Small Wars Journal

Drones help Washington win a war of perceptions

Mon, 10/03/2011 - 9:08am

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.


Robert C. Jones

Wed, 10/05/2011 - 8:28am


While I believe I understand your argument (many that I work / associate with, many very senior in their respective organizations and communities) would largely agree with your assessment.

Personally, I believe it to be dangerously flawed.

Consider; perhaps the average American citizen believes the drone strikes and their effects to be favorable, and certainly the average American politician focuses 80-100% of his concern on what those who elect him believe and their perception of his role in supporting those beliefs.

But what is the perception of the global audience? More importantly, what are the perceptions of the many Muslim populaces across a wide number of states that AQ draws its support from and focuses its own influence campaign upon as they wage a networked approach to UW to change the political landscape of the Middle East??

The days of American politicans being able to solely focus inward in largely self-serving efforts to gain or sustain elected office, with little apparent regard to how US actions shape perceptions of other populaces who don't even have a voice to shape their own governments, let alone ours, are over.

Those without a voice will communicate through other means. Increasingly that means is insurgency at home, and supporting UW campaigns such as that run by AQ to conduct terrorism abroad, has become the communications vehicle of choice.

I would argue that drone strikes indeed have a direct impact on AQ that is measureable and that is a plus for us. But I would also argue that those same drone strikes are creating a much larger indirect impact on the populaces AQ draws upon, and that such impact is impossible to measure, but far more important and extremely negative in regard to our overall endgame of national security and preservation of our national interests.

Just something to consider.

As Einstein wisely noted "Not everything that counts can be counted; and not everything that can be counted counts."



I am looking forward to the Foreign Policy column but I like the point about the drones being winning show biz. Very perceptive. I don't like the part that our betters inside the beltway find show biz so compelling. We "take out" this or that fellow with magic machines or magic men, the video is spectacular and the stories "based upon actual interviews" will make great movies; yet Afghanistan is getting worse and worse, Pakistan along with it, the area that used to be Somalia is still no civilized man's land and Yemen bleeds on. I wonder if the "policymakers" are actually grown ups or teenagers who can't think beyond the cool factor.

i wonder also if they realize how limited the circumstances are in which you can use drones. It almost seems that they look at drones as some look at the electrical outlet in the wall, you stick in the plug and electricity comes because it always has. You can use a drone as we have been only if you control the skies to the same degree as you do in the US. There can be no opposition of any kind because, at least in the day, those things are so vulnerable. An air force composed of 3 Cessna 210s with guys poking shotguns out the window would sweep the skies clear of Preds in an afternoon. The circumstances that have allowed us fall in love with drones won't last and we are fools to plan as though they will.