The Debate

Politics and Drones

The Obama administration has opened up a bit on the use of drones. But there’s a political element to doing so.

They were until last week one of the worst kept secrets of U.S. operations against militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan. After all, barely a day goes by without them making headlines somewhere in the world. But last week, the Obama administration officially discussed for the first time the use of armed unmanned drones.

Speaking in Washington, White House counterterrorism official John Brennan described how al-Qaeda targets are selected for drone strikes, defending them even as concern grows over a program whose use has expanded dramatically under the Obama administration.

“Yes, in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives, the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaeda terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones,” Brennan said.

Such candor is welcome, but as the Washington Post’s ever-readable columnist David Ignatius has noted, there’s much that remains unclear (more unclear?) after Brennan’s comments.

“The bedrock problem, as Brennan rightly notes, is that America is setting standards for a world in which dozens of countries will soon have drones,” Ignatius argues. “What if the Chinese deployed drones to protect their workers in southern Sudan against rebels who have killed them in past attacks? What if Iran used them against Kurdish separatists they regard as terrorists? What if Russia used them over Chechnya? What position would the United States take, and wouldn’t it be hypocritical if it opposed drone attacks by other nations that face ‘imminent’ or ‘significant’ threats?”

Another question, of course, is why the administration is opening up now. Being charitable, it could be argued that the administration is simply, belatedly, responding to growing concern and questions over the use of drones – their use would have to be acknowledged at some time, and with the issue of strikes on foreign soil again in the spotlight with the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, now was as good a time as any.

But it’s also perhaps no coincidence that the new openness about the drone program has come as the presidential election campaign has started in earnest, now that Mitt Romney has effectively sealed the nomination with his two remaining biggest opponents bowing out. The Democrats are traditionally seen as weaker than their Republican rivals on national security issues, and the Obama administration’s embrace of drones is a sign that the president is as tough as the next man on terrorism. But it is of course difficult to take credit for a program that you won’t talk about, hence the shift.

This latter view is bolstered by the way Barack Obama took pains to remind Americans that he was willing to take the tough decision to order the kill bin Laden, while raising doubts in a campaign video over whether Romney would have been willing to do the same. Republicans have criticized the Obama administration for politicizing bin Laden’s death in this way, although such criticism is of course difficult to take seriously – it’s hard to imagine that a President John McCain, for example, wouldn’t be using such a killing to blast a Democratic opponent if the roles were reversed now. But that doesn’t mean that the Obama administration’s decision to wait so long to officially open up discussion of the drone program isn’t unfortunate.

Still, the dangers of opening the drone can of worms was evident in the U.K. this past week, following news that Britain has been testing air defense missile systems as part of the Olympic Games security plan at sites across London, including plans to use missile batteries on top of apartment buildings.

The problem to me seems to be in the badly thought through explanation. A senior British Army officer said this week that unmanned aerial vehicles carrying poison could be used in a terrorist attack during the Olympics, according to the Daily Mail.

The comments were apparently meant to ease fears over why exactly apartment buildings were being considered as locations for missiles batteries. And as David Axe noted in February, the world has arguably seen “perhaps the first example of strictly private drone combat” in Orangeburg, South Carolina, when “hunters allegedly shot down a surveillance robot operated by an animal rights group.”

As the British Army officer noted, unmanned aerial vehicles could even be placed in a backpack. “They come in all sorts of sizes and it’s feasible they could be filled with something noxious and flown by remote-control,” the Daily Mail reported.

But it’s hard to imagine that anti-aircraft missiles would be the preferred method of defending against unmanned vehicles small enough to fit in a backpack – vehicles that will be more akin to model airplanes flying over a crowd than the Predator drones conducting operations in remote parts of Afghanistan.

Being half open and forthcoming can be as bad, or at least as confusing for the public, as full disclosure. The details of drone operations and their implications are already muddy enough without the further haze of political PR efforts being added.