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Addicted to Drones

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
October 1, 2010
Foreign Policy

"The military's impressive, isn't it?," U.S. President Bill Clinton remarked to his aide George Stephanopoulos in 1994, as the 82nd Airborne Division stood by for orders to invade Haiti to remove the Raoul Cédras's regime from power. For civilian officials, the military's ability to find and destroy things from a safe distance never ceases to amaze. The CIA's ongoing drone strike campaign is a particularly redoubtable example, with drone operators in the United States taking out targets in Pakistan's tribal areas. In September alone, the agency launched more than 20 unmanned drone strikes against suspected al Qaeda and Taliban operatives in Pakistan.

These recent drone strikes epitomize an important trend: When confronted with a foreign-policy problem that threatens U.S. national interests, civilian policymakers routinely call on limited military force such as drone strikes, cruise missile attacks, and special-operations raids. Many experts -- from pundits to anonymous U.S. officials -- laud such drone strikes as a low-cost, highly responsive, and effective military tactic. In practice, however, drones -- like other uses of limited force -- have substantial downsides that deserve attention given their increasingly prominent role.

One largely ignored downside is procedural and pertains to an unsexy and wonkish aspect of policymaking: interagency coordination. Under pressure to act in response to a threat and seduced by the allure and responsiveness of limited force, presidents elevate military options above other instruments of statecraft. Inevitably, after the missiles are launched, they announce their intention to keep the pressure on targeted adversaries with a follow-on campaign using all elements of national power. Once the bombs have been dropped, however, and the politically necessary "do something" box has been ticked, complex, robust secondary measures rarely come to fruition.

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