Yesterday Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that in Libya, the U.S. is sending in the drones. David Ignatius thinks this is a huge mistake:

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.

The problem with drones in Afghanistan in Pakistan is not that they’re “a symbol of arrogance.” It’s that they’re flying robots that vaporize people from the sky, up to a third of whom have been civilians, according to an analysis by the New America Foundation. In Pakistan, the drone strikes take place with the official disapproval (and tacit approval) of the Pakistani government, where for ordinary Pakistanis, they amount to an incessant breach of sovereignty. The drones in Libya, on the other hand, are being deployed on behalf of a group that has come to think of the U.S. and its allies as their de-facto air force. I’m not a big fan of drones as a tool, and I’m skeptical that getting into Libya was a good idea to begin with. But I don’t see why a missile fired from a ship or a plane that kills innocent people would be seen as less “arrogant” than one fired from a drone.

In terms of killing fewer civilians, it’s probably better for the U.S. to be using drones at this point, because they are better at distinguishing a military target from a civilian one than an F-15. Drones have drawn a lot of infamy for killing civilians, but missiles fired from planes and ships are more likely to hit the wrong people than a Hellfire missile fired from a drone. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright told reporters during the briefing yesterday that the drones were being deployed in part to avoid “collateral damage,” the dry military euphemism for dead civilians.

What’s more interesting here is what the drones symbolize to Americans — they’ve become a recurring element of our seemingly endless, unwinnable military conflicts. We all implicitly know what drones in Libya mean: That the U.S. is preparing for potentially a long, open-ended involvement in Libya with no foreseeable endpoint. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said today that the situation in Libya is “certainly moving toward a stalemate.” Now that 33 days of conflict have passed in Libya, Obama’s assertion that offensive operations would last “days, not weeks” is proving untrue — part of the reason why public support for the operation is quickly eroding.

The drones aren’t the problem. The stalemate is the problem.