The Shift in the Drone Debate

When a forum as hawkish at The Washington Post‘s editorial page starts running pieces arguing the drone war is creating more enemies than it is eliminating, you know the dialogue is beginning to shift.

In an Op-Ed yesterday, Danya Greenfield, “deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East,” and David J. Kramer, “president of Freedom House,” insisted the high numbers of civilian casualties in the Obama administration’s drone war in Yemen is having the unintended consequence of expanding the support base of extremist militants, while also criticizing “the lack of transparency and accountability behind the drone policy.”

They write: “Thirty-one foreign policy experts and former diplomats — including us — sent a letter to President Obama last week that said the administration’s expansive use of unmanned drones in Yemen is proving counterproductive to U.S. security objectives: As faulty intelligence leads to collateral damage, extremist groups ultimately win more support.”

Despite considerable U.S. humanitarian aid and development support to their government, most Yemenis associate U.S. engagement with the ongoing drone campaign to destroy al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and they see it as having little regard for its effect on civilians. A number of former U.S. military and intelligence officials argue that the drone program’s costs might exceed its benefits. Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal has articulated the hazards of overreliance on drones, and Gen. James E. Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned last month against unintended consequences, arguing that no matter how precise drone strikes may be, they breed animosity among targeted communities and threaten U.S. efforts to curb extremism.

Of course, the Op-Ed was not nearly strong enough. The still-expanding drone war in Yemen, which often kills civilians, does in fact cause blowback and help al-Qaeda recruitment – as attested to by numerous Yemen expertsinvestigative reporting on the ground, polling, testimony from Yemen activists, and the actual fact that recent bungled terrorist attacks aimed at the US have cited such drone attacks as motivating factors.

After a September drone strike that killed 13 civilians, a local Yemeni activist told CNN, “I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined the lines of al Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake. This part of Yemen takes revenge very seriously.”

And of course there is more to the drone war outrage than the fact that it’s strategically counterproductive. Even if it killed less civilians and avoided considerable blowback, it would still be unacceptable for the President to draw up secret kill lists of mere suspects and conduct a secret, unaccountable war that dispenses with traditional legal boundaries of war and habeas corpus.

But the gradual push-back the Obama administration has been receiving from elite policy wonks (“foreign policy experts and former diplomats,” as well as a military general here and a CIA officer there) does represent a change from what the norm as has been for the entirety of Obama’s first term – namely, that almost exclusively alternative media and antiwar activists spoke out against the inhumane and counterproductive drone war.

This pressure hasn’t generated a change in policy yet: President Obama is still conducting the drone war at full speed and with all the ruthlessness and disregard of his first term. Last month, however, it was reported that a decision has been made to shift responsibility for the drone war from the CIA to the Defense Department. What appreciable change this will bring is not yet known, although there is reason to expect none.

Still, there are other pressures mounting. A federal appeals court ruled last month that the CIA cannot continue to “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of the drone war, in a court case prompted by a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union. For years, the modus operandi has been for the drone war to be the world’s worst kept secret so Obama gets the credit for being “tough on terror,” while reserving the right to disregard probing questions or inquiries.

In addition, a high level United Nations investigator last month said the drone war in Pakistan technically violates the law because it is conducted without the express consent of Islamabad, therefore a breach of Pakistani sovereignty. The UN envoy, Ben Emmerson, is leading an investigation into the drone war’s compliance with international law and international human rights law.

Add to this Rand Paul’s attention-grabbing (although far from perfect) anti-drone filibuster last month and you have a remarkable shift in the debate on drones compared to a mere six months ago.