Why Drones Work

The Case for Washington’s Weapon of Choice

U.S. drone operators in New Mexico
Call of duty: drone operators in New Mexico, October 2012 (Airman 1st Class Michael Shoemaker / Reuters)

Despite President Barack Obama’s recent call to reduce the United States’ reliance on drones, they will likely remain his administration’s weapon of choice. Whereas President George W. Bush oversaw fewer than 50 drone strikes during his tenure, Obama has signed off on over 400 of them in the last four years, making the program the centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. The drones have done their job remarkably well: by killing key leaders and denying terrorists sanctuaries in Pakistan, Yemen, and, to a lesser degree, Somalia, drones have devastated al Qaeda and associated anti-American militant groups. And they have done so at little financial cost, at no risk to U.S. forces, and with fewer civilian casualties than many alternative methods would have caused.

Critics, however, remain skeptical. They claim that drones kill thousands of innocent civilians, alienate allied governments, anger foreign publics, illegally target Americans, and set a dangerous precedent that irresponsible governments will abuse. Some of these criticisms are valid; others, less so. In the end, drone strikes remain a necessary instrument of counterterrorism. The United States simply cannot tolerate terrorist safe havens in remote parts of Pakistan and elsewhere, and drones offer a comparatively low-risk way of targeting these areas while minimizing collateral damage.

So drone warfare is here to stay, and it is likely to expand in the years to come as other countries’ capabilities catch up with those of the United States. But Washington must continue to improve its drone policy, spelling out clearer rules for extrajudicial and extraterritorial killings so that tyrannical regimes will have a harder time pointing to the U.S. drone program to justify attacks against political opponents. At the same time, even as it solidifies the drone program, Washington must remain mindful of the built-in limits of low-cost, unmanned interventions, since the very convenience of drone warfare risks dragging the United States into conflicts it could otherwise avoid.

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