In a class I teach each May, the students and I start off by watching videos about the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and interviews with former Manhattan Project scientists struggling with conflicted emotions about their role in letting the nuclear genie out of the bottle. Once it was out, that genie could not be put back in, only put to good use – or good non-use as it turned out. By deterring more active Soviet aggression, nuclear weapons granted the time necessary for the Soviet economic and political system to stagnate and as its Communist ideology to pass out of fashion.
In recent years a new genie has been let out of the bottle – not one that can destroy the world, but one that has changed it forever, and one with which we need to come to terms. Since there is no going back, there is a need to better conceptualize long-term “drone strategy” in the same way analysts came to think of “nuclear strategy.”
The cornerstone of drone strategy should revolve more around the threat of their use then their actual use. The threat of unleashing a sustained drone campaign against an armed group that might seek to attack the US is almost certainly more likely to protect the US than launching limited strikes that may cause militants to seek retribution when they would otherwise be more concerned with local issues.
Boko Haram in Nigeria is a good example of a group that should be deterred rather than outright attacked with drones. Gaining notoriety most recently by its kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls, the group is now arguably the most violent and loathsome of Al Qaeda’s “children.” But, there is no evidence that the group plans to attack the US or Americans anytime soon. Using drones to strike at the group would incentivize, rather than disincentive, the behavior, by reducing the costs of striking back. The same goes with the militants currently overrunning parts of northern Iraq.
Some would argue that terrorists can’t be “deterred” because they do not fear dying like “rational” leaders did during the Cold War. This may sometimes be true on an individual level, but the deterrent value of sending in the drones is not that an individual may be killed but, rather, that the group might be hindered in achieving its goals. In this sense, even zealots are able to assess the perceived costs and benefits of provoking the US to action.
None of this is to say that say that drone strikes are not appropriate if a group IS actively plotting strikes against the United States, only that we need to act judiciously not to attract new enemies. The goal is to enhance rather than reduce threats to US security.
In a New York Times Op Ed a couple years ago, Job Henning wrote that future US drone strategy should involve “work[ing] the use of drones into an adapted doctrine of deterrence. Drones should be used primarily to dissuade or prevent injurious acts.” In order for such a strategy to become real, however, drone policy has to move out of the shadows and become more transparent. Deterrence is about clear communication as much as it is the threat of force.
The alternative to re-conceptualizing drone policy is to continue using them here and there in what comes across as an arbitrary and ad hoc fashion to many American enemies. Occasionally bad people (and civilians) will be killed and operations disrupted, but at the price of continuing American involvement in other countries’ wars, harm to US’ image abroad, and in increase in the desire of militant groups to attack American civilians. Just as nuclear weapons served a greater purpose by remaining in their silos, drones might one day serve the same purpose — as primarily a tool of deterrence rather than targeted assassination that helps contain murderous militancy until the ideology underlying it slowly goes out of fashion.