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Paul Sherman: Rethinking drones

By Paul Sherman, Columnist
Published January 22, 2013

It was a brisk afternoon in Washington D.C. as President Barack Obama prepared to be sworn into office for a second time on the steps of the Capitol. The pageantry was certainly there as hundreds of thousands of people stood by to witness the event and millions tuned in on television. Even Beyoncé made an appearance to entertain White House staffers. After waiting months for this moment, Obama placed his hand on two different Bibles and proceeded to take the oath of office. He’s back in the White House and ready take on the new challenges that lie ahead.

With the second inauguration behind us, it’s time to reflect on Obama’s successes and failures. As we turn the page on his first term, we can say that his administration did make efforts to wind down the wars in the Middle East. Now, it’s time for Obama to bring these wars to an end. However, with a smaller number of ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan he must limit the use of aerial drones in the coming years.

During his first term, Obama dramatically increased the use of unmanned aerial vehicles as a foreign policy tool in the Middle East and Africa. Some in the media have argued that Obama’s position has changed from supporting a nation-building counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan to a whac-a-mole approach that uses drones to “take out” targeted enemies.

For policymakers in Washington, it’s time to reduce the military’s and intelligence agencies’ dependence on drones, since their continued usage is angering an increasing number of civilians abroad. In January 2012, Iraqi senior officials expressed their outrage over the use of a small number of drones in Iraq after the withdrawal of American troops from the region. In October 2012, thousands of Pakistanis, most notably in the capital, Islamabad, protested against the use of drones in the tribal regions of the country. Going forward, the president must keep this in mind when he decides to use a drone strike to take out targets.

Obama’s reliance on drones has created discord within the United States as well. Americans are increasingly concerned about the number of innocent civilians killed by drone strikes. As a result, popular support for drones decreased from 83 percent to 62 percent between Feb. 2012 and June 2012 according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Domestic support remains high, but Americans are starting to become more skeptical about the ramifications of drone strikes, particularly since they have been left out of the discussion.

An increased use of drones can create the possibility of proliferation. According to Micah Zenko, an expert on U.S. national security policy, there’s possibility that “at least a dozen other states and nonstate actors could possess armed drones within the next 10 years and leverage the technology in unforeseen and harmful ways.” This could create a new arms war if the American government isn't careful. If Obama continues to use drones at a high rate, he will run the risk of possible drone usage against military personnel and possibly American civilians on U.S. soil.

On the other hand, drones have achieved significant victories in the battle against terrorism. Top Al-Qaeda operatives, including U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Alwaki, have been killed in drone strikes. Along the Afghan border in Pakistan during 2012, drones killed 246 people, most of whom were Islamic militants. According to The New York Times, since 2004, drones have killed 473 people, but there has been a decline in that number in recent years. In 2012, drones killed only seven civilians compared to 68 civilian deaths in 2011.

Despite the increased accuracy of drones, there has been very little oversight of the program. Due to a lack of checks on drone usage, Zenko explained that some policymakers and White House officials don’t clearly understand how the laws have changed or how the attacks are conducted in each country. In a 2012 interview with Mark Bowden, a journalist who has reported extensively on America’s Middle Eastern affairs, Obama stated that, “creating a legal structure, processes, with oversight checks on how we use unmanned weapons” would be a challenge “partly because technology may evolve fairly rapidly for other countries as well.” A senior official of the Central Intelligence Agency stated that the CIA had not conducted sufficient oversight measures. Continuing to administer these drone attacks without developing a concrete framework could accelerate the Middle East’s problems and only stymie solutions for those conflicts.

In the end, because of their increased accuracy and low cost compared to the use of manned aircraft and troops on the ground, the Obama administration will continue to use drones. Unmanned aerial vehicles will prove an important tool for U.S. foreign policy, but Obama must consider scaling down the use of drones and creating an effective oversight policy during his second term. The president must come up with a responsible policy that will be effective in taking out extremist threats while limiting civilian casualties and supporting the needs of local civilian populations.

Paul Sherman can be reached at pausherm@umich.edu.


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