The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Do Americans really love drone strikes?

U.S. MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. (Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt/U.S. Air Force via Reuters)

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles has become a “key feature” of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, with more than 400 strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen since 2008. Whether these strikes work has been the subject of much debate. So has the question of whether the local populace in places subject to drone strikes, such as Pakistan, supports them.

But the question of whether Americans themselves favor drone strikes has largely been given a pass, despite public support being a foundation on which the sustainability and legitimacy of a policy rests. Maybe it’s because there’s no story there. Based on most media accounts, “Americans love drone strikes.”

Generally, there’s some truth to the accounts that the American public has looked favorably upon the use of drones. The chart below plots public opinion polls querying U.S. support for drone strikes from 2011 (when the first polls were taken) and 2014, showing that support has generally remained high and opposition fairly low.

Upon first glance, the high levels of support appear to fall in line with the arguments that have been in their favor. The Obama administration has asserted that drones “relentlessly target al-Qaeda leadership” and are legally sanctioned both in terms of international humanitarian law – in particular, the principles of distinction and proportionality dealing with the protection of civilians in the context of conflict – and, the recourse to force. The administration has also claimed that the recourse to force is authorized under both domestic and international law.

But are these high levels of support an artifact of how the polls are structured? As political science professors Donald R. Kinder and Lynn M. Sanders argue, “policy descriptions actually used within the survey affect the expression of opinion.” The policy features they highlight or minimize can affect how individuals think about the policy. Polls about drone strikes tend to sideline two main sources of contention surrounding the policy.

First, polls incorporate the debatable assertion that drone strikes target high-level terrorists, sidestepping the suspicions about whether intended targets are actually terrorists (distinction) and about potential collateral civilian damage (proportionality).

Second, polls are silent on the question of authorization despite criticisms that have arisen about whether drone strikes outside active conflict zones such as Afghanistan are authorized under domestic or international law.

A typical formulation is the following from NBC and the Wall Street Journal: “Do you favor or oppose the use of unmanned aircraft, also known as drones, to kill suspected members of Al Qaeda and other terrorists?” The Economist and YouGov poll asks whether individuals approve of “using drones to kill high-level terrorism suspects overseas?” Gallup queries whether individuals support using drones to “launch airstrikes in other countries against suspected terrorists?”

If arguments about political behavior are right, then the fact that drone polls have appropriated government assumptions about the program may be affecting individuals’ responses. In this case, that questions reference suspected terrorists despite what may be questionable combatant status and that they bracket the legal authorization could be masking the reservations actually held by the public.

To assess the effect of poll wording on public support for drone strikes, I carried out an experiment with a 3×3 factorial design, varying international humanitarian law (IHL) compliance (distinction and proportionality) and legal authorization (domestic and international).

As I show in my recent article in Research and Politics (a new open access journal), all of the treatments dampened support for the program, suggesting that poll questions that have bracketed controversial aspects of the drone program strongly influence support for the program. Treatments citing whether strikes had legal authorization concerns did not reach standard levels of significance, suggesting that individuals are not especially moved by concerns about whether strikes have domestic or international authorization. They do, however, care about features related to international humanitarian law – the principles of distinction and proportionality. References to how strikes affect non-combatants diminished support by between 23 and 25 percentage points. Putting this in terms of overall support, individuals went from the control levels of support around 52 percent to between 29 and 27 percent when those questions introduced uncertainty about combatant status and the potential impact of drone strikes on civilians.

Taken together, the research suggests that by sidestepping how drones affect non-combatants, polls have contributed to the prevailing view that drone strikes enjoy high levels of support. Polls thereby perpetuate the status quo on the U.S. drone policy insofar as they establish a set of political incentives for decision makers: Directly as a barometer through which leaders gauge the national mood and indirectly as polls enter into the political discourse as a media story.

Sarah Kreps is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an assistant professor of government at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter @sekreps.