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Micah Zenko’s CFR Report on Drones Policy

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 3:12 PM

Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations has just published this important report on U.S. drones policy. I disagree with Zenko on some aspects of it, but for now I want to summarize several of his main points and highlight some especially important ones.

One important value of this report is that it implicitly rejects sweeping claims that drone strikes are inherently problematic or that they should never be conducted beyond combat battlefields, but instead it focuses on how they should be used and the strategic value of self-restraint. The report begins by exploring why drones “aren’t just another weapons platform,” and Zenko emphasizes that they provide a persistence, responsiveness, and risk-free means to use lethal force. I disagree with many critics who worry especially about the last point from an ethical standpoint, though Zenko argues that it is skewing U.S. decision-making to engage in military strategies that are not viable or productive in the long-term. Next, Zenko tries to lay out the size and scope of non-battlefield targeted killings, by drawing on and comparing various data sources. Third, Zenko explains that drone operations generally require more host-nation or local-population support than usually supposed, because local governments and populations provide much intelligence and infrastructure support to conduct these operations, even if the remote U.S. pilots are thousands of miles away. Zenko suggests, therefore, that even if one is entirely comfortable from a legal and moral standpoint with drones strikes, one should worry from a security strategy standpoint about local political backlash and blowback, among other reasons because it may cause that necessary local support to dry up. Finally, he writes that other states and non-state actors will acquire sophisticated drone technology in the near future and the United States has the opportunity and responsibility to attempt to influence the normative framework for their use.

I hope to address some of these points in detail later, but for now I’d like to comment on the issue of transparency, which comes up throughout Zenko’s report. Sometimes critics demand transparency about U.S. targeting policy and practice as a matter of domestic or international law, including that it is a prerequisite for accountability. To me the more persuasive arguments have to do with the strategic value of transparency. This report raises several ways in which greater transparency may in the long-term be strategically beneficial, including that it helps sustain domestic and international political support for operations, that it serves an internal check on military and intelligence deliberation that improves decision-making, and that it helps shape the international normative terrain for current and future use of this tool by others.

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