What Does Declining Support for Drone Strikes Mean for the Future of CT?

Yes­ter­day a new poll came out that showed strong pub­lic sup­port for drone strikes against sus­pect­ed ter­ror­ists.

q63 Do you favor or oppose the U.S. using unmanned aircrafts or “drones” to carry outbombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries?
q63 Do you favor or oppose the U.S. using unmanned air­crafts or “drones” to car­ry out­bomb­ing attacks against sus­pect­ed ter­ror­ists in for­eign coun­tries?

The sur­vey also found sup­port for killing U.S. cit­i­zens sus­pect­ed of being ter­ror­ists abroad.

q64 Do you favor or oppose the U.S. targeting and killing American citizens in foreigncountries who are suspected of carrying out terrorist activities against the U.S.?
q64 Do you favor or oppose the U.S. tar­get­ing and killing Amer­i­can cit­i­zens in for­eign­coun­tries who are sus­pect­ed of car­ry­ing out ter­ror­ist activ­i­ties against the U.S.?

Though the num­bers are a bit eye-pop­ping — 48% of Democ­rats favor sum­ma­ry exe­cu­tions for Amer­i­cans sus­pect­ed of ter­ror­ism? — they have changed sub­stan­tial­ly in the last year. The sur­vey was struc­tured dif­fer­ent, but around this time last year a Wash­ing­ton Post/ABC poll showed much high­er sup­port for both drone strikes against ter­ror­ists and drone strikes against Amer­i­cans sus­pect­ed of being ter­ror­ists.

13c. [P]lease tell me whether you strongly approve, somewhat approve, somewhat disapprove, or strongly disapprove of The use of unmanned, “drone” aircraft against terrorist suspects overseas
13c. [P]lease tell me whether you strong­ly approve, some­what approve, some­what dis­ap­prove, or strong­ly dis­ap­prove of The use of unmanned, “drone” air­craft against ter­ror­ist sus­pects over­seas
13c/14 NET: What if those suspected terrorists are American citizens living in other countries? In that case do you approve or disapprove of the use of drones?
13c/14 NET: What if those sus­pect­ed ter­ror­ists are Amer­i­can cit­i­zens liv­ing in oth­er coun­tries? In that case do you approve or dis­ap­prove of the use of drones?

In that sec­ond ques­tion, there were two parts: those who already approved of drone strikes in gen­er­al also strong­ly sup­port­ed using drones against U.S. cit­i­zens. The over­all score post­ed here reflects the com­pos­ite of those who already dis­ap­prove of all drone strikes plus those who approve of drone strikes against for­eign­ers but dis­ap­prove of drone strikes against U.S. cit­i­zens.

Now, the caveats: these were polls tak­en by dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies, using dif­fer­ent ques­tions. So there is only so much we can do in the way of draw­ing con­clu­sions. But I think there is almost no ques­tion that the pub­lic mood about drones has become much more skep­ti­cal since Feb­ru­ary of 2012… and the admin­is­tra­tion has not been pub­licly flog­ging the idea of U.S. cit­i­zen Anwar al-Awla­ki as a huge threat to the home­land (which prob­a­bly influ­ences pub­lic opin­ions as well).

So what does this mean? Let’s assume the huge dif­fer­ence in poll num­bers has been exag­ger­at­ed because of dif­fer­ing method­olo­gies. It’s still clear that pub­lic sup­port and approval of drone strikes, while still strong, is drop­ping. At some unknown point in the future, pos­si­bly the near future, the pub­lic will no longer con­sid­er drone strikes a legit­i­mate pol­i­cy for coun­tert­er­ror­ism.

This can have pro­found effects on how CT works. One big strength the White House has in its debate with both crit­ics at large and the “gang of eight” on the intel­li­gence com­mit­tees is the broad pub­lic sup­port for drones: rep­re­sen­ta­tives and Sen­a­tors are less will­ing to pub­licly oppose an incred­i­bly pop­u­lar pro­gram. The recent ques­tion­ing of John Bren­nan in front of the SSCI showed that this sup­port is slip­ping, and the Sen­a­tors are notic­ing it: even Democ­rats were open­ly skep­ti­cal of Bren­nan’s man­age­ment of the drones pro­gram, espe­cial­ly as it relates to strikes against U.S. cit­i­zens.

If the drones pro­gram los­es pub­lic legit­i­ma­cy it will tie the hands of the CT indus­try, which right now is geared heav­i­ly toward an almost indus­tri­al process of adding names to the kill lists then remov­ing them through killing. This is lit­er­al­ly a mul­ti-bil­lion dol­lar indus­try, most­ly head­quar­tered along the Dulles Toll Road out­side of Wash­ing­ton, DC.

But tying the hands of the CT indus­try does­n’t real­ly mat­ter all that much if the net result is good. Right now, the data about how effec­tive drone strikes are in reduc­ing the threat from al Qae­da are ambigu­ous, at best. Some stud­ies sug­gest that drone strikes do have a deter­rent effect (pdf) on future ter­ror­ist inci­dents under some cir­cum­stances, but there has­n’t been a sys­temic study to see if that applies more broad­ly (out­side of north­west Pak­istan, which is the one area being ana­lyzed in that study).

It’s not clear if there is a “bet­ter” replace­ment for drone strikes, at least from the per­spec­tive of U.S. pol­i­cy­mak­ers. Replac­ing drone strikes with cap­tur­ing oper­a­tions is incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult polit­i­cal­ly, diplo­mat­i­cal­ly, and prag­mat­i­cal­ly. Broad “nation-build­ing” mea­sures to “drain the swamp,” or what­ev­er, of ter­ror­ist-pro­duc­ing coun­tries have a fraught his­to­ry, at best.

So what’s left? For one, the White House needs to be more upfront about how it is run­ning the drones pro­gram. If, as offi­cials insist, civil­ian casu­al­ties have real­ly been in the sin­gle dig­its, they should pro­vide the data to prove it, con­sid­er­ing the incred­i­ble vol­ume of report­ing that sug­gests they are hor­ri­bly wrong (or lying). And the White House also should be much more open about the legal author­i­ties it is oper­at­ing under, and how it plans to cre­ate bet­ter account­abil­i­ty and lim­it civil­ian death in the future.

The drones pro­gram has mer­its, that much is unde­ni­able. But it also has major draw­backs, includ­ing, increas­ing­ly, here in the U.S. Yet the White House con­tin­ues to oper­ate as if its solemn promise of pro­fes­sion­al­ism and effec­tive­ness is enough to quell pub­lic doubts. It is not, at least not any longer. The pri­or­i­ty for Lisa Mona­co, who is replac­ing John Bren­nan as the White House Coun­tert­er­rror­ism Advis­er, should be to devise a plan for open­ing cer­tain, lim­it­ed aspects of the pro­gram and cre­at­ing unclas­si­fied datasets for the pub­lic.

Only open­ing up a lit­tle bit about the drones pro­gram will assuage the grow­ing pub­lic skep­ti­cism of the drone strikes. And even then, it may be too late: the White House­’s dogged and unre­al­is­tic insis­tence on extreme secre­cy for the worst-kept secret in Wash­ing­ton may have already poi­soned the well beyond redemp­tion.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.

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