Forget Drones. The Real Problem Is “War Without Boundaries”

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Let’s ignore, for a moment, the debate over killing civilians and assassinating American citizens with armed drones.

Let’s hold off on wondering whether these drones create more enemies than they kill.

Instead, let’s focus on the context in which we’re using them, and why it’s problematic.

In the Washington Post last week, Mark Jacobson called armed drones “the weapons of choice for today’s battlefield without boundaries.” For The Daily Telegraph, Con Coughlin wrote in favor of using drones by arguing that “al-Qaeda and its allies are waging a war against the West which knows no boundaries.”

This theme of a global battlefield has become common and accepted. And what Jacobson, Coughlin, and others are saying, of course, is partially true: that terrorists and gangsters are not confined by lines on a map. But somewhere along the way, we redefined the words war and battlefield.

Let’s take a step back and re-examine what this means.

The fact is, that just because someone, somewhere, with a gun hates the United States, that does not make his or her location a “battlefield” where we can employ military force at will. Just because an ideologue with a webcam wants to harm American interests, it does not mean we are at “war” with him. Such an interpretation is far too elastic, and will place the U.S. in a constant state of warfare (arguably, as it already has).

By fighting without boundaries, the current conflict has become insidious and endless. We’re executing what are essentially police actions under the auspices of a military battle. We’re going after individual criminals and calling it a “war.”

This is neither sustainable nor sensible. Because in reality, this is not a war, and these are not battlefields. I’ve been on a battlefield and I’ve lived on a drone base in Pakistan. These are hunting expeditions at best.

At this point, it’s not clear to the American taxpayer who we’re pursuing, or what we’re getting out of it. Osama bin Laden’s body was dumped into the Indian Ocean nearly two years ago. Most of his colleagues are dead or in prison. The second graders who listened to George W. Bush read The Pet Goat on 9/11 are now in college.

Yet we remain in what we think is a war, bleeding ourselves dry, by policing al Qaeda’s remnants, copycats, and franchisees with military force—creating new enemies along the way.

To what benefit?

We’re not even sure.

We could spend decades in an unbounded war, launching drone strike after drone strike, and we could justify it by saying, “See, there haven’t been any attacks on New York lately.”

But is that really how we want to live? Is there no alternative?

Just over five years ago, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered a speech at Kansas State University.  He talked about “soft power” and said “one of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win: economic development, institution-building and the rule of law, promoting internal reconciliation, good governance, providing basic services to the people, training and equipping indigenous military and police forces, strategic communications, and more—these, along with security, are essential ingredients for long-term success.”

These tasks should be our main effort now—not global aerial assassinations without trial.  Because we’re paying an awfully high price—in terms of our reputation—to get a few mid-level terrorists in remote locations.

Of course, when these terrorists or gangsters or warlords collect in one place, when they are offered state shelter by the hundreds or thousands, when they are poised to attack the continental United States, then—and only then—we go to war.

If you’ve been fighting for more than 11 years, and you haven’t won yet, then you’re doing it wrong.

Gates was right—drone strikes will never be sufficient to win. To get back on the right track, we must begin by placing some boundaries on our military effort, both geographical and chronological. And that starts by acknowledging we’re no longer in a global war—if we ever were.

Brandon Friedman is the author of The War I Always Wanted.  He is a vice president at Fleishman-Hillard in Washington, D.C.  Follow him on Twitter at @BFriedmanDC.