“The United States is a democracy, and people need to know how we use our military force, and that we use it in ways that the U.S. can be proud of,” Blair told reporters Wednesday in a conference call with the Council on Foreign Relations.
The admiral also pointed out that U.S. tactics and practices with respect to using drones, which often skirt the fringes of legality, will set a precedent for the inevitable time when other states, or “non-state organizations” (read: terrorist groups) obtain or develop the same technology.
Micah Zenko, a fellow in the Center for Preventative Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed with Blair.
“There are plenty of potential near-term threats, either to the homeland or to governments, where drone strikes occur,” Zenko said. “There is no discussion right now on what [effect] U.S. drone strikes today will have on emerging powers once they get drone technology.”
Nor has the U.S. really thought this through, both experts said. “The U.S. is the only country with the global architecture that allows these types of strikes,” Zenko said, referring to the global system of bases and aircraft carriers that allow for drone launches. Zenko also said he wasn’t quite as concerned about the U.S. being attacked by foreign drones one day, but instead is more concerned over what might happen if other countries got into a spat.
“You could easily see the use of drones between warring border states,” Zenko said.
Part of the problem is the cover of darkness under which U.S. drone policy operates, particularly in Pakistan.
“The reason we have covert action is so we can deny it,” Blair said. “A classified playbook does not reassure the American people, who are the primary ones that need to be convinced, the government is doing the right thing. Our use of drones in Pakistan has to be consistent with international law and the laws of war. We’ve got to do better than a classified playbook. We tie ourselves in legal knots.”
“Having a process that codifies and institutionalized killings is a useful thing,” Zenko said, somewhat morbidly. “If nothing else, it will simplify the process for the executive branch. But if they decide not to apply this [more transparent process] to Pakistan, then it’s useless, because the vast majority of targeted killings and drone strikes would not be covered.”
Another problem is the deniability with which the U.S. is providing Pakistan. “Their legislature can pass laws saying we can’t do it [drone strikes], and meanwhile they still give us permission,” Blair said. “So they think they have the best of all worlds. They get strikes against the militants and they get to blame us for it.”
“We should be offering a better deal to Pakistan,” he continued. “We should be striving for a long-term strategy which will hold down the fort in those areas.”
Furthermore, do drone strikes even work? “There’s huge debate in academic journals about how effective it is,” Zenko said.
Blair was more straightforward: “Yes.”
Explaining further, he said drone strikes are effective both at eliminating senior leaders who have either charismatic qualities or specific skills, and also make it more difficult for enemy operatives to plan their attacks. “The 9/11 attacks were possible because it took long meetings and lots of reconnaissance, which were only possible because Al-Qaeda was not constantly under attack.”
That said, Blair cautioned, he was not a believer in drones “as wonder weapons,” and said he thought the U.S. was far too dependent on them. Using drones as a long-term strategy is very ineffective in remote regions of countries where the national governments had trouble enforcing their own laws, Blair said. He used the example of Afghanistan, where the local running joke is that President Hamid Karzai is “the mayor of Kabul.”
“I see drones as being very useful for tools that can be used for surveillance and attack programs,” he said. “But in the U.S. government, there’s way too much of the idea that drones are the best game in town. It’s a very myopic view of what should be a long-term problem.”