The Incoherence of a Drone-Strike Advocate


In my previous post I complained about the militarization of the CIA over the past decade, as exemplified by its role in overseeing drone strikes and as symbolized by the appointment last year of Gen. David Petraeus to head the agency. I also took a shot at the American foreign policy establishment for not focusing on the big questions--such as: Is this whole war-by-drone-strike thing, whatever its short-term payoffs, a disastrously bad idea in the long run?

Now I bring you exhibit A, someone with the ultimate in foreign-policy-establishment credentials who enthusiastically defends drone strikes while apparently giving no coherent thought to their long-term implications. I refer to Max Boot, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

You'd think Boot would be an able defender of drone strikes--not just because he likes them, but because he's one of the staunchest defenders and allies of Petraeus, who has overseen countless drone strikes in the past year and relied heavily on them when commanding the Afghanistan war effort. Yet here's what transpired when Boot appeared three weeks ago on the (excellent) public radio show To The Point:

Naureen Shah of Columbia Law School, a guest on the show, had raised the possibility that America is setting a dangerous precedent with drone strikes. If other people start doing what America does--fire drones into nations that house somebody they want dead--couldn't this come back to haunt us? And haunt the whole world? Shouldn't the U.S. be helping to establish a global norm against this sort of thing? Host Warren Olney asked Boot to respond.

Boot started out with this observation:

I think the precedent setting argument is overblown, because I don't think other countries act based necessarily on what we do and in fact we've seen lots of Americans be killed by acts of terrorism over the last several decades, none of them by drones but they've certainly been killed with car bombs and other means.

That's true--no deaths by terrorist drone strike so far. But I think a fairly undeniable premise of the question was that the arsenal of terrorists and other nations may change as time passes. So answering it by reference to their current arsenal isn't very illuminating. In 1945, if I had raised the possibility that the Soviet Union might one day have nuclear weapons, it wouldn't have made sense for you to dismiss that possibility by noting that none of the Soviet bombs dropped during World War II were nuclear, right?

As if he was reading my mind, Boot immediately went on to address the prospect of drone technology spreading. Here's what he said:

You know, drones are a pretty high tech instrument to employ and they're going to be outside the reach of most terrorist groups and even most countries. But whether we use them or not, the technology is propagating out there. We're seeing Hezbollah operate Iranian supplied drones over Israel, for example, and our giving up our use of drones is not going to prevent Iran or others from using drones on their own. So I wouldn't worry too much about the so called precedent it sets..."

Got that? Drones are so high tech that "they're going to be outside the reach of most terrorist groups and even most countries." However, even as we speak, "We're seeing Hezbollah operate Iranian-supplied drones over Israel," which is evidence that "the technology is propagating out there."

Hard to say what was going on in Boot's brain. Maybe, halfway through his reassurance that we don't have to worry about technologies spreading, he realized that human history is among other things the story of technologies irrepressibly spreading. But, whatever was going in his head, it wasn't the formulation of a response to the question raised by Naureen Shah.

In defense of Boot's employer, the Council on Foreign Relations: The only think-tank-based national security expert I'm aware of who devotes lots of time to airing doubts about the wisdom of our drone strike policy--Micah Zenko--is at CFR, and maybe Zenko roughly balances Boot on the national security karma scales. But Zenko certainly isn't counterbalancing the hordes of national security think tankers who approach the issue of drone strikes within a narrowly tactical framework and never ponder the question Shah asked. Nor do many of them spend a lot of time on the question of whether drone strikes, in stoking the hatred that creates anti-American terrorism, are intensifying the thing they're invoked to combat, thus drawing us into a vicious circle that makes war-by-drone-strike self-perpetuating. America has embarked on a path that could lead to a very bad place, and not many people in Washington are looking far enough ahead to imagine such a thing.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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