The killing machines: How to think about drones

Like any wartime innovation, going back to the slingshot, drones can be used badly or well. They are remarkable tools, an exceedingly clever combination of existing technologies that has vastly improved our ability to observe and to fight. They represent how America has responded to the challenge of organized, high-level, stateless terrorism—not timidly, as bin Laden famously predicted, but with courage, tenacity, and ruthless ingenuity. Improving technologies are making drones capable not just of broader and more persistent surveillance, but of greater strike precision. Mary Ellen O’Connell says, half jokingly, that there is a “sunset” on her objection to them, because drones may eventually offer more options. She said she can imagine one capable of delivering a warning—“Come out with your hands up!”—and then landing to make an arrest using handcuffs.

Obama’s efforts to mitigate the use of drones have already made a big difference in reducing the number of strikes—though critics like O’Connell say the reduction has come only grudgingly, in response to “a rising level of worldwide condemnation.” Still, Obama certainly deserves credit: it is good that drones are being used more judiciously. I told Ben Rhodes that if the president succeeds in establishing clear and careful guidelines for their use, he will make a lot of people happy, but a lot of other people mad.

“Well, no,” Rhodes said. “It’s worse than that. We will make a lot of people mad and we will not quite make people happy.”

No American president will ever pay a political price for choosing national security over world opinion, but the only right way to proceed is to make targeting decisions and strike outcomes fully public, even if after the fact. In the long run, careful adherence to the law matters more than eliminating another bad actor. Greater prudence and transparency are not just morally and legally essential, they are in our long-term interest, because the strikes themselves feed the anti-drone narrative, and inspire the kind of random, small-scale terror attacks that are bin Laden’s despicable legacy.