The American public loves drones

February 6, 2013

The ongoing debate between Congress and the White House over its use of drone strikes -- a conversation spurred by the leak of an Administration memo detailing broad leeway for unmanned drone strikes to be used against U.S. citizens -- will reach fever pitch in the nation's capital Thursday when John Brennan's confirmation hearings to be the next CIA Director begin.

But, when it comes to drones, the fight in Washington has no parallel in the public at large. Put simply: Americans love drones.


Reuters photo

A look across the polling landscape on the Obama Administration's increased reliance on drones suggests that support for the strikes is not only wide but also bipartisan.

A February 2012 Washington Post-ABC poll showed that eight in ten Americans (83 percent) approved of the Obama Administrations use of unmanned drones against suspected terrorists overseas -- with a whopping 59 percent strongly approving of the practice. Support for the drone attacks was also remarkably bipartisan.  Seventy six percent of Republicans and 58 percent of Democrats approved of the policy.

In that same poll, respondents were asked whether they supported using drones to target American citizens who are suspected terrorists, the question that stands at the heart of the recent flare-up in Congress over the practice.  Two thirds of people in the survey said they approved of doing so.

It's not just Post-ABC polling that suggests the use of drones is widely popular with the American public. A September 2011 Pew poll showed that 69 percent of people said that the increased use of drones was a good thing while just 19 percent said it was a bad thing.

The reason drone strikes are popular? Because they are perceived to be effective in reducing the threat of terrorism without endangering American lives. (Polling on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has, for several years now, suggested that a majority of the  public believes neither was worth fighting almost certainly due to the losses of American lives.) In a September 2011 Post-ABC poll, three-quarters of the public said drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Yemen and Pakistan had been either "very" or "somewhat" effective to reduce the threat of terrorism.

Now there are all sorts of "to be sure" statements regarding the data above. To be sure, the average American isn't paying close attention to the issue of drones and how they are being used. To be sure, the debate over what the government can and can't do as well as how much or little it should be required to tells its citizenry its doing is a worthy one. To be sure, making policy decisions simply based on what the public wants (or thinks it wants) is a dangerous game.

But, it's also important to remember as the drone debate gains steam in Washington that there is little public appetite for an extended look at how unmanned attacks fit into our broader national security policy. Minds are made up on the matter. And, if the public has anything to do with it, drones are here to stay.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Aaron Blake · February 6, 2013