David Ignatius on Drone Warfare, and Slate’s William Saletan, Too

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has been publicly against drone warfare for over a year now, and his latest piece continues that stance.  Indeed, he describes them as an “addictive tool of national security policy” and says flatly that their deployment to Libya is a “rare error in judgment by Secretary Gates.”

Ignatius’s argument in this particular article is largely around the claim that they inflame larger Muslim opinion against the US.  Drones have

become for many Muslims a symbol of the arrogance of U.S. power into a theater next door to the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the most promising events in a generation. It projects American power in the most negative possible way.

Note that Ignatius does not say that they are more harmful to civilians than alternative forms of attack.  Rather, he rests on a much vaguer and harder to evaluate claim of “blowback.”  The blowback thesis started in earnest as a claim by David Kilcullen that counterinsurgency efforts, requiring boots on the ground in order to win both territory and populations, could be undermined by counterterrorism efforts that inflamed local populations, presumably through civilian collateral damage.

Kilcullen’s original account of blowback from drones focused on local villages and their populations in Afghanistan and the border areas.  Eventually it got expanded in the hands of commentators such as Ignatius into a much broader thesis that the blowback that mattered was not just that of local populations in the affected areas, but broader public opinion in such places as Pakistan and, as Ignatius frames it, the entire Muslim world.

That is, to put it mildly, a broad claim.  Blowback is easy to announce but, like any criticism of strategy that involves not doing rather than doing, hard to prove one way or another in its effects.  It’s an exercise in counterfactuals.  It might always be true and sometimes probably is, in the sense that the bad effects of blowback outweigh the good things one tried to accomplish with the strategic action one took.  There’s no way to prove Ignatius’s claim wrong – but also no way to prove it right.  That is particularly true in the case of highly manipulable public opinion in the case of a place like Pakistan.  It also requires a set of contestable premises about whether public opinion on places like Pakistan matters as such – versus the state and military – one has to inquire about chickens and eggs, and the direction of causality.

However, one might note that although broad blowback claims are worth considering because they might be right, it’s pretty hard for military strategy to proceed from a basis of “first do no harm.”  There was one general in American history who, devoted to a political strategy based around fear of blowback, refused to do much at all, and his name was George McClellan.  He might have been right, granted; but strategy by counterfactual doesn’t seem like a path to victory most of the time.  It seems more like a strategy to stalemate, passivity, and status quo.

Which brings the next question about Ignatius’s strategic advice.  Don’t use drones?  Even though numbers of critics are coming round to see them as objectively more sparing of civilians than manned aircraft that cannot loiter long enough for good identification – but still not to use them because of a vague and menacing claim about perceptions of them in the Muslim world? That seems not just imprudent, but morally wrong: we should choose weapons on their objective performance in the concrete instance, not easily manipulated estimations of public opinion spread across a billion people.

If Ignatius believes – as he rather noticeably does not say in his piece – that they are a greater threat to civilians than French or British attack aircraft, he should say so.  And in place of drones – what?  The peculiarity of Samantha Power’s War, the war of humanitarian intervention, is that it does force a critic of drone warfare, such as Ignatius, to have to state the alternative and take into account its consequences.  What shall it be?  Forces on the ground?  The logic of drones is something I discussed in an earlier post – drones are a technological fix for a problem of lawfare, and with Gaddafi’s forces gone to ground, NATO was right to recognize that manned attack aircraft going after commingled fighters would likely have more civilian damage and more friendly fire incidents, if “friendly” is not something of an overstatement.

The CIA? It is already on the ground, under a Presidential finding, and one presumes is acting as spotters for the drones, unless somehow the US has decided to put actual military on the ground. One hopes it is setting up the kind of intelligence network on the ground that can feed targets to the drones; it took years and years in AfPak.

So the question still stands. Ignatius calls it a bad judgment call on the part of the Defense Secretary, not to deploy the most discriminating air weapon the US or anyone else has in its arsenal. That seems wrong on its face, but in any case, what else?  Nowhere does Ignatius hint at plan B – presumably because it would involve having to say, let’s risk US forces on the ground or let’s have the British and French use less discriminating forms of attack for fear of inflaming Muslim opinion elsewhere in the world.  But I don’t think you get to denounce the use of drones in this case without offering your own, presumably better, option.

But there is also the surprising suggestion that the purpose of the drones is to target Gaddafi.  Says Ignatius :

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, accompanied by Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stat[ed] at a news conference that Obama “has approved the use of armed Predators” over Libya—and, indeed, that the first mission was launched Thursday but aborted because of bad weather.  They did not state what targets the Predator had been assigned to strike. But surely it’s likely that the goal was to kill Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi or other members of his inner circle.

Ignatius is one of the most plugged-in journalists to the CIA and intelligence community in DC, so this statement has to be taken with the utmost seriousness.  Yet I find it odd.  It seems to show a lack of understanding as to what has made the drone program in Pakistan and Afghanistan so effective both in hitting its targets and reducing civilian harm:  it has become effective mostly on account of an enormous investment in on-the-ground human intelligence that has taken years to develop.  And which has not developed sufficiently, for example, to hit Bin Laden or Mullah Omar.  Perhaps the CIA has developed the network of intelligence necessary to target Gaddafi or his inner circle – Ignatius would be in a position to know far better than most.

But the fundamental point is that useful as the drone surveillance is, that form of surveillance is essentially tactical, seeing the target.  All those little tactical observations can be built up into a strategic intelligence assessment prior to attack, but everyone I’ve ever  spoken with about the drone program in AfPak says it depends upon the prior ground level human intelligence.  The attack by the drone is the tactical tip of a strategic spear that consists of deep networks of on the ground intelligence.

If we have such intelligence in Libya, then perhaps Ignatius is right and we can target Gaddafi directly.  I myself hope that it’s the case, because otherwise we’d better get used to stalemate and managing relations with a rebel side whose “our kinda guys” bona fides are questionable at best.  I’m prepared to be surprised – but I would be surprised.

I’d assume instead that the drones are to be used in developing targeting lists for combatants who have gone to ground by (illegally) commingling with the civilians, in much more tactical situations – replacing some attacks with manned aircraft with more accurate drone attacks.  I myself would guess that the drones are aimed at fighters and their equipment that are not at this point about regime decapitation because we don’t have the necessary intel to do that at this point.

The world of drones that Ignatius traffics here is something like a bird of prey of global reach, able to extend itself across all geographies; a combination of the worst of universal surveillance; Predator ronin; sudden, unanticipated death from the skies; death sentences performed by flunkies in Nevada who regard it as nothing more than playing a videogame; and political leadership that sees drones as its very special deus ex machina for foreign policy.

Pretty much every element of that picture is wrong.  Drones are not a global device, despite remote control from around the world.  They are also deeply local – they require local intelligence, and beyond that, they require all the stuff that goes into sustaining aircraft in the field.  They need bases, mechanics, spare parts, fuel – there’s nothing “global” about that.  Far from busting the last constraints of geography in war, drones are not so different from jet aircraft that depend utterly upon the aircraft carrier on which they are based.

Finally, Ignatius tells us that the problem with drones is that they permit political leadership too easy resort to force; the “problem with the Predators is that they provide too easy an answer to political and military problems.”  This is, at bottom, his objection. In that case, however, his “objective position” (that is, the one that follows deductively from what he wants to deny to the US) consists of an implied preference to put US forces at risk and put civilians at greater risk.  That’s what it takes, presumably, to ensure that US leadership is not “addicted” to drones as a too-easy way of using force.  It’s an argument that has been made a lot, and I like it less every time I hear it.

Here we have a weapon that appears to gradually be making conflict more sparing of civilians and more sparing of our forces.  But far from being an advance, we are now told, it is bad for a whole new reason, that it makes war too easy.  We’ve heard this endlessly from Peter Singer, Jane Mayer, the recent UK MOD report (making conflict too easy an option, the report from MOD says, even as that same MOD was begging for drones in Libya; go figure), and many others.  There is no pleasing some people, it seems.

William Saletan has a better piece on drones at Slate; it’s a long piece with a number of useful links, including some that refer to the debate over civilian casualties and the gradual acceptance by a number of skeptics that it is genuinely more sparing of civilians.  I would caution, however, that it is only partly the drone technology that makes it more sparing of civilians; in the first place it requires a deep intelligence capacity on the ground.  We’ve spent many years building it in AfPak, and perhaps we have such a thing in Libya, but one would doubt it.

(Also see Michael Lewis’s post at Opinio Juris; Professor Lewis is a former Navy fighter pilot and understands the “loiter” issue very well.  In the comments, my OJ colleague Kevin Jon Heller cites a NYT article reporting that the Pakistani army reports 23 dead in a drone attack from a few days ago; I won’t try to go into the problems of such reporting here.  Of course the Pakistani army might be accurately reporting the number dead, the number of civilians, whether it was an attack on a Taliban haven, etc. – or it might not.  The NYT reporting on the Pakistani army reporting is not the same as the NYT reporting; the Pakistani army report might be accurate, or might  not.)

(I’ve addressed the peculiar, but flawed, reasoning behind the “drones spare civilians and US forces = good,” but they “make resort to force too easy = bad,” in this new essay here at SSRN.)