do not apply to al Qaeda and its affiliates. These groups are instead conglomerations of militants, operating independently, with rough lines of communication and fuzzy networks that cross continents and groups. They are hard to map cleanly, in other words. Signature strikes take out whole swaths of these network sub-tiers rapidly -- so rapidly that the groups cannot replicate lost players and their hard-won experience. The tempo of the strikes, in other words, adds sand to the gears of terror organizations, destroying their operational capability faster than the groups can recover.

There are other rationales for these attacks, though. Part of the reason signature strikes have become so prominent in this global counterterror war is, simply put, geography. Local terrorist groups only become international threats if they have leadership that can execute a broad, globalist vision, and if that leadership has the time and space to plot without daily distractions from armies and security services -- as in safe havens like Yemen, Somalia, the Sahel, and the tribal areas of Pakistan. These are exactly the places where the United States cannot apply conventional force and where local governments lack the capability or will to counter the threat. Exactly the places where drones offer an option to eviscerate a growing terror threat that has a dispersed, diffuse hierarchy. The places where signature strikes have proven effective.

With more capable security partners, the brutal destruction from drones above might come from more conventional operations on the ground. But, by definition, safe havens aren't penetrable by capable security services.

There is an intangible factor that reinforces the effectiveness of signature strikes: the fear factor, coupled with the suspicions and paranoia that result from organizations searching desperately among their ranks to find out who is providing the Americans information so detailed that we can wreak such havoc over such a long period of time. Time and again, intelligence has clearly told us that the adversary dreads these operations -- lethal strikes that come anytime, anywhere, and that eliminate entire swaths of organizations. And these same organizations then turn around and further degrade their operational capability by engaging in savage hunts for leaks.

Despite such success, questions about how we should employ them -- or whether we should use them at all -- are coming to dominate debates about signature strikes. When do they end? And is it appropriate to strike groups of people not because we can identify a dangerous individual terrorist among them, but instead simply because a cluster of people bears clear hallmarks -- the "signature" -- that is associated with a terror group. This emerging debate will be colored, rightly, by the fact that, in just a decade, drone technology has proliferated. The technology and its use has far outpaced the development of policy that balances national security, morality, and the certainty that whatever precedent we set will be used, and abused, by the rogues and despots who no doubt will acquire this capability.

Before the pendulum swings too far in the other direction, though, away from the unquestionably aggressive use of drones by two consecutive presidents and toward a model that imposes tight limits, we are going to have to answer a simple question or two: When the president receives information that a new group -- maybe not a terror organization, but an evolving militant group -- is plotting to strike America at home or abroad, what do we do? If we strike too soon, we risk alienating a local population and increasing its motivation to target New York. If we strike too late, a nascent group of violent extremists will become operational, a lesson we learned too well 12 years ago. So take off the table the 20th-century notion that drones will become part of a more conventional military structure; they won't. The question for the 21st century is easy to state but hard to answer: Given the lessons of 9/11 and Iraq, when should a president choose preemption? And where? What are the rules for this new war?

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Argument

Japan's Own Worst Enemy?

Shinzo Abe is at the height of his popularity. But is he too much of a right-wing nut to save the country's economy?

Unceremoniously forced to resign as Japan's prime minister in 2007 after only a year in office, Shinzo Abe spent five years in the political wilderness. Few expected that he would return to lead the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), one of Japan's two major political parties, let alone the country. But in September 2012, the party reinstated him as its leader, and three months later, so did Japan's voters. "Japan is back," Abe declared in a February speech in Washington; he could have been talking about himself as well.

His government enjoys public approval numbers as high as 72 percent, a level not seen this far into a Japanese prime minister's term for more than a decade. His economic program -- dubbed "Abenomics" -- is winning plaudits at home and abroad as a bold attempt to tackle Japan's "lost two decades" of sluggish growth, stagnant wages, and persistent deflation, while voters are tolerating his attempts to deliver on cherished conservative goals like revising the constitution and strengthening Japan's military. As Japan's benchmark index the Nikkei reached a five-year high, and the Japanese economy grew at an annualized 3.5 percent rate in the first quarter, it's tempting to call Abe a success. The Economist did -- in their May 18 issue, the editors put Abe on the cover, dressed as Superman.

Although the Nikkei's 7.3 percent drop on Thursday may remove some of the shine, the fact remains that Abe is perhaps in the strongest position of any Japanese prime minister since  the economic bubble burst in the early 1990s. With opposition parties in disarray and a comfortable LDP majority in the Diet, Japan's parliament, Abe could institute the economic reforms that Japan needs -- if he doesn't get distracted by right-wing obsessions.

That's what happened in 2006, when he took power as the anointed heir of his immensely popular predecessor Junichiro Koizumi. During his five years in office, Koizumi focused on economic reform, cleaning up the balance sheets of Japan's banks, privatizing inefficient public corporations, and limiting the growth of government deficits. Many hoped Abe would continue fixing the economy, but he instead expended his political capital on changing the country's education law to emphasize patriotic education, elevating the defense agency to a full ministry, and laying the groundwork for revising Japan's pacifist constitution. Instead of practicing multilateral diplomacy with unstable North Korea, Abe's government obsessed over resolving the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

In his Dec. 2012 campaign, Abe promised to overcome deflation and restore economic growth. Since entering office, he has proposed a "three arrows" economic policy: raising the Bank of Japan's inflation target and instituting a $1.4 trillion bond-buying program; unveiling a $116 billion fiscal stimulus package; and developing an economic growth strategy emphasizing, among other things, more resources for medical technology and opportunities for women in the workforce.

Reforms are indeed necessary -- Japan's economy is in bad shape. Despite faster-than-expected GDP growth, business investment continued to fall in the first quarter. Moreover, Japanese salaries and bonuses have stagnated for more than a decade, while employers have become increasingly dependent on low-wage temporary workers, who now make up more than a third of the workforce. Indeed, some economists wonder whether Japan's aging population, nearly a quarter of which is over 65, will ever be able to make up the demand shortfall that has produced prolonged deflation, or whether the Japanese economy will be able to achieve increases in productivity sufficient to offset the shrinking workforce.

It is hard to say how much credit Abe deserves even for the positive figures. The government's stimulus package is still making its way into the hands of households and businesses, the Bank of Japan's asset purchases are still too small, and the third arrow growth strategies are at the moment still aspirational. The danger remains that Abe will redirect his attention to the right-wing issues close to his heart. "Many people know that the real interest of Prime Minister Abe is not in economics," Taro Aso, Abe's finance minister, told the Wall Street Journal in April. "When he is equipped with full power and authority, he would rather work harder for his pet interests such as education and constitutional amendments."

In advance of this summer's elections for the upper house of the Diet, Abe had indicated that his government's plan to revise Article 96 of the Japanese constitution, which dictates amendment procedures, would be the centerpiece of his party's campaign. If this succeeds, it would make it easier to pass more substantive revisions, like changing Article 9, which prohibits Japan from waging war.

Abe has drawn criticism from across Asia for remarks he made in the Diet in late April questioning whether it is proper to say that Japan "invaded" its neighbors -- not unlike during his first term when he questioned whether sex slaves used by the Japanese military during the war had been coerced. And in early May, he sent an envoy to Pyongyang to explore the possibility of resolving the abductions issue, even though it could undermine U.S. and South Korean efforts to contain the North Korean regime.

But his victory in December and still-lofty approval numbers do not signify that the Japanese public is also moving to the right. A mid-May poll by the major daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun suggests that the basis for the cabinet's support is the government's economic policies, and not support for Abe or his party. Multiple polls show that the public is deeply divided over whether and how to revise Japan's constitution. While discussing constitution revision is no longer the taboo it once was, it is by no means a priority for most Japanese.

If there is one enduring fact about Japanese politics over the past decade, it is the public's willingness to support any leader who promises to improve the economy, and then follows through on his promises. Abe's approval numbers should not be viewed as an endorsement of anything other than his economic program -- and the belief that he is actually capable of following through on them.

Fixing Japan's economy won't be easy, as Thursday's sharp decline in the Nikkei shows. Ensuring that the three arrows hit their marks will require unremitting focus on the part of the archer, something that Abe may not be able to provide.

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images