It's been 10 years since the first strike by an armed U.S. drone killed an Al-Qaida leader and five associates in Yemen. Since then, according to unofficial counts, there have been more than 400 "targeted killing" drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia -- countries where the United States is not fighting a conventional war.
About 3,000 people have been killed, including scores -- maybe hundreds -- of civilians. And though the United States is winding down its military mission in Afghanistan, the Obama administration, as the Washington Post reported last week, "expects to continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years."
All of this causes increasing unease among Americans of both political parties -- not to mention many U.S. allies. They are disturbed by the antiseptic nature of U.S. personnel launching strikes that they watch on screens hundreds or thousands of miles from the action. They question whether drone attacks are legal. They ask why the process of choosing names for the kill list as well as the strikes themselves are secret and whether such clandestine warfare does more harm than good to long-term U.S. interests.
Some of these anxieties seem to us misplaced. But the means and objectives of drone attacks -- and the Obama administration's steps toward institutionalizing the system -- deserve much more debate than they have attracted during the presidential campaign.
As Mitt Romney said in endorsing the drone strikes during the last presidential debate, "we can't kill our way out of this." Terrorism can be defeated only by a comprehensive effort to encourage stable and representative governments and economic development in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan -- a mission the administration, with its harping about "nation-building here at home," appears increasingly disinclined to take on. Moreover, drone strikes do stoke popular hostility and therefore make U.S. political and diplomatic goals more difficult to achieve.
Perhaps most troubling, the relative ease of using drones, combined with the Obama administration's reluctance to detain foreign militants, which would be politically difficult at home, has produced a stark record: Thousands of Al-Qaida suspects killed by drones have been balanced by only one significant capture -- a Somali who was held on a U.S. warship for two months before being turned over to the U.S. civilian justice system.
There may be cases where the president must act immediately against an imminent threat to the country, perhaps from an unexpected place. But to institutionalize a secret process of conducting covert drone strikes against militants across the world is contrary to U.S. interests and ultimately unsustainable.