Two Cheers For America's Restraint in the Drone War

If Washington launched targeted strikes everywhere its 'partners' asked it to, the war on terror would be totally out of control.

On Monday, Oct. 28, Al Jazeera reported a "suspected drone strike" that witnesses on the ground blamed the United States for conducting. The strike has been "confirmed" with no additional details by an anonymous U.S. military official, making it the first well-documented U.S. counterterrorism airstrike in Somalia in 20 months, after conducting at least 18 between January 2007 and January 2012. That makes it something of a rarity, these days.

As I noted recently, one of the inherent difficulties with evaluating U.S. targeted killing policies is that there is much we do not know, and we have a human tendency to fill that knowledge gap by over-interpreting observable events. This dilemma is driven by the clandestine or covert nature of targeted killings, the difficulty of conducting independent investigations where they occur, and the Obama administration's decision to repeat soothing adjectives about drone strikes, rather than directly answering clarifying questions. A new administration defense of drone strikes was attempted last week by the State Department spokesperson, who denigrated the accuracy of civilian casualty estimates provided by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International with this unsatisfying rationale: "they don't have a complete picture." The State Department claims that it will review the reports, but it is unlikely the U.S. government will address the charges with any specificity, as they have not with similar reports critical of U.S. foreign policy.

However, even while analysts and policymakers evaluate policies based on incomplete information and with motivated biases that does not mean the task is impossible. One apparently observable fact is the diminishing prominence of non-battlefield targeted killings in U.S. counterterrorism strategies. On current trend lines, 2013 will have the fewest targeted killings since President Obama entered office, with drone strikes down 39 percent in Pakistan and 37 percent in Yemen over the same period in 2012.

While some people are up in arms about the sourcing and accuracy of certain findings from the HRW and Amnesty reports, there is an important and under-studied trend in U.S. targeted killing policies: The Obama administration's decision not to extend targeted killings into additional non-battlefield settings.

Beginning at least as early as March 2013, Iraqi officials have requested U.S. drone strikes against members of al Qaeda in Iraq and al-Sham or Jabhat al-Nusra that are fighting in Syria's civil war and destabilizing Iraq with gruesome terrorist attacks. In August, foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari noted that Iraqis would support drone strikes that "target al Qaeda and their bases," but only provided that they do not create "collateral damage." However, in early October, an anonymous administration official told Foreign Policy that drone strikes in Iraq are not seriously being discussed or even considered.

In March 2013, Jordanian officials reportedly offered basing rights for CIA drones in order to conduct lethal strikes in Syria. According to the Pentagon, there were roughly 1,000 U.S. military personnel in Jordan as of this summer. In August, Jordanian officials reportedly asked the United States for surveillance drones to help secure its border with Syria, but Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey pointedly told journalists that "If Jordan were offered surveillance systems ... they would be piloted airplanes, not remotely piloted drones." Obviously, President Obama never authorized a limited cruise missile strike against Syria's chemical weapons delivery capabilities, and, to date, has refrained from accepting Jordan's offer of hosting U.S. drones for strikes in Syria.

Likewise, the United States has acted with restraint in expanding targeted strikes to other non-battlefield regions. In September, Niger's foreign minister Mohamed Bazoum declared: "I would really welcome armed drones to shoot down drug traffickers, and all those who live from activities linked to drug trafficking. I don't see why that shouldn't be possible." Since February, the U.S. military has flown a small number of unarmed drones out of an airstrip in Niamey -- one crashed in Mali in April -- to track suspected Islamic militants in Mali and provide targeting intelligence to France. Niger initially wanted the U.S. drones to be armed, but as an unnamed senior official claimed: "The whole issue is lethality. We don't want to abet a lethal action." So far, the Obama administration has decided not to arm the drones -- though they have not ruled this out -- and have only authorized their use for surveillance missions in support of French operations.

These requests demonstrate that the seductive allure of drone strikes has not been lost on political and military leaders in conflict-prone regions. I have noticed when speaking with diplomatic and military officials from several such countries about U.S. targeted killing policies that their public condemnation of U.S. practices is followed by a private acknowledgment of an interest to acquire the capability to conduct such lethal actions themselves. This explains why leaders from Pakistan, Yemen, Turkey, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere, have repeatedly requested to procure armed-capable drone systems from the United States. To date, however, all of their requests have been denied -- so far. Nevertheless, they all have programs at various stages of development to buy, jointly develop, or indigenously produce their own armed drones.

The requests from Iraq, Jordan, and Niger are examples of negative cases, where an outcome of interest was possible, relevant, or expected, but never happened. Defining what constitutes something as being possible, relevant, or expected is challenging, which explains why there are no databases of drone strikes that never happened. However, for the purposes of evaluating U.S. targeted killings, it is as important to study the instances where lethal force is proposed, debated, and ultimately rejected, as it is to study drone strikes themselves. Moreover, the good news for interested analysts is that the publicly available information about negative cases of drone strikes is perhaps more complete than what one can find for actual events. 

This coming Sunday marks the 11th anniversary of America's Third War of non-battlefield targeted killings. U.S. officials and policymakers will tell you that there are as many of the categories of targeted individuals on target lists today as there were three or four years ago, yet the number of overall drone strikes has diminished. It is apparent that President Obama has decided to kill fewer suspected militants and terrorists than he was willing to just a few years ago. Of course, the entire point of the administration's announced reforms in May was to placate public criticism in order to assure that the president would retain the authority to conduct additional lethal strikes at any point in the future. Still, the Obama administration has been wise to reduce the overall number of drone strikes, while rejecting demands for U.S. drone strikes on behalf of additional countries. Such requests are not just a tactic to attempt to kill suspected militants, but a means to deepen America's commitment to providing for that country's security against domestic and regionally focused terrorist organizations. Given that there are several thousand al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, according to the State Department's own estimates, in the Middle East and North Africa, an open-ended policy of drone strikes for friends would never end. And that, clearly, would only create additional enemies for the United States.

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National Security

Estimated Recovery Time

Will the self-inflicted political wound of the U.S. government shutdown ever heal?

In 1971, artist Chris Burden performed his iconic "Shoot" piece before a dozen friends gathered in the F-Space Gallery in Santa Ana, California. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt while standing in front of a white wall, a friend shot a copper jacket bullet from a .22-long rifle into Burden's upper left arm from a distance of 15 feet. The bullet was intended to merely knick the arm, but it went clean through, sending Burden to the hospital and requiring that he report the "accident" to the police. Burden refrained from revealing exactly why he undertook the drastic act, though he noted that the Vietnam War played some part. He left the piece open to interpretation, later acknowledging, "I wanted to be taken seriously as an artist." (There is a fascinating retrospective of Burden's career at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan that runs through January 14.)

Burden's performance piece of deliberate self-harm comes to mind when watching the behavior of policymakers on Capitol Hill throughout the 16-day federal government shutdown saga. Unfortunately, unlike Burden's one-time action, Congress's purposeless drama will be staged yet again in three months.

The policymakers most directly responsible for the shutdown (scores of House Republicans, and a few on the Senate side) apparently believe that they can achieve the three goals of all politicians -- get elected and re-elected, then earn power and wealth through political connections once retired -- without compromising on their principles, since they are relatively insulated from the harm inflicted by their manufactured dysfunction. This disconnect recalls how Director of National Intelligence James Clapper characterized Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini's decision-making calculus: "You know, his view of the world may not be necessarily fact-based, particularly when it comes to internal conditions in his country."

The United States certainly pays some price in achieving its foreign policy objectives as a consequence of Washington's debilitated politics and governance, and it is no coincidence that many of the same politicians who want a smaller federal government with reduced powers at home advocate for limiting U.S. commitments abroad. However, it is difficult to evaluate what the costs are in real-time, and it is easy to over-interpret current events as evidence of lasting structural changes. Previous predictions of America's internal decline and diminished global influence have proven incorrect, though these claims often pretend there was once an era of U.S. omniscience and omnipresence.

The 31 U.S. mutual defense treaty allies -- the 27 other members of NATO, Japan, South Korea, and Australia -- might doubt America's commitments to their territorial defense because of Washington's recent political chaos. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel admitted last week: "Our allies are asking questions: Can we rely on our partnership with America? Will America fulfill its commitments and its promises?" Allies are constantly asking these questions, pressing Pentagon officials to re-articulate what military capabilities the United States will provide to deter and defend against various threats. There was a comparable sense of America's global retreat during the Iraq War, which was crystallized by Donald Rumsfeld's 2004 decision to redeploy the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division from the South Korean DMZ to Iraq. President Obama's decision to fight with Capitol Hill rather than attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum and Association of South-East Asian Nations summit does not help.

There are also direct economic costs to Washington's needless budgetary fights, which can impinge upon those "elements of national power" -- known as the DIME (diplomatic, information, military, and economic) -- that purportedly underpin U.S. grand strategy. Macroeconomic Advisers determined that fiscal policy uncertainty since 2009 "lowered GDP growth by 0.3 percentage points per year, and raised the unemployment rate in 2013 by 0.6 percentage points, equivalent to 900,000 lost jobs." Since March, the sequester has indiscriminately cut $109 billion, split between defense and non-defense spending, from the discretionary budget, which the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently warned risks military readiness. Meanwhile, Standard and Poor's estimated that the shutdown alone "shaved at least 0.6 per cent off of annualized fourth-quarter 2013 GDP growth, or taken $24bn out of the economy." As Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass (and my boss) rightly noted in Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America's House in Order, "America's lack of fiscal discipline has contributed far more to its loss of power and influence than [the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq]."

Yet the foundation of any functioning state -- for domestic or foreign policy -- is its capacity for governance, which "consists of the traditions and institutions by which authority in a country is exercised," according to the World Bank. Here, the Bank's Worldwide Governance Indicators are useful for comparing where the United States ranks among the world's growing countries and territories -- the total has increased from 178 to 215. The governance measurement includes how governments are "selected, monitored and replaced"; their capacity to "effectively formulate and implement sound policies; and "the respect of citizens and the state for the institutions that govern economic and social interactions among them." These variables are represented in six aggregate indicators drawn from 31 data sources and then rescaled and combined with a methodology that you can read more about here. The chart below summarizes U.S. governance over the past 18 years and its percentage ranking.

Several stark points jump out from the World Bank's rankings. First, comparatively speaking, the United States either initiates or experiences a great deal of international tensions, warfare, and terrorism. There are nine individual data sources used to construct this indicator including "armed conflict," "costs of terrorism," and "frequency of torture." Second, there has not been the precipitous drop-off in governance that one would surmise from repeated exposure to the declinists featured on cable television and editorial pages. Third, America is not number one in any indicator, at any time, but is a solid B/B+ student in the world's classroom. To comprehend what advantages in the world this potentially provides, it is useful to understand just how far ahead the United States is in front of China, India, or Russia in every single indicator.

Washington's dismal politics may be getting worse, but the enduring hardware and software of governance assures that the United States will remain an above-average country -- relative to other states and territories -- for the foreseeable future. The question is whether confronting each mini-crisis fomented by veto players on the Hill is a temporary glitch or a permanent and defining feature of American politics. The ultimate and incalculable penalty for dealing with events like the government shutdown is the opportunity cost of applying finite time and resources to political theater rather than tangible policy accomplishments. 

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