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A First Draft of the Third War

Why President Obama should commission a history of targeted killing.

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
March 6, 2013
Foreign Policy


Since 11:47 on Wednesday morning, the beginning of a Senate filibuster to delay a vote on John Brennan's nomination to head the CIA, "Rand Paul," "drones," and "John Brennan" have intermittently been trending on Twitter. This attention-grabbing focus on targeted killings -- which will last only until Paul runs out of steam -- is representative of the sporadic attention that the controversial tactic has received from policymakers and the public.

With each supposed revelation -- the "kill list," "signature strikes," "disposition matrix," and the leaking of a Department of Justice white paper providing the legal justification for killing American citizens -- there is a frenzy of interest in drone strikes. Analysts (myself included) are repeatedly asked, "Where is this all heading in five or ten years?" In other words: What additional lethal missions will U.S. armed drones execute, and where will they occur? What other states will seek to develop this military capability?

But, in general, there is relative indifference to the history of America's Third War -- the 10-year campaign of over 400 targeted killings in non-battlefield settings that have killed an estimated 3,500 to 4,700 people. And that is puzzling, particularly since they have become a defining feature of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy.

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