An article in Saturday’s New York Times asserted that policymakers in Washington have settled on a new favorite technique to fight terrorists – the missile-firing Predator drone. Last week’s killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen showed, according to the Times, “a cheap, safe and precise tool to eliminate enemies. It was also a sign that the decade-old American campaign against terrorism has reached a turning point … Disillusioned by huge costs and uncertain outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration has decisively embraced the drone, along with small-scale lightning raids like the one that killed Osama bin Laden in May, as the future of the fight against terrorist networks.”
In my Foreign Policy column later this week, I will explore what the drone strategy will mean for the Pentagon’s plans. Here, I assert that the drone strikes, along with special operations raids, have become the policymaker’s best friend because they allow these policymakers to show the world that they have the power to strike spectacularly against their terrorist adversaries, something that was in doubt at the beginning of the war. Successful drone strikes and raids are now putting Washington in the lead in the battle over perceptions.
With their attacks on targets ranging from the World Trade Center and Pentagon to brand label hotels, terror planners have revealed their preference for spectacle and symbolism. Washington’s drone strikes and special operations raids are useful at a practical level. But they have now become more important as symbolic acts, showing that the United States government really can strike at adversaries who may have once believed they could torment the West while remaining invisible. Washington’s policymakers have been anxious to show they are not impotent against iconic figures like bin Laden and Awlaki. The Predator drone, supported by a vast intelligence effort, has delivered the potency and relevance these policymakers have longed for.
In order to show they are dominant in the struggle against terrorists, Washington policymakers are attempting to “gain and maintain spectacle superiority.” Washington will achieve the perception that it is winning the war when it achieves more spectacular drone and special operations strikes than do the terrorists. The logical limit will be the killing of all of the most infamous terror figures, with the top of that list currently held by Ayman al Zawahiri. Some have argued that U.S. policymakers should leave Zawahiri in place -- as an allegedly poor and divisive leader, he is thought by some to be more harmful to al Qaeda alive than dead. But the logic of “spectacle superiority” argues that Zawahiri must get a Hellfire missile if only to show the world that no one can escape the CIA’s grasp.
As already noted, there were practical benefits to the strikes against bin Laden and Awlaki. The bin Laden raid resulted in a massive intelligence haul. The strike on Awlaki removed a potentially effective recruiter of “lone wolf” attackers inside the United States. Beyond these effects, the counterterrorism benefits of these and other strikes are much more diffuse and difficult to measure. In the long run, the TIDE database, maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center and supported by interagency and international cooperation, is the most important defense against terror attacks and provides more tangible security than kinetic action overseas. Even so, policymakers in Washington will deem it essential to win the war of perceptions over terrorism, if only to preserve their reputational power.
Killing the last of the notables al Qaeda figures could prompt Washington to declare victory. However, the war won’t be over – the next generation of al Qaeda figures may adapt by to the drone campaign by striving to keep their al Qaeda affiliations secret. Al Qaeda operational security may improve while recruiting and fund-raising for a then completely anonymous organization would undoubtedly suffer. U.S. drone strikes and raids, many also secret, would continue as an increasingly hidden war goes on.
If this describes the end-game, Washington stands likely to win the war of perception, especially if al Qaeda fails to mount another large-scale spectacle inside the United States. Predator drones, supported by an army of intelligence analysts, have gained the initiative and are winning the war of perceptions over al Qaeda. Policymakers in Washington, who live and die in the world of perceptions, should be grateful.