Do Obama's Top Military Generals Hate Drones, Too?


Micah Zenko, who works at the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventative Action, recently wrote about General Stanley McChrystal’s criticism of the Obama administration deployment of unmanned military drones to assassinate high-level terrorist leaders. McChrystal, whose previous criticisms of the administration’s policy forced him to resign argues, that drones lower the threshold for the use of force and that they are only a limited approach that gives the illusion of progress. According to Zenko, many of the active and retired military officials that he spoke with increasingly share McChrystal’s concerns.

Zenko’s article is somewhat misleading, however. Even though on the surface some of their objections seem the same as those of other drone opponents, there is a significant difference in the reasoning behind them. Zenko outlines five reasons why military officials are troubled by Obama’s drone wars:

1. Civilian policymakers have lowered the threshold for the use of lethal force:

There is no doubt that using drones is cheaper, easier, and less risky for the U.S. military. Zenko quotes General Peter Pace, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "I worry about speed making it too easy to employ force." Pace’s objection, however, centers not on the fact that drones are further enabling American imperialism or allowing the White House to kill targets without due process. Rather, he is objecting because there is "perhaps a more laborious answer for perhaps a better long-term solution."

2. "Find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze, disseminate":

According to one officer that Zenko talked to, there is too much emphasis on the find, fix, and finish aspects of this process. In other words, too often the strategy is to simply kill targets rather than capture them and try to gain valuable information that can assist in the wider anti-terrorism campaign. Again, however, this objection focuses not on the morality or legality of these killings, but rather on whether they are effective or fit within the broader US strategy.

3. Drones strikes mean those who use them are less aware of the on-the-ground consequences:

Because they are operated remotely, the use of drones makes it easier to be unaware of the real, direct consequences that drone strikes have. Conversely, Zenko points out, troops on the ground are more conscious of the "collateral damage and civilian casualties caused by US airstrikes." He says that many military officials he has talked to claim that the CIA doesn’t really know whom it is killing. Yet this is a narrow criticism that centers on the lack of knowledge as the issue, not the fact that the US is engaging in illegal targeted assassinations.

4. The military is uneasy with the administration’s promotion of this strategy:

According to Zenko, after witnessing the carnage on both sides of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many military officials are uneasy with how the Obama administration has promoted the supposed effectiveness of its strategy of discrete military operations, such as drone strikes and special operations raids. Zenko argues that he has "met very few people in uniform who think killing another person is in any way 'tough' or 'cool.'" While this may be true, it is not really a criticism of the strategy itself, but more a criticism of how it is promoted. 

5. Lack of comprehensive, long-term strategy:

Finally, Zenko notes that both military and civilian officials recognize that simply capturing and killing terrorists is not an effective long-term strategy. Killing targets through seemingly indefinite drone strikes does not address the wider issues of how to deal with the supposed threat posed to the U.S. by suspected terrorists in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, etc. Again though, as with the second reason, this objection is centered on the effectiveness or not of drone strikes as a strategy to combat terrorism, rather than on the ethical and legal issues associated with their use.

The military clearly has some strong and valid objections to the Obama administration’s drone wars. On the surface, at least, most opponents of America’s drone warfare would agree with these criticisms. The difference lies in the reasoning. Most opposition to the use of drones has centered around the indiscriminate killing of foreign civilians and even American citizens, the bypassing of rights to due process, increasing the chances of blowback, further enabling American imperialism, and so on.

The reasoning behind the criticisms by military officials outlined above, however, seems to be more about opposition to drone strikes as a strategy rather than opposition to the use of drones by the U.S. to further project its force abroad and kill with impunity.

Zenko finishes his article by quoting a Navy captain whose views apparently summarize the general consensus of his peers in the other services: "Drones are an example of technology outpacing our morality and thinking." Many others would agree, but for different reasons.