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Pillar writes: "One of the legitimate concerns about the drone strikes is that they are coming to exhibit the 'if I have a hammer then everything looks like a nail' syndrome."

President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa. (photo: AP)
President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa. (photo: AP)

The Hands-On Approach to Lethal Force

By Paul Pillar, National Interest

03 June 12


n illuminating feature article by Jo Becker and Scott Shane of the New York Times about the use of lethal missile strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles evokes memories of Lyndon Johnson personally approving the individual targets for bombing sorties against North Vietnam. President Obama, according to the article, signs off on each strike in Yemen and Somalia and on the "more complex and risky strikes" in Pakistan, or about a third of the missile strikes overall. Former navy admiral and director of national intelligence Dennis Blair mentioned an additional memory by critically comparing reliance on the drone strikes to the use of body counts in Vietnam.

Despite such echoes from a painful past war, and despite the legitimate concerns about use of the drones that Becker and Shane explore, their account is in another respect reassuring. It gives us the most extensive public picture so far of the process and criteria that go into each decision to kill someone by remote control from high altitude - and sometimes to kill others who are not the target but happen to be nearby. We still aren't getting to see the secret Justice Department memorandum that makes a legal case for using this method to kill U.S. citizens, as was done with the strike in Yemen last year that took out Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. But we do read of White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan talking about how before each decision to fire a missile the president insists that his subordinates "go through a rigorous checklist: the infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things." Then there is the reassurance of knowing that the chief executive is directly involving himself in weighing the considerations that need to be weighed before the trigger is pulled. That is probably the best safeguard against overlooking the broader strategic factors that need to be taken into account at least as much as the narrow tactical one of taking a bad guy out of commission.

Some possible drawbacks of this presidential involvement come to mind. An obvious one is that the process is a drain on presidential time and attention. Another possible drawback, which parallels Blair's criticism about heavy reliance on the drones, is that by getting down in the weeds of individual target decisions, the president himself becomes more tactical and less strategic. This carries the associated risk of the drone strikes being increasingly equated with counterterrorism, the killing of men in Asian and African hinterlands being equated with keeping Americans safe from terrorism and our thinking starting to resemble the body-count mentality of the Vietnam War. On balance, however, an appropriately broad rather than narrow approach is more likely to be applied when this president - the former law-school professor who has evinced good awareness of the political and diplomatic repercussions overseas of the application of U.S. military force - makes the task one of detailed and careful analysis by himself.

The antithesis to this approach toward the use of lethal capabilities is provided by Mr. Obama's Republican challenger, and in ways that go beyond the obvious differences in what an incumbent president and a nonincumbent candidate can demonstrate. Mitt Romney has accused President Obama of not spending enough on the military. As Christopher Preble has noted in these spaces, Romney's "Fire. Ready. Aim" approach of pledging to devote at least 4 percent of the nation's GDP to the base defense budget would bring that spending to levels not seen since World War II and represent something like an additional $2.5 trillion in expenditures. But as inchoate as the financing is how all this military capability would be applied. Romney returned to his keep-the-military-strong theme in a speech on Memorial Day, in which he still did not address the matter of application.

In his speech, Romney mentioned countries that in his view make the world an unsafe place: bête-noir-du-jour Iran, of course, as well as Russia and China. He spoke of deterrence through strength but not of exactly what it is the United States would be deterring. Even more to the point, he has not explained how - bearing in mind that the United States currently spends far more on its military than any conceivable combination of foes put together - the difference between spending levels he favors and levels favored by Obama or anyone else would make any difference in being able or unable to deter a threat or do whatever else the United States would need to do with military force. This is not only not down in the weeds; it is not even hitting the treetops.

One of the legitimate concerns about the drone strikes is that they are coming to exhibit the "if I have a hammer then everything looks like a nail" syndrome. The same danger - as was exhibited in such a costly and tragic way by the Iraq War - is true on a larger scale of the overall military capability of the United States. Avoiding that danger, at the level of either a single weapon system or the nation's entire armed force, requires careful and detailed deliberation - including at the presidential level - of costs and risks as well as needs and benefits.

Postscript: The lead story on the front page of Wednesday's Washington Post is headlined: "Drone Strikes spur backlash in Yemen; Outrage over civilian casualties; Escalated U.S. campaign fuels support for al-Qaeda." If the president of the United States were not already personally weighing the pros and cons of each prospective drone strike in Yemen, the reactions described in this article are a good reason to expect him to do so. These reactions also are a reason the overall gain or loss to U.S. interests of the drone-based killing program would be a legitimate topic for discussion in the presidential campaign - if any candidate wanted to make it an issue. your social media marketing partner


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0 # SamWilliams3 2012-06-03 23:38
One of the "...possible drawbacks of this presidential involvement..." that the author may have thought too insignificant to mention is the constitutionali ty of the US president approving hit lists. He is, after all, a US government employee who swore an oath to uphold the constitution - not some mafia don or soviet dictator.
+6 # Stephanie Remington 2012-06-04 04:46
Paul Pillar is reassured that the president is directly involved in directing extrajudicial killings – illegal and immoral acts – because (supposedly) this is a great safeguard against “overlooking broader strategic factors” when focusing on the “narrow tactical” goal of “taking a bad guy out of commission.” And the first drawback that comes to his mind is that presidential involvement in killing people who have no opportunity to demonstrate their innocence is a drain on his time and attention.

People espousing this sick set of values and warped thinking belong on a psychiatrist’s couch, and those enacting them belong in front of an impeachment hearing.

The fact that Bush and Cheney were, wrongly, never impeached is a national disgrace, but a bad reason for ignoring Obama’s offenses.

Since a lot of people who were enraged by Bush/Cheney crimes are apparently fine with Obama committing the same ones, and worse, I agree that discussion of this issue is vital. But if it’s a conversation exclusively about tactics and strategy, then the issue can always be framed as a simple disagreement over which combination is more, or less, effective. This conversation cannot result in anything of value to society without considering law and ethics.
+4 # paulrevere 2012-06-04 18:07
I DESIRE TO GIVE YOU GREEN THUMBS UP COMPLETE WITH fourth of July fireworks...gre at encapsulation!! ...particularly the second paragraph...wel l...I take that dun struck a home run with the entire piece! THANK YOU...SR
+6 # RMDC 2012-06-04 06:01
Obama's personal involvement is drone murders says a lot about his character. He won the Nobel Peace Prize because in those early days he presented himself as a peace maker. Now we know different. He has started more wars than Bush/Cheney ever dreamed of. And the wars he has started or continued are mostly aimed at civilians or at destroying stable societies. consider Libya or Syria. Or the use of special forces and drones in Africa.

Obama is a war president. He really does not put much effort into anything else. The re-colonization of Africa will be his legacy. This son of Africa has begun a conflict that will take many millions of lives before it is over.
-3 # sandyclaws 2012-06-04 06:47
I have no experience in any of this, but I do have some questions. If those people were so innocent, what were they doing hanging around with those targeted people? Would an all out attack with troops endanger less people on both sides? I think the President is using the least lethal means available. I never see any articles that state how many innocents were killed by the other side. Why is that? I don't have to ask why we are there, because I know it is due to corporate greed. They were the reason all this started. The corporations tried to take over their countries and when those countries got pissed off and fought back (like we don't do here in this country) the coporations had a reason to pump up their war material machines and bank accounts. Looks like a win-win for those corporations. If American companies want to do business in those countries, that's up to them. But just because they want to do that, shouldn't mean we need to expend lives to protect their business interests. Let them hire and finance their own army. I am sure they would get a cost of security write-off on their income taxes. Bring our sons and daughters home and out of harms way. Are they draping a Haliburton flag over their coffins as well? Do they even send flowers?
0 # paulrevere 2012-06-04 18:08
+5 # Terrapin 2012-06-04 08:37
THINK for a minute what the U.S. (OUR) reaction would be if some other country flew drones into OUR country and blew away whomever they felt like, showed no concern over "collateral damage" ... you know, "If those people were so innocent, what were they doing hanging around with those targeted people?" / sandyclaws ... and then boldface lied about the incidences.

Ah yes "American Exceptionalism! " ...
+1 # Bigfella 2012-06-04 18:59
Wonder how the USA would feel if Isreal decided they would have a "DRONE" war on the USA, a drones were killing their families and friends? Bet they would be taking up arms after the first strike! I would and I would be keeping company with ugly bomb making idots too! Drones make more enemies as do troop invasions of others country. The only other thing to remember is that the "Drone" corp has the highest rate of death in the whole USA war machine and it is self inflicted!
0 # corals33 2012-06-06 15:24
all of you great thinkers and intelligent observers know that the bottom line to all this is depopulation as much as the abolitionists knew that the end of chattel slavery was simply the beginning of wage slavery. There is no way that europe would put up with this scale of everyday killing of its own people in its own realm in these times of zero population growth so spare me the geopolitical analysis; suffice to say that the so-called muslim leaders are party to the slaughter and customers of the western banks and investment houses.
0 # corals33 2012-06-06 15:32
it would be dead stupid to invent all these smart weapons without ever using them.Just a matter of time before mega mega arsenals of the civilised and sophisticated get their turn after declaring war on the war of terror, or insects, or aliens or just for the hell of it. Bring it on.

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