Sentiment map courtesy of RecordedFuture
The Obama Administration’s use of drones has become an increasingly contentious issue as this lethal tactic continues to provoke negative sentiment around the world. The covert nature of drone strikes and their classified nature have led to disapproval among some Americans. Many are calling for more transparency in the Obama administration’s use of drones, demanding policies be put in place to limit the president’s unilateral capacity to call the shots on drone strikes.
The U.S.’s use of drones to combat violent extremists has been on the rise in countries including Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. While drones have played an important role in taking out key terrorists on America’s “Kill List,” civilian casualties as a result of drone strikes have produced growing anti-American sentiment across the Middle East. Protests against drone strikes, particularly in Pakistan, have received worldwide attention.
On the other hand, drone use has undeniable advantages in that they result in zero U.S. casualties and the drones’ missiles are extremely accurate. A study by the New America Foundation estimates that since 2004, between 2000 and 3300 militants were killed, while between 250 and 400 civilian causalities occurred as a result of these operations. Notably, the non-militant fatality rate under President Obama was only 14%, compared to 46% under President Bush. Furthermore, a 2013 RAND study argues that the U.S. drone program “reduces militant violence by increasing the costs of militant activities and creating an incentive for militants to lie low to avoid being targeted.” However, drones are viewed by many countries around the world as a breach of national sovereignty and an example of American disregard for innocent civilians’ lives. It is interesting to note that coverage of drones has been dominated by a negative narrative (see chart above) until very recently when the Obama Administration acknowledged the program and began providing legal justifications for it.
Former Director of the NSA and CIA, Michael Hayden, recently elaborated on the administration’s argument, stating that approval of drone strikes is rooted in national perception –because the U.S. believes it is engaged in a global war on terrorism, it can use the legality of war to justify targeted killings. However, the administration still lacks a clear communications effort both within the U.S. and in target countries that explains the military benefits of the U.S. policy. Perhaps because of this, many are beginning to believe that drones do more harm than good; Hayden emphasized that even if drone strikes are legitimate and effective, “the secondary and tertiary effects of this kind of activity [political blowback within the target countries] may now begin to outweigh the sought-after primary effect which is to reduce the level of threat.”
Ultimately, drone use is a short-term solution to a much bigger problem. Getting to the root cause of extremist movements will require the U.S. to generate more support in volatile regions around the world.