The Political Consequences of a Drones-First Policy

The global counterterrorism mission imposes substantial political costs to the U.S. Yet policymakers are rushing ahead anyway. Why we should start thinking more about politics, and less about killing bad guys.

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U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks to the media from the Pentagon Briefing Room in Washington, DC / Reuters

If you talk to any security or intelligence professional, they'll tell you that the consequences of the Arab Spring -- it turned one this week -- have been devastating to U.S. security interests in the region. Information gathering, operations, intelligence, and general context about the Middle East and North Africa had become so lopsided -- utterly reliant on the security services of the unpopular dictatorships in the region -- that their overthrow more of less crippled U.S. efforts.

Over the last year the U.S. bureaucracy has worked feverishly to reestablish itself in the MENA region. But while it does so it stands on the verge of making a similar mistake in its reliance on drones to achieve policy objectives. The first hints of this imbalance are manifesting themselves all the time in the politics of target countries -- places where U.S. drones fly and fire weapons.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta unveiled this week a plan to dramatically expand the use of drones and special operations as the DoD tries to figure out how to operate in a universe of limited resources. It is part of President Obama's shift toward smaller covert actions in place of bigger, overt wars. But this policy shift is not without cost, and those costs are rarely debated in the public or behind closed doors.

As one example, drones carry inherent political costs to the regime that allows them. Among domestic populations, drones are almost always unpopular, as they represent a distant and unaccountable foreign power exercising the right to kill them at will. The resistance to drones is debated heavily in Pakistani circles, but it's difficult to ignore the effects, like a walkout in Parliament.Given the precariousness of President Zardari's administration, the impending military resistance to his rule, and the intrigue over Memogate, it should concern U.S. policymakers deeply that the drone program is further destabilizing an already tenuous situation.

In Yemen, too, the situation continues to deteriorate. There remains society-wide unrest at the horrible rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, and even his replacements and other contenders are finding it hard to placate public anger (which seems to be spreading).While Yemen has never been particularly stable, there is every indication that the drone strikes -- which will continue so long as officials feel threatened -- have only made the instability worse.

The problem with the drones policy isn't that drones themselves are bad, but that they are happening without broader political, social, and even economic policies that could mitigate their pernicious consequences. In Pakistan, the limp U.S. engagement has at the very least not helped the nasty politics of Islamabad (the case of Raymond Davis -- whose case became the source of deep, vicious public anger -- shows that the drones policy almost certainly made Pakistani politics and the government worse off). In Yemen, the limp U.S. political engagement with the Yemeni opposition groups has not only failed to mitigate the negative consequences of shooting missiles into desert villages, it has also crippled the U.S. ability to cope with a post-Saleh future.

In both countries, Pakistan and Yemen, the U.S. faces a future similar to what it faces in the Arab Spring countries: a sudden cut-off of information and cooperation it thinks critical to the global struggle against extremism. Yet that hasn't slowed down the pace of drone warfare -- especially when they come to define U.S. policy in places like the Horn of Africa (another area where U.S. engagement is primarily through drones and special forces instead of through politics).

Already, some countries are reacting against this global assertion to fly airplanes and kill at will. Last December, Algeria denied the U.S. permission to fly drones over its territory to help contain negative spillover effects from the Libyan intervention. Needless to say, that has limited U.S. options in the area because the U.S. never bothered to come up with a policy that doesn't rely on drones. Thus, as there appears to be a growing gap between the CIA and Algeria on how to react to the threat posted by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, there just isn't the political foundation in place to work those differences through.

Future drone technology, which includes making the planes autonomous, are unnerving to many of us who wonder about the substantial costs imposed by the current, human-controlled aircraft.There are no immediate plans for an autonomous lethal drone yet -- all of the automated systems will be for surveillance and resupplying ground troops -- but the rush to robots in warfare is worrying. There just isn't enough thought about what consequences these systems impose on U.S. policy. There needs to be.