5 years ago
One of my favorite historians and conservative thinkers, Victor Davis Hanson, published a provocative article over at NRO, “The Predator-in-Chief.”
In this article, Hanson basically observes the irony that President Obama, who roundly criticized Bush 43 for his resort to force of arms, has turned out to be the unquestioned champion of UAV/drone strikes against high-value targets in both Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and even Somalia.
But Hanson attempts to do far more than merely observe Obama’s unbridled use of drones. He argues that the development, use and continuing refinement of drones has “turned the tide” in the war against militant Islam.
Even when [the United States] adjusted well to the 9/11 tactics, there were new threats, such as suicide bombers and roadside improvised explosive devices that seemed to nullify American technological and material advantages.
But America is once again getting the upper hand in this long war against Middle Eastern terrorists, with the use of Predator-drone targeted assassinations to which the terrorists have not yet developed an answer. In systematically deadly fashion, Predators are picking off the top echelon of al-Qaeda and its affiliates from the Hindu Kush to Yemen to the Horn of Africa.
New models of drones seem almost unstoppable. They are uncannily accurate in delivering missiles in a way even precision aircraft-bombing cannot. Compared to the cost of a new jet or infantry division, Predators are incredibly cheap. And they do not endanger American lives — at least as long as terrorists cannot get at hidden runaways abroad or video-control consoles at home.
The pilotless aircraft are nearly invisible and, without warning, can deliver instant death from thousands of feet away in the airspace above. Foreign governments often give us permission to cross borders with Predators in a way they would not with loud, manned aircraft.
Moreover, drones are constantly evolving. They now stay in the air far longer and are far more accurate and far more deadly than when they first appeared in force shortly after 9/11. Suddenly it is a lot harder for a terrorist to bomb a train station in the West than it is for a Predator to target that same would-be terrorist’s home in South Waziristan.
Notwithstanding my admiration for his work, I cannot sign onto this particular piece. Perhaps I am once again blinded by my antipathy for the current Administration, leading me to reject anything that reflects well on Obama, a kind of cognitive dissonance that finds fault where there is none. On the other hand, it may be that Herschel Smith (and other folks like Tim Lynch, Michael Ledeen and Michael Yon) educated me too well to fall into facile thinking about a war won with drone attacks. I am surprised to hear Professor Hanson saying anything to this effect.
What support is there for Hanson’s statement that drones have facilitated “getting the upper hand in the long war against Middle Eastern terrorists” ?
I certainly do not deny that drones have proven to be exceedingly useful tools on the battlefield and adept at decapitation operations, but Hanson seems to make way too much out of the effect of drones. Yes, many al-Qaeda and affiliated terror group leaders have been killed and their accumulated expertise, leadership and inspiration denied to their followers. But, as we have seen again and again in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Gaza, Lebanon, Iran and Somalia, merely ridding terror groups of their top leadership provides at best a respite until new leadership fills in the vacated posts. Capabilities can be blunted at times with this tactic but the larger struggle continues unabated. In short, no one has yet proven that decapitation operations are winning the war.
And I posit that no one can prove this point because to argue this is to mistake the very nature of the war itself.
Has the killing of Bin Laden and others really “turned the tide” in our favor as Hanson claims? It could be argued that Al Qaeda as an organization was already dead or dying, discredited by their humiliating defeat in Iraq and their failure to launch any new attacks against the U.S. homeland. In this sense, Al Qaeda leadership has been sitting around waiting to be picked off. Very simply put, the game has changed dramatically since 9-11 and Al Qaeda and its cohorts are no longer all that relevant. The ball has been taken up by other larger forces and by events that no one could foresee in 2001 or even 2009. The Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the so-called Arab Spring. These are all actors and events that are well beyond the reach of Drones and will have the most to say about winning or losing the war against militant Islam.
This is the problem with incorrectly identifying the enemy and the nature of our war. It is far larger than any one terror group or 2,200 disembodied radicals. The enemy is an ideology that is antithetical to Western civilization. Like it or not, we are in a civlizational war with militant Islam. If it makes us feel better to kill off 2,200 bad guys in Pakistan or Yemen or wherever, fine.
This explains, by the way, the strange attraction of Drones for Obama. It is a cheap, easy and politically potent tool, giving him something concrete he can point to and say, “See what I’ve done to defeat terror?”
In the meantime, the ideology is not defeated. To the contrary, it grows and metastasizes throughout the Middle East. Iran. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Gaza (and Syria?). Hezbollah in Lebanon. Islamists in Libya. The U.S. has done nothing to counter the Islamist ideology or strengthen the hands of those in the Middle East who share our values but need strong support to make their case to the people. We blandly ignore the protests in Iran and Syria as internal matters, allowing the Islamists to gain the upper hand. We have wasted 10 years in Afghanistan with futile attempts to impose an 18th century notion of democratic rule on a 9th century nation that sees little need to change. But let’s celebrate those drone strikes. The ground in the entire Middle East is shifting right under our feet, but, boy, did we blast those bad guys to bits in those remote villages and caves.
Drones are not the answer to any of this. If only they were. We cannot win this war with technology. We have to defeat militant Islam the same way that we defeated fascism and communism: by showing that they are bankrupt and evil ideologies. Drones cannot save us. Sorry Professor Hanson.