Drone attacks have become an addictive tool of U.S. national security policy, as illustrated by Thursday’s unfortunate announcement that President Obama has authorized their use in Libya.
Armed with Hellfire missiles, the Predator drone is a tool for assassination from 10,000 feet. It has been used by the CIA, with a paper-thin veneer of deniability, to attack al-Qaeda operatives and related targets in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where other weapons do not reach. One would like to think that’s a special case, born of the extreme threat posed on Sept. 11, 2001, and the remoteness of the tribal areas where the attackers are hiding.
But now we have Defense Secretary Robert Gates, accompanied by Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stating at a news conference that Obama “has approved the use of armed Predators” over Libya—and, indeed, that the first mission was launched Thursday but aborted because of bad weather.
They did not state what targets the Predator had been assigned to strike. But surely it’s likely that the goal was to kill Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi or other members of his inner circle.
My quick reaction, as a journalist who has chronicled the growing use of drones, is that this extension to the Libyan theater is a mistake. It brings a weapon that has become for many Muslims a symbol of the arrogance of U.S. power into a theater next door to the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the most promising events in a generation. It projects American power in the most negative possible way.
I wrote late last year that the problem with the Predators is that they provide too easy an answer to political and military problems. They Saudis asked for them last year to go after Yemenis they didn’t like; the Turks use them (looking over our shoulders) to target Kurdish extremists in Iraqi Kurdistan. And now the United States will use them to beef up a stalemated NATO campaign in Libya, on behalf of a rebel army that very well may include Islamic radicals who, under other circumstances, might themselves have been targets of Predator attack.
Not a good idea, Mr. President. And a rare error of judgment by Secretary Gates. I hope it’s not too late for this mistake to be reversed.