After the attack on American diplomats in Benghazi last month, President Obama vowed to hunt down the killers and bring them to justice. There is a good chance that this means that they will be incinerated by missiles fired from drones. If so, the United States will have used drones to kill members of al-Qaida and affiliated groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya—six countries in just a few years. Mali may take its turn as the seventh. This startlingly fast spread of drone warfare signifies a revolution in foreign affairs. And, for good or for ill, in an unprecedented way it has transformed the U.S. presidency into the most powerful national office in at least half a century.
In the past, presidents faced two major obstacles when trying to use force abroad. The first was technological. The available options—troops, naval vessels, or air power—posed significant risks to American military personnel, cost a lot of money, proved effective only under limited conditions, or all of the above. Dead and maimed soldiers, hostages, the massive expense of a large-scale military operation, and backlash from civilian casualties can destroy a presidency, as Vietnam and Iraq showed.
The second obstacle was constitutional. The Constitution includes a clause that gives Congress the power to declare war. Presidents have been able to evade this clause for small wars—those involving only naval or air power, or a small number of troops for a limited period of time. They have mostly felt compelled to seek congressional authorization for large wars, no doubt in part so that they could spread the blame if something went awry.
But drones have changed the calculus. Because they are cheap and do not risk the lives of American soldiers, these weapons remove the technological obstacle to the use of force. And because drone strikes resemble limited air attacks, they seem to fall into the de facto “small wars” exception to the Constitution’s declare-war requirement. Unlike large wars, drone actions do not provoke congressional attention or even much political debate.
Yet it is a mistake to think that drone warfare will resemble the small wars of the past—the air assault on Libya in 2011, which lasted seven months; or the air assault on Serbia in 1999, which lasted three months; or even the military invasion of Panama in 1989-1990, which lasted one month. Drones can be, and increasingly are, deployed continuously, outside the theater of war, anywhere that a threat takes shape. They are not subject to the rhythm of mobilization and demobilization that occurs in a regular war. They’re used not only as part of a larger arsenal flung against a nation-state but also on their own as police sentinels, which pick off individuals and organizations thought likely to commit terrorist attacks in the future. They’re a global law-enforcement operation—on a far larger scale than you might assume. According to one source, drones have killed more than 2,500 people in Pakistan since 2004, more than 350 people in Yemen since 2002, and more than 50 people in Somalia since 2007.
Defenders of drones point out that drones kill targets more accurately than conventional military weapons do. Because drones linger over their victims, operators can check for civilians before pulling the trigger. But that makes it irresistible for presidents to use them. Even if the civilian death rate remains low relative to that of conventional military operations (with estimates in Pakistan ranging from 5 to 20 percent of total deaths), the absolute number of civilian deaths will increase as drone warfare surges. The American president, long considered the most powerful man in the world, can now routinely sling thunderbolts at his enemies like Zeus, subject to virtually no constraints.