In Yemen, drones can work if they're part of a larger strategy, but not if they are the strategy.
U.S. military handout image of a predator drone. (Reuters)
The public debate about the American use of drones continues unabated, focused mostly on the morality of drone warfare. Sunday, for example, the New York Times ran one stories on the moral case for drones and one on the moral hazard they represent.
These two angles to the debate -- whether drones impose an intolerable moral hazard, or whether they allow policymakers to counter terrorism while minimizing harm -- are important. The morality of decisions that our leaders make is important, especially when there is a question of whether those decisions clash with our values. And when drones are widely reported to result in unintended civilian casualties (how many is disputed) the moral case cannot be ignored.
Apart from morality, the other side of the debate about drones is their effectiveness. There is a reasonably strong case to be made that the zealous use of drones in Pakistan has made U.S.-Pakistani relations far worse, though whether that change matters in the long run is an open question. In Yemen, too, the use of drones has carried some evidence of political blowback -- though, again, whether that matters in the long run is unclear.
If innocent people are being killed, then the drones program needs to be effective at reducing the terror threat. Otherwise, too many innocent people are being killed for dubious results.
The effectiveness of the drones program, however, is not easy to determine. How do you assess the damage? According to some analysis, only about 500 of the reported 2500 targets of drone strikes in Pakistan have been positively identified. Many residents in Pakistan and Yemen claim that far more civilians die in drone strikes than is reported in the West; However, when PBS sent a reporter to Yemen to investigate, in part, the drone campaign, they found that many residents just assume all air strikes on suspected terrorist sites come from drones (at least some of those strikes come from Yemeni aircraft, not drones).
Broader effects about terrorism can be measured, though that kind of analysis is limited. In Yemen, analysts dispute whether or not the drone campaign itself has contributed to the expansion of al-Qaeda there. Iona Craig, a journalist based in Yemen, has reported through interviews that drones have "swelled al-Qaeda's ranks." Yemeni politicians also argue that drones help al-Qaeda, as does the Washington Post. Christopher Swift, a lawyer and academic based in DC, interviewed local elders in Yemen in May; he categorically argues that drones do not have any negative social effects there.
While Swift's report (disclosure: he is a friend) is a minority view among reports out of Yemen, it cannot be discounted out of hand: he is accurately reporting that the Yemenis he spoke to believe there are no negative effects of the drone campaign. But can the overall behavior of al-Qaeda in Yemen give us lessons?
Over the last three years, the reported size of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has about tripled. AQAP has successfully stormed and occupied entire towns (through its clever rebranding as Ansar al-Shariah). The long-serving dictatorship more or less collapsed under the weight of mass protests, though the dictator's replacement is more of a stooge than a real change.
Yemen has faced increasing challenges and upheaval, in other words. During this same period of time, U.S. drones, as well as Yemeni and American aircraft, pounded the desert towns where AQAP thrives, killing dozens of suspected militants and fewer (though no one knows how many fewer) civilians. It is difficult to make the case that -- whatever the ultimate mixture of militants and civilians, and whatever the effects on Yemeni society -- the use of drones has contributed meaningfully to Yemen's stability or to neutralizing AQAP. (There is a counterfactual that, without drones, the problem with be worse, but it's impossible to really say.)
In recent months, however, Yemen has seen some of its fortunes shift. The Yemeni army retook the AQAP-occupied towns of Ja'ar and Zinjibar, which AQAP had held up to PBS as an example of its reach and power. While AQAP has responded with a new wave of violence, the Yemeni army is, for the time being at least, holding onto its territory.
No one knows whether the defeat of AQAP's territorial ambitions is permanent. But what the recent offensives in Yemen's south do show is that, whatever the effects of drones, they require effective forces on the ground to deny territory to terrorist groups.
This, then, is the lesson about how drones can be effective: they must serve a strategy. They cannot be the strategy, as they sometimes are. For too long, it seemed, the only possible response to a terrorism threat in Yemen was a drone strike (or cruise missile or air strike). U.S. intelligence agencies managed to unravel some plots if the Saudis or Brits gave them a heads up. But the only tool in the American arsenal seemed to be a drone strike: lobbing missiles at unknown people in the belief that it would lessen the threat.
What seems to have really lessened the threat, though, is ground combat: the difficult, dangerous, and expensive work of clearing towns and areas of militants and restoring legitimate government control. There is clearly a role for drones in this process of rebuilding control of an area -- most drone strikes in Afghanistan, for example, are used as close air support (though even Afghan officials do not want too many drones in their territory). Where drones become problematic is when they substitute for a broader policy of engagement: where they become the strategy, rather than serving the strategy.
The current U.S. policy in Yemen is not very strongly articulated. It is often a list of aspirations ("helping the government confront the immediate security threat represented by Al Qaida, and mitigating serious political, economic and governance issues that the country faces over the long terms, the drivers of instability") that so far has not resulted in comprehensive action from the U.S. As Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright fellow in Yemen and currently a PhD candidate at Princeton wrote last year, "U.S. policy bounced from one crisis to the next without an overarching structure."
In Yemen, we've seen that allowing the government to retake areas from AQAP can be effective at addressing the terrorist threat; the U.S. should make effective Yemeni governance its next priority. The recently announced influx of aid to Yemen is being directed almost exclusively to Yemen's security services, which have already proved capable of removing AQAP from its territory. What's missing is everything else that isn't security: immediately countering the growing malnutrition there, strengthening and expanding the good governance programs groups like NED run, and establishing a long term commitment to fortifying Yemen's shaky economy.
As a part of a comprehensive strategy to both physically and politically secure the country, there is a definite role for drones to play: one that is moral, effective, and constrained. Assuming drones are the counterterrorism strategy -- an impression one can get reading some of the coverage of the drones program -- would be a mistake.
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
Leon Trotsky is not often invoked as a management guru, but a line frequently attributed to him would surely resonate with many business leaders today. “You may not be interested in war,” the Bolshevik revolutionary is said to have warned, “but war is interested in you.” War, or at least geopolitics, is figuring more and more prominently in the thinking and fortunes of large businesses.
Of course, multinational companies such as Shell and GE have long cultivated an expertise in geopolitics. But the intensity of concern over global instability is much higher now than in any recent period. In 2013, the private-equity colossus KKR named the retired general and CIA director David Petraeus as the chairman of its global institute, which informs the firm’s investment decisions. Earlier this year, Sir John Sawers, the former head of MI6, Britain’s CIA, became the chairman of Macro Advisory Partners, a firm that advises businesses and governments on geopolitics. Both appointments are high-profile examples of a much wider trend: an increasing number of corporations are hiring political scientists, starting their board meetings with geopolitical briefings, and seeking the advice of former diplomats, spymasters, and military leaders.“The last three years have definitely been a wake-up call for business on geopolitics,” Dominic Barton, the managing director of McKinsey, told me. “I’ve not seen anything like it. Since the Second World War, I don’t think you’ve seen such volatility.” Most businesses haven’t pulled back meaningfully from globalized operation, Barton said. “But they are thinking, Gosh, what’s next?”
The editors of Smithsonian magazine have announced the winners of their 12th annual photo contest, selected from more than 26,500 entries. The winning photographs from from the competition's six categories are published below: The Natural World, Travel, People, Americana, Altered Images and Mobile. Also, a few finalists have been included as well. Captions were written by the photographers. Be sure to visit the contest page at Smithsonian.com to see all the winners and finalists.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
When healthcare is at its best, hospitals are four-star hotels, and nurses, personal butlers at the ready—at least, that’s how many hospitals seem to interpret a government mandate.
When Department of Health and Human Services administrators decided to base 30 percent of hospitals’ Medicare reimbursement on patient satisfaction survey scores, they likely figured that transparency and accountability would improve healthcare. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) officials wrote, rather reasonably, “Delivery of high-quality, patient-centered care requires us to carefully consider the patient’s experience in the hospital inpatient setting.” They probably had no idea that their methods could end up indirectly harming patients.
The Dr. Oz Show provides critics with ample material: séances, energy healing, miracle diet products. Once a media darling, Oz has been subjected to a steady stream of public humiliations, from his shaming in front of a Senate subcommittee to an April 15 letter that a group of doctors wrote to Columbia University, urging his dismissal from the faculty, accusing him of promoting “quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain”—to which Dr. Oz responded with an ad hominem attack on the letter-writers and a defense of free speech. But despite numerous subsequent think pieces about the man behind the curtain, a crucial question stands out: Why call for Dr. Oz’s dismissal, when many medical schools and hospitals endorse the most outlandish of his claims?
This month, many of the nation's best and brightest high school seniors will receive thick envelopes in the mail announcing their admission to the college of their dreams. According to a 2011 survey, about 60 percent of them will go to their first-choice schools. For many of them, going away to college will be like crossing the Rubicon. They will leave their families -- their homes -- and probably not return for many years, if at all.
That was journalist Rod Dreher's path. Dreher grew up in the small southern community of Starhill, Louisiana, 35 miles northwest of Baton Rouge. His family goes back five generations there. His father was a part-time farmer and sanitarian; his mother drove a school bus. His younger sister Ruthie loved hunting and fishing, even as a little girl.
Mary Hamm was in pain, though it was hard to tell. She bustled around the Starbucks, pouring drinks, restocking pastries, and greeting customers with an unshakable gaze perfected during 25 years of working in hospitality. Her smile said, How can I help you? Her eyes said, I know you’re going to order a caramel Frappuccino, so let’s do this.
Occupying prime space in a Fredericksburg, Virginia, strip mall, beside a Dixie Bones BBQ Post, this Starbucks pulls in about $40,000 a week. Hamm, 49, had been managing Starbucks stores for 12 years. The problem was her feet. After two decades in the food-service business, they had started to wear out. She had two metal plates in the right one, installed over the course of five surgeries. Now her left foot needed surgery too. She doesn’t like to complain, but when I asked her how often she was in pain, she smiled and said quietly, “All the time.”
“I think it’s just gonna be us.” The voice came from one of the grizzled sports reporters gathered in a nearly empty Manhattan hotel ballroom on a cold Friday evening in February. There was the reporter from NBA.com, the house organ of the National Basketball Association; there was the travel/sports/entertainment writer for the Queens Chronicle; and there was a guy who had a lot to say about the New Jersey Devils.
We were there, the four of us, for a mid-season press conference organized by the National Basketball Players Association to coincide with the league’s All-Star festivities. Professional sports unions, dedicated as they are to the cause of helping millionaire athletes make more money, have never been popular, but the nearly empty ballroom felt especially grim relative to the weekend’s other attractions. The All-Star Celebrity Game—pitting the 5-foot-4-inch comedian Kevin Hart against, among others, Mo’ne Davis, the 13-year-old girl who starred in last year’s Little League World Series—would tip off at Madison Square Garden later that night. That, at least, had news potential.
In 1996, Chuck Palahniuk spun a seven-page short story into his first full-length novel. Three years later, the director David Fincher immortalized Fight Club’s manic protagonists on film with the help of Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and Helena Bonham Carter. Surpassing cult status with its anti-consumerism message, the story captured the frustrations of the worker bees getting through the day's soulless pursuits. And it struck a chord: Real fight clubs sprung up around the world. “Tyler Durden Lives” became familiar graffiti. A new, widely quoted lexicon was born. Today, everyone knows the first rule of fight club.
At turns deeply poignant and very funny, Palahniuk’s freakish fables capture a twisted zeitgeist and add an oddly inspirational and subversive voice to the contemporary canon. For those shackled to tired routines and coping mechanisms, his Fight Club characters offer the DIY rules for rebirth. This month, the story gets its own resurrection in the form of a 10-issue comic-book series titled Fight Club 2, out May 27. Penned by Palahniuk and illustrated by Cameron Stewart (Catwoman, The Other Side) the first installment picks up the narrative 10 years later, on the ninth wedding anniversary of the narrator and his partner Marla. In the post-9/11 present, a hyperactive, Internet-obsessed, war- and recession-weary America apparently needs Tyler again.