Rules of Engagement: Why the U.S. Should Take the Lead in the Drone Debate

By Alexandra Coakley, Transatlantic Security Analyst

The “drone wars” in American political discourse revolve around a skeptical line of inquiry: How tight of a leash are drones kept on? In his recent testimony before the House Committee on the Judiciary, Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argued that publicly available information on drones suggests that the White House has not yet acted outside of its designated powers. And while Rand Paul’s nearly 13-hour filibuster against John Brennan’s CIA confirmation served as a reminder that the will of the minority cannot be ignored, Paul’s central fear – that an armed unmanned aerial vehicle might be used against a non-combatant American citizen – was dismissed in a short memo sent from Attorney General Eric Holder: “The answer to that question is no.”


Still, anxiety over drones has not emerged in a vacuum of Orwellian paranoia. Bipartisan concern for individual privacy rights and questions about U.S. compliance with international human rights law are steadily pressuring the White House to acknowledge the responsibility that comes with leading the robotics revolution. The U.S. military currently operates over 8,000 UAVs, and while the non-militant fatality rate has decreased under the current administration, in his first term alone President Obama oversaw five times as many drone strikes in Pakistan as President Bush ordered during his entire presidency. While the U.S. currently leads the rest of the world in the production of drones, proliferation is expected to lead to the production of 35,000 drones in the next ten years. And if these developments are not enough to spur action, a full UN investigation of U.S. drone strikes, set to deliver its findings this fall, might encourage the administration to set new standards on drone use. 


U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said that Washington “has not ruled out full cooperation” with the experts and human rights lawyers set to conduct the investigation in the months ahead, but U.S. policymakers should be working to shape – not merely tolerate – the drone debate. Scholars and analysts tend to agree that drones are set to play a pivotal role in modern militaries. Popular approval, however, is not internationally ubiquitous. A June 2012 poll administered by the Pew Research Center reported that while 62% of Americans approve of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, majorities in Britain, Germany, France and other European nations disapprove of them. Recent reports from Washington indicate that the Obama administration is poised to shift the drone program from the CIA to the Department of Defense, marking a potential shift toward increased accountability.


Even so, the U.S. would benefit from diversifying its overall counterterrorism approach. As Rosa Brooks, a fellow at New America Foundation, has written, global terrorism is only the latest challenge to contemporary understandings of the moral and legal boundaries of state sovereignty. Even if U.S. officials have justifiably interpreted the terrorist threat as the kind of extraordinary circumstance that requires forceful intervention, greater transparency may help ensure that current policies do not run afoul of best intentions. During the Cold War too, covert operations were most successful when they functioned as an accessory to – not a replacement for – diplomacy. In the same vein, the White House should strive to promote drones as a tactical necessity, but not the lone anchor of long-term U.S. counterterrorism policy.


The administration should also work to forge a common view on domestic drone use among democratic states. With the civil functions of drones rapidly expanding, calls for regulation on both sides of the Atlantic present an opportunity to strengthen privacy laws and adopt preventive measures for the eventuality of domestic drone abuses. The latter is likely to become increasingly acute as drones are developed by authoritarian regimes. U.S. officials need to capitalize on the as yet relative infancy of this industry and work closely with allies in Europe and beyond to form a critical mass on internal drone use. Indeed, if the U.S. follows the reasoning it currently invokes to justify drone strikes, its global responsibility will soon extend beyond protecting civilian populations from terrorist networks to the very weapons employed to dismantle them.

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