Two-thirds of National Journal's National Security Insiders believe that the Obama administration's increasing use of drone strikes to kill terrorism suspects overseas is the right approach—but many cautioned that Washington should not overuse the tactic.
“The drone strike tactic … cuts both ways. Kills terrorists and infrastructure but reinforces view of some that U.S. is at war with Islam,” said one Insider who supports the accelerated use of drone strikes targeting militants in countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. “[We] need to develop local allies to fight and control territory." Another added: “It is right but insufficient. Whack-a-mole only goes so far."
(RELATED: Who are the Insiders?)
Another Insider said that drone strikes should be reserved for very high-value targets, cautioning that the United States has become too casual in its reliance on this controversial approach. “As with most technologies that look low-cost and uniquely to our advantage in the short term, mission creep has set in,” the Insider said. “The White House needs a critical mind to rein in the use of this controversial tool."
Drone strikes are part of the right approach, but they need to fit within a well-orchestrated, whole strategy that includes public diplomacy, foreign aid, and intelligence, according to one Insider. “Right now, we have the kinetic piece about right. But the other pieces aren't playing as well as they should—so it seems as if we're off-key."
One-third of Insiders did not support the current approach. "Drone strikes are equivalent to 'mowing the grass.' They kill bad guys, but enrage local populations, which are all too willing to fill the resulting holes in the ranks."
Some Insiders called for a strategy that better enables the U.S. to capture and interrogate suspected terrorists. "The current efforts don't give adequate emphasis to the need to gather human intelligence on al-Qaida and Taliban targets," one Insider said.
Not only are drone strikes damaging relationships in the region, one Insider said, the strategy “creates the dangerous illusion that war can be push-button and painless. That makes us more likely to use such tools when diplomacy might be a better answer."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other defense officials and lawmakers have been ramping up claims that the impending $600 billion in across-the-board defense cuts will be devastating for the nation's national security if they take effect because Congress cannot reach a deal on the budget deficit and debt. But only a slim majority of 54 percent of Insiders said it is "very important" that Congress and the White House strike a deal on defense sequestration before the election, as opposed to during the lame-duck session.
"Reaching a deal on defense sequestration would send an unambiguous signal to our adversaries that we want to protect our position as the world's superpower," one Insider said, noting that it would enable the defense industry and the Pentagon to plan for the future.
Thirty six percent of Insiders said that reaching a deal is not very important from a national-security perspective. "But it is important from a credit perspective," one Insider said. "If the problem is punted three to six months after the election, the damage will already be done. This may be the trigger that gets the U.S. downgraded. Markets will get crushed if/when that happens."
Still, many Insiders were unconvinced a deal is likely soon. "A deal before the election would be welcome, but so would be ice in hell."
1. Is the Obama administration's increasing use of drone strikes to kill al-Qaida and Taliban suspects overseas the right approach in the current phase of the war on terror?
- Yes 66%
- No 34%
"But the use of such a tactic is just that—it is not a strategy. The United States must work very long term to counter the ideology of violent ideological Islamic extremism."
"Drone use is part of the right approach, but it has to be connected to other elements of engagement, including non-military and economic approaches. It can't be one-dimensional and have any long-term success."
"With a drone, somehow an 'airstrike' doesn't seem like an airstrike carried out by manned aircraft. In a land of barbaric acts aimed at women and sometimes extreme acts of religious intolerance, those in the region complaining about drone attacks seem to be crying crocodile tears—most likely because they are effective."
"Yes, but it takes us farther down the path of the executive use of force without checks, and without domestic political risk. Congress is becoming more irrelevant on the questions of when and how of military force."
"It is a fine approach, but we shouldn't be deceived about what it represents. In order to avoid implicating itself in the gross human rights abuses that it accused the Bush administration of perpetrating (extraordinary rendition, detention at Guantanamo, enhanced interrogation), the Obama administration has adopted the less odious practice of simply killing suspected terrorists (along with people in their vicinity). One has to suspect that, should Romney be elected president, human-rights groups and the commentariat will suddenly discover that this practice is even less defensible than the policies for which they vilified Bush."
"Drone strikes are like the tip of an iceberg—they are the most visible aspect of the conflict with extremists, but there is much more which is invisible. And this is the important part. So I'm less concerned with the use of drones than the invisible part of the strategy."
"It is a very effective and useful tool—however, we need now to implement complementary means, or it will be less effective over time."
"Evidence has been mounting for some time that strongly suggests our lethal tactics are cultivating more anti-American extremists than we are killing. Ultimately, the number of Americans who will die from terrorism will depend more on the strength and extent of that sort of extremist sentiment than it will on the number of names that are checked off a hit list."
"There has to be a point at which killing terrorists is not the primary tool. It is a blunt instrument, questionable in terms of international law, and harmful to other U.S. interests. Also problematic is determining when "victory" or "sufficiency" has been achieved. Put simply: When does it ramp down or end?"
"Done in moderation, such attacks can be a valuable means of suppressing terrorist and insurgent lethality. But this is in danger of becoming a deus ex machina that is over-used as the solution to all national-security problems."
"Drones have a role to play, but the administration is overdoing it. Policies with low costs tend to be over-provided."
"Drones are expedient, but ultimately, this is a war of ideology, and drone strikes can create new terrorist sympathies. We need to assist moderates in fighting for their voice in their communities to destroy this scourge long term, while relying on drones only for top leaders of terror groups whose deaths will truly be an organizational blow in the short term."
"Drone strikes can be highly effective, but there is no silver bullet to defeat terrorism; getting too comfortable with one tool can end up unduly shaping strategies and constraining policy."
2. From the standpoint of national security, how important is it that Congress and the White House strike a deal on defense sequestration before the election, as opposed to during the lame-duck session?
- Very important 54%
- Not very important 36%
- Somewhat important 10%
"A rational decision on defense sequestration is critical for the long-term security of the United States, but a deal will not be struck before the election."
"It's very important but most unlikely. Advance planning is the heart of defense, and it's impossible under the current budget situation. The Pentagon's approach is to ignore the problem, which makes it worse. The other approach is to plan for it, which makes it more likely. The solutions are obvious, but the votes aren't there, and they may not be there after Election Day either."
"There is a very high risk that the lame-duck session will be overwhelmed by the need to address both the debt-ceiling issues and the extension of the Bush tax cuts. Sequestration may never make it onto the agenda."
"Defense industry is already in early stages of cutback—hiring is said to have slowed and capital investments [are] on hold. Economic impact will be felt in many states long before Jan. 2."
"Absolutely critical that Congress and president provide clarity on reductions and make cuts based upon priorities—not meat-ax approach like sequestration."
Not very important
"In the short term, the defense-budget hoopla is more about domestic economic impact than true national-security impact."
"Our national security will survive this challenge as it has survived an array of presidents and Congresses. Until one party or other sees political advantage to compromise, nothing will be done to resolve the question."
"There was no option for 'not important at all,' but that is the right answer. Even if the sequester happens, Americans should sleep soundly at night. They are safe."
"There will be greater opportunity for compromise in the lame-duck session."
"Given the heightened partisan season, waiting may make sense. In any case, there may well be no choice."
"Sequestration would be bad, and an earlier deal to avoid this would be better than a late one. But getting a deal is more important than its timing."
"Very little chance that this will happen before the lame-duck session; both parties have incentives to wait."
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign-policy experts.
Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Tamara Wittes, and Dov Zakheim.
This article appears in the July 10, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.