Behind The Magical Thinking: Lessons From Policymaker Relationships With Drones by Loren DeJonge Schulman – Center for a New American Security
Drones’ greatest attraction for the national security world is that they create options where there were none – or none at a cost policymakers feel comfortable with. With a public tired of large scale military interventions, drones and other approaches that gave the U.S. options to study or intervene against security challenges in a low profile, low risk way fit perfectly into the Obama administration’s comfort zone. These platforms came to symbolize and enable much of the Obama national security team’s approach.
But the enthusiastic embrace of drone technology, particularly in counterterrorism, left some former Obama officials questioning whether they’d been clutching a Pandora’s box they should have opened more deliberately. Overall, such “light footprint” strategies generate enduring disagreements about their efficacy, risk, and oversight. Unlike any other recent military platform, drones in particular engender strong emotion - hope, revulsion, overconfidence, demonization - and magical thinking, even among those who know them best. And the attributes that make them so compelling – that they are precise, remote, sensing, and unmanned – may sometimes be too reassuring.
The Trump administration inherited these dynamics, along with the nascent Obama drone policies and array of security challenges – but little of the prior administration’s familiarity and comfort with any of them. Whatever history’s take on the Obama administration’s approach to asymmetric threats, its officials’ uniquely close relationship with drones as a platform and immersion in the relevant strategy is unquestioned. Where their policy was flawed, they often believed these flaws were mitigated by their own painstaking attention and oversight.
Trump’s team is forging its own path, increasing employment of drones and overall counterterrorism activity while keeping their new policy quiet. But flat rejection of Obama-era approaches is risky. How senior policymakers perceive drones matters a lot in setting our own norms, and policymakers’ relationship with these capabilities is itself an entry point for understanding how light footprint approaches are applied. Exploring this foundation – policymakers’ blind spots, lessons learned, and good and bad habits – is critical for current and future policymakers.
This paper is the second in a CNAS series dedicated to understanding how 16 years of extensive drone use have affected the dynamics of national security decision- making, based on interviews with former senior officials primarily from the Obama administration…