How Drones Encourage Dumb Wars and Corrode Democratic Government

My article in this week’s Washington Examiner magazine argues that because U.S. wars seem so cheap, they tempt us into making war too casually. I explain that while this tendency isn’t new, recent technology breakthroughs, which allowed the development of drones, have made it worse. We now make war almost like people buy movies or songs online, where low prices and convenience encourage purchase without much debate or consideration of value. I label the phenomenon one-click wars.

If we take occasional drone strikes as a minimum standard, the United States is at war in six countries: Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, with Libya likely to rejoin the list. In the first three, U.S. military action is exclusively the work of drones. Regular U.S. ground forces are present only in Iraq, where they avoid direct combat, and Afghanistan, where they mostly do.

There’s something remarkable in that combination of militarism and restraint. How can we be so willing to make war but so reluctant to take risks in making it?

My explanation starts with power. Wealth, technological prowess, and military might give the United States unique ability to make war around the world. But labor scarcity, liberal values, and our isolated geography that makes the stakes remote  limit our tolerance for sacrificing lives, even foreign ones, in war. This reluctance to bear the human costs of war leads to reliance on long-range technology, especially airpower.

Airpower, despite its historical tendency to fail without help from ground forces, always offers hope that we are only a few bombs away from enemy capitulation. The promise of cheap, clean wars is always alluring. They would let you escape the choice between the bloody sacrifices war entails and the liberal values it offends. 

Recent developments added to our proclivity to go for the quick military fix. Innovations in surveillance and targeting greatly enhanced airstrikes’ accuracy and paved the way for armed drones. Jihadists spread out among complex Islamist insurgencies. Meanwhile, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan restored the U.S. public’s aversion to casualties, which the September 11 attacks had suppressed.

The belief that we can fight riskless war is a good problem to have. Its causes are good things: wealth, power, and safety. But it’s still problem for a couple reasons.

One is a tendency to corrode democratic government and encourage dumb decisions. Our government’s division of war powers follows from the theory that conflict and debate about policy tends to improve it. That requires Congress to jealously guard its war powers. Unfortunately, it has tended to abdicate them where low costs keep the public disinterested. An engaged Congress is no antidote to dumb wars. But wars started by unchecked presidents are more likely to rely on dubious rationales and thus to be foolish.

The other problem is that wars are rarely as cheap as they initially seem. That’s especially true of drone strikes, I argue, because their costs are hard to see:

They initially either occur downrange, in the form of dead people whose families can’t vote, or in the future, as abstractions like resentment. Because these costs are slow to arrive and obscure, while the benefits are relatively concrete and immediate, drone strikes have a specious attraction. That makes them especially resistant to judicious debate.

I agree with those who argue that one of those risks is blowback, meaning delayed violence or diplomatic consequences. I also discuss the less-appreciated danger of escalation, where the strikes, by getting us involved in conflicts without winning them, create pressure for more costly measures.

My admittedly partial solutions to this problem of feckless war-making involve efforts to capture war costs up front to heighten debate about rationales. The piece mentions several ways to do so. It ends with the suggestion that because bombing people tends to produce unanticipated trouble, “those unwilling to pay much for wars should probably avoid them.”