War Powers

Drones, Their Critics, and Obama's War Powers Legacy

By Charlie Dunlap
Friday, October 16, 2015, 10:48 AM

Few things have been more emblematic of the military and, indeed, political aspects of the Obama War Powers legacy than drones. As many have noted, the use of this weapons system has vastly increased during the Obama Administration, particularly in areas outside of active combat zones directly involving U.S. forces.

Although criticism of drone use is still extant, its relevance continues to fade in the face of growing international acceptance. Recently, for example, the United Kingdom killed several of its own citizens in its first drone strike - it is claimed - “outside a formal conflict.” An even harsher verity is found in a 2014 Defense One report which asserts that:

Virtually every country on Earth will be able to build or acquire drones capable of firing missiles within the next ten years. Armed aerial drones will be used for targeted killings, terrorism and the government suppression of civil unrest. What’s worse, say experts, it’s too late for the United States to do anything about it.

In the U.S. in particular, robust criticism by significant parts of the legal, academic, and political communities, has not caused the courts or Congress to curtail or even publically scrutinize to any great degree the Administration’s use of drones. Most importantly for any democracy, the support of the American electorate for drones remains very strong, even after the tragic deaths of two hostages (including an American) in a strike in early 2015. For its part, the Administration seems to have concluded it has presented sufficient legal justification for its drone program to satisfy most of the public. In effect, the President has – de facto – institutionalized (if not expanded) War Powers, at least insofar as drone operations are concerned.

How and why did this happen?

I try to outline the answer in a brief essay (now posted by Small Wars Journal) entitled Drones versus their Critics: A Victory for President Obama’s War Powers Legacy? prepared for this year’s Duke-Yale Foreign Relations Roundtable (which focused on “President Obama’s War Powers Legacy”). In the piece, I suggest some reasons why the critics have been largely unsuccessful in their efforts to limit or ban drone strikes (to include hypothesizing as to why support for drone operations soars among Americans with advanced educations), and offer some thoughts as to the meaning of (and limitations to) the President’s War Powers legacy as it relates to drone operations.