Using Drones Abroad: Pros and Cons

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Coverage of drones in the American news media borders on either fear-mongering or near-total silence. How can voters form intelligent opinions about drones and the effects of their domestic and foreign use when, many times, media outlets only discuss how the machines relate to everyday Americans? The use of drones domestically certainly raises constitutional questions about privacy and U.S. citizens. At the same time, the results of foreign drone use attract only surface-level, if any, attention from the news media.

Does using drones abroad help or hurt America's counterterrorism strategy?

What are some of the more complex issues about using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) abroad? How do drones help or hurt the American “war on terror”? Does U.S. drone warfare create more terrorists than it kills? Does the benefit of not putting U.S. soldiers at risk outweigh the cost? And, more fundamentally: is drone warfare a good idea? This article hopes to address many of these questions, and offer readers two basic, opposing viewpoints on the merits of drone use.

Drones cause public protests in the areas where their use results in civilian death; this is undeniable. Writing for the MIT Technology Review, Fred Kaplan describes the effects of deploying drones in foreign countries:

“These strikes have provoked violent protest in those countries, alienating even those who’d previously felt no affection for jihadists and, in some cases, provided some support for the United States.”

Do public protests against American drones in Pakistan, or Yemen, or even Somalia, have weight when it comes to determining the counterterrorism strategy in those nations? It is easy to see how, in light of Arab Spring, the governments in unstable countries might publicly condemn U.S. drone use in order to avoid popular opposition. However, doesn’t terrorism threaten government stability as well?

It seems as if governments in nations where America deploys drones have found a way to navigate this dilemma. Daniel Byman, writing about drones for Foreign Affairs, argued that the U.S. drone strategy has “earned the backing, albeit secret, of foreign governments.” Byman noted that many times, Pakistani and Yemeni officials criticize American drone use, only to later express their support behind closed doors. Anti-drone protests in foreign countries may present a powerful image, but they do not fundamentally alter co-operation between the United States and the local governments.

Yet, the use of drones in volatile areas does make the U.S. counterterrorism strategy more difficult in the long run. Take Yemen, for example. Leila Hudson, Colin Owens, and David Callen identified “five distinct forms of blowback” to the use of UAVs in the country: “purposeful retaliation”, “increased ability of [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] to recruit new members”, “strategic confusion”, “continued destabilization of Yemen”, and an “increasingly precarious alliance between the American and Yemeni governments.” The popular protests in foreign countries do not undermine the American counterterrorism approach, but the general instability caused by the U.S. drone campaign does.

Here is the real issue: should the United States continue to use drones, despite their long-term consequences, or should America deny itself the short-term effectiveness that drones provide? There is little question that armed UAVs are good at their job: killing terrorists. Over 3,000 extremist operatives have been killed by drones since President Obama took office. However, the same tool that dispatches today’s terrorist seems to create the terrorist of tomorrow. Any proponent of drone use needs to recognize this reality, and opponents need to understand that drones offer strategic advantages that other means of addressing imminent threats do not.

Regardless of whether or not drones should be used against targets, the need to continue developing drone technology is great. Byman again:

“Controlling the spread of drone technology will prove impossible…nearly 90 other countries already have surveillance drones in their arsenals, and China is producing several inexpensive models for export.”

Given the emerging arms race in the area of drone technology, would it be wise for the United States to halt drone development and use altogether? Probably not. But will overuse of U.S. drones in countries like Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia have negative consequences for the American counterterrorism strategy? Possibly. One thing, however, is certain: UAVs are not just an issue of domestic privacy. Drones are also an important foreign policy issue, with long-term effects on the United States’ interests abroad.