June 30, 2011

On Drones

I just finished Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann's essay on drone strikes in Foreign Affairs and recommend it. I especially agreed with the concluding recommendations, which address the two things that bother me most about the drone program thus far: perceptions and accountability.

Few in the U.S. government -- because the drone program has been, in the words of our new secretary of defense, "the only game in town" when it comes to targeting militants in Pakistan* -- have been willing to admit that the program could have second- and third-order effects that might off-set tactical gains. There is some evidence to suggest the drone strikes are not unpopular within the tribal areas themselves, but they are highly unpopular in Pakistan as a whole and in, one suspects, the Pakistani diaspora community. If we kill bad guys in the tribal areas, great. But if killing bad guys in the tribal areas makes people in Walthamstow or Connecticut want to blow themselves up**, not great. It seems to me that we have been willfully ignorant of the ways in which the program might be radicalizing militants outside the places where we can kill them and that what is a great CT platform is, in the absence of a broader strategy, a crappy CVE platform.

Bergen and Tiedemann suggest ways to make the program more transparent, which might address popular grievances. Bergen and Tiedemann also recommend transferring control of the program over from the intelligence community to the Department of Defense. Again, I think this makes a lot of sense because it would make the program both more transparent and also subject to more robust chains of accountability. Bergen and Tiedemann argue such a transfer of control would have other advantages, and they make a strong case.

Not that I think this will ever happen. The drone program has been, if nothing else, a great way for the intelligence community to justify its budget since 9/11, and various agencies will be reluctant to surrender control for both substantive reasons and budgetary reasons.

Contrary to popular belief, I have never been an anti-drone fundamentalist. But I do think the drone program has been a tactic executed in the absence of a strategy and without proper transparency and oversight. Bergen and Tiedemann's recommendations would go a long way toward addressing some of my main concerns.

*Aside from, apparently, Seal Team 6.

**Or lead someone to plant a bomb in Times Square, which is a total hypothetical, of course, and would never happen in real life.