Unmanned Warfare and Strategic Shift

BRUCE JENTLESON – In the Middle East, unlike in Vegas, what happens in one country does not stay in that country. 

It seems that following the September 11, 2001 attacks, US leaders have become more willing to use force quickly rather than watching a situation unfold before taking action. With new technologies that extend America’s immediate striking capability — like unmanned Drones — will conflict be fought on a smaller or more “frequent” scale than in the past? 

There are a couple pieces to the answer which provide historical context for current issues. First, in terms of 9/11 itself and Afghanistan, the timeframe in which the decision to go to war was made against the Taliban government and al Qaeda was quite appropriate: the decision was not made the day after the attacks, and there was a great deal of deliberation on the development of a plan. Thus, the Afghan operation would not necessarily fit into the “quickness” category.

Second, the controversy regarding the War in Iraq was less about the time that it took for the Bush Administration to make a decision than it was about the sense that it had made up its mind to launch the operation, and was simply figuring out a way to achieve that goal. Many sources, including several memoirs written about the period, indicate that by the summer of 2002, the invasion was essentially a certainty. Sure, it took eight and a half months from that point to reach the launch of operations; one could say that there was ample time for deliberation. However, there was never much debate: these months were spent finding justification for a preexisting condition.

These two points are, of course, separate from the question regarding drones. The issues surrounding the use of drones relates to the future development of combat. It is not just quick to use drones; by using these devices, the risk of one’s own military’s casualties is greatly reduced, and the psychological context of being so detached gives the exercise of force almost a video-game-like quality, although that metaphor is not entirely valid.

The main concern regarding the use of drones is: What precedent is being set? American leaders are making decisions on their own, on the basis of national security assessments, to use military force inside various other countries. Drone technology is spreading; there are more countries developing these vehicles, and a multibillion dollar industry has been created. Some companies are creating drones that are the size of a firefly. These groups are going into the research and development phase with a set of short term objectives that hold far more dangerous long term implications.

The US Air Force has claimed that because these aircraft can circle and study a target for hours before striking, its missiles are less likely to kill civilians than those launched from a piloted plane. Yet it also boasts that drones “greatly shorten decision time.” How are military leaders reconciling these two capabilities?

 It is important to give military leaders credit; when they are given a mission to take out a terrorist leader while avoiding civilian casualties, more often than not they take that distinction very seriously, particularly at the command level. Based on available data from these strikes, it seems that there has been some, but limited, civilian casualties. One does always run the risk of having inaccurate intelligence; it is very difficult to know whether there are civilians present, and oftentimes these drones launch missiles at, for example, an office that is inside an apartment block. If the missile is inaccurate, there is great potential for tremendous damage to be inflicted. If nine out of ten attacks are accurate, but that last strike kills innocent women and children, the consequences can be extremely serious, not just from an ethical viewpoint but also from the viewpoint of making that population hostile. It might be possible to eliminate a certain number of terrorists, but that process could lead to the breeding of many more than the number of those who were killed. There is no such thing as fully reliable intelligence, a reality that can lead to those uncommon errors. If a drone strikes a wedding party, as has happened in Afghanistan, the problems that will arise can outweigh the ease and low self-risk with which the strike was executed.

A report published by the UK Ministry of Defense argued that the drone campaign in Pakistan and Yemen is “totally a function of the existence of an unmanned capability — it is unlikely a similar scale of force would be used if this capability were not available.” Is this assessment valid?

 Drones do create opportunities that would not otherwise have been available. The balance of risks weighs in favor of these kinds of actions when the target is of “high value” — like Osama bin Laden, for example — and when there is a high level of confidence in the intelligence being provided. If it becomes commonplace that for any and every middle-level terrorist,the United States will sanction a drone strike, then the longer-term negatives — increased chance of civilian deaths, hostility towards the US — begin to outweigh the positive gains.

Some analysts have described a “New Middle East” in which emerging actors are competing for influence on the regions’s political stage. For the United States to master this new environment, should leaders shift their strategies away from military-based solutions to diplomatic ones?

 The answer requires more than just a simple shift of priorities. Two things are crucial in the context of the Arab Spring for the United States. One, American leaders need to give a much higher priority to political reform than they do to cooperation with governments that follow US foreign policy goals. If there is a lesson of the Arab Spring, it is that being pro-political reform has a strategic rationale and not simply a values-based one.

The US has often declared itself supportive of political reform, but in the past, American leaders have prioritized foreign policy cooperation. There are two expressions that have been used to describe this situation: “He may be an S.O.B. but he’s our S.O.B.” and, as President Kennedy said, “those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable.” The US has often associated itself with the former rather than the latter expression. It is crucial for the US to switch its focus in a credible way. In an age in which technology and information are so free, it is folly to expect that just because an American president makes a positive speech, people in the Middle East will accept it.

Related to this idea is the recognition of Political Islam as something that is going to be part of the political mix in more countries than not. During the Cold War, with regards to the Third World, American leaders tended to group any socialistic or popular reform together as communist and part of the Soviet bloc; this mindset led to many of the most major mistakes in American foreign policy, from Vietnam, to policy in Latin America, to supporting dictators like Mobutu in Zaire. Americans must not make the same mistake with Political Islam.

It is crucial to have a differentiated strategy whereby the US opposes those groups that are truly and fundamentally antithetical to its values. But towards those groups that, while perhaps not ideal — Americans may prefer a world in which there were secular rather than religious parties — there needs to be a basis for cooperation. Al Qaeda needs to be opposed, yet the Tunisian and Egyptian governments, which will be dominated by Islamist parties, must be engaged by American policymakers. There are, of course, guidelines to be followed in formulating such a relationship. In Egypt, for example, the US would not support a government that abandons the Camp David Treaty with Israel, not just out of support for Israel, but also because such a decision would not be good for the region. A differentiated strategy could best take these nuanced situations into account and at the same time help policymakers avoid Cold War era mistakes.

 With regards to an increasingly multipolar Middle East, will there be an increased or decreased emphasis placed on the role that cooperative institutions like the United Nations can play in shaping and mediating regional politics?

 In the Middle East — while the UN does play a limited role — regional organization will prove to be far more significant. In the 1990s, concurrent with the Oslo Peace Process — in which Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan and began confronting its differences and signing initial agreements with the Palestinians — was the Madrid Multilateral Process of regional negotiations about arms control, water resources, regional economics and development. These talks brought together many different countries in the region, not just on an Arab versus Israeli basis, but around the idea that, like in every other region, cooperation was paramount.

There needs to be a greater effort at developing regional organizations to deal with problems among countries that share the region. There are many external forces, both military and economic, that are involved in Middle Eastern politics — the United States, Russia, China. These groups need to manage their own interests in the region so that there does not develop a zero-sum competition between great powers. The UN cannot play the pivotal role in monitoring these forces as well as a regional matrix of nations.

 You introduce the “Vegas dilemma” when describing the modern Middle East, that is, the effects of what happens domestically in one state is not restricted to that state. Is this a newly-developed dynamic? In light of the possible failure of the Iraqi government and the ongoing crisis in Syria, how can Middle East nations mitigate the effects of potentially unstable neighbors?

 I use the “Vegas Dilemma” globally, to describe anything from global health pandemics that cross borders to refugee spread from genocides in Rwanda or Darfur. One of the defining characteristics of the twenty-first century’s international political system is that many global issues externalize from inside individual states.

This principle applies perfectly to the social movements sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East. A Tunisian vegetable vendor self-immolated, and the flames, as it were, spread across the region. In Syria, whereas Assad’s father in 1983 was able to slaughter 30,000 people in one city and largely keep the incident quiet, Bashar al-Assad cannot keep quiet what is happening there today.  In Iraq, while there is cause to worry about the nation’s political stability, it seems unlikely to me that the political system will fall apart. The international community must try to help countries to solve their own problems. Yet, when there are nations whose domestic problems seem likely to affect regional or global political stability, there is increased incentive and legitimacy for the international community to become involved.

US policymakers sometimes construct their own false realities about political atmospheres in the Middle East. Have US leaders begun to understand these transnational forces at play in the region?

The Obama Administration has been working to understand these forces. However, the situation of leaders constructing their own realities describes exactly how the Bush Administration went about studying Iraq. American leaders under Bush simply wanted to create a nation in the US’ image, and felt that they did not need to know as much about the Iraqi political reality.

The Arab Spring forced itself on the world, and thus forced American policymakers to shift away from this western-centric orientation. In the US, people tend to assume that all political forces are the same. It is crucial to instead understand that just because a group of people are Shia, for example, they are not tied to Iran: they are loyal to their own nation first. The Muslim Brotherhood is not the same as the theocratic rulership in Tehran. This principle applies globally: American policymakers need to understand China or Brazil in their own contexts. Americans do tend to assume the view that all peoples want to be like them, that all political systems are evolving in America’s direction. But cultural and historical contexts make each nation different, and it is crucial to recognize that fact.


BRUCE W. JENTLESON is Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University, where he served from 2000-2005 as Director of the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy. He served as a Senior Advisor to the US State Department Policy Planning Director from 2009-2011.

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