Exporting the Downside of War: Election Won’t Change Drone Policy

Since the US economy is the main issue on the minds of voters this election season, let’s talk about Unmanned Arial Vehicles strikes – drones strikes – in economic terms.

The use of drones for strikes in places like Yemen and Pakistan seems, to many, a justifiable short term investment. It’s less expensive in dollars than Special Forces operations or a full scale deployment and almost all of the human cost – on the US side – is removed. However, this is a very poor, shortsighted investment with huge longer term risk. The likely long term outcome will be great US losses, and, riskiest of all, moral bankruptcy.

The US is hedging its bet on this one by assuming we can kill more extremists than the policy of killing “them” will create. Alarmingly, this increasingly seems to be a policy of choice, as articles appearing in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post in recent weeks indicate.

The CIA is intent on expanding its own fleet of – and use of – drones. The White House seems more than content overseeing these assassination operations, even of US citizens. Given both Gov. Romney and President Obama’s emphatic support for drones expressed during the third Presidential debate, the policy is unlikely to change even if the administration does. Congress, by and large, seems just fine turning a blind-eye in the name of National Security, a term itself frequently left undefined. The public, save for a few groups like mine, also seem content as long as these operations reduce the use of US troops and treasure.

So what’s the downside here? How could so many smart people place faith in such a poor investment? (Think: housing bubble). Drone strikes do keep us safe, right?

Evidence to the contrary is mounting. We now have a body of empirical evidence that suggests this policy does more harm than good. Recent studies – one produced by Stanford Law School and New York University School of Law and the other by Columbia Law School – indicate that the US may be doing irrevocable long term damage by using these drone strikes. Each report, focused on the US drones policy in Pakistan, suggests the cultural and psychological impacts of the US drone strike policy, in the long term, could do immeasurable harm to US security interests.

In military terms, what could make sense tactically may undermine longer term strategic efforts. In other words, it doesn’t matter if the US policy kills one extremist if, in the process, the policy creates dozes of new extremists – many of whom will have perceived grievances replaced by legitimate grievances. This is especially true given the way the US counts “militant” casualties – males of “fighting age” killed while at the scene of the strike, aka guilt by proximity. It stands to reason many of the young, impressionable Pakistani boys and girls witnessing the devastation in their communities may one day be compelled to participate in extremist behavior themselves. This is the textbook definition of “blowback” or unintended consequences of US policy abroad.

There is also something deeply troubling about the idea of this or any other Administration acting as judge, jury and executioner. Anwar al Awlaki, an accused al Qaeda operative killed (http://bit.ly/qNnoLc) by a US drone strike in Yemen over a year ago, was a US citizen. Why wasn’t he entitled to the rights afforded to us all by the US Constitution? No crime warrants extrajudicial killing; it defeats the purpose of having a judicial system in the first place. There is far too much mystery surrounding the policy of US drone strikes. The road of secrecy and mystery leads only to corruption and abuse of power.

The US cannot afford – morally or fiscally – to wage this kind of warfare. The short term investment may appear to some to yield some benefit, but when compared to the long term, the cost outweighs all perceived benefit. In spite of the flimsy legal bases – particularly in Pakistan – of these strikes and the near universal dismissal of any attempt to attain legal information, Congress has remained largely silent on this policy. Yet, Congress – with its oversight responsibility – will either deal with the issues around this policy now or in the future, potentially in the form of a tragedy. We need transparency and accountability around this policy in the short term; in the long term, we must end the use of drone strikes.

This comes down to one simple fact: we cannot export the downside of war. What seems like a good short term bet may just end up leaving us bankrupt. The idea of sanitizing killing by removing the human aspect on the US side is an illogical prospect. And remember, someone still has to pull the trigger, even if they are thousands of miles away. It is time we learn from the past, refocus our foreign policy efforts and put an end to these shortsighted policies.