Al Qaeda and its offshoots are a fact of modern life, as is the reality that they want you to die.
Consider these five options to respond:
1. Ignore them. Result: innocent civilians will die.
2. Turn the other cheek. We live up to the claim of being a Christian nation, but end up losing life as we know it, living under the subjugation of a foreign theocracy (much as the early Christians willingly did). Result: innocent civilians will die.
3. Send in ground troops. Result: innocent civilians die, American soldiers die, and American soldiers are taken hostage. We also substantially increase the national debt, to the detriment of our grandchildren.
4. We use airplanes to drop bombs on Al Qaeda safe havens. Result: innocent civilians die, an occasional American pilot is killed, and occasionally an American pilot is taken captive. Additionally, money that could be spent on things like school lunches or forgiving student loan debt is instead spent on replacing extremely expensive airplanes.
5. We continue to use drones to bomb Al Qaeda safe havens. Result: innocent civilians sometimes die as the imperfect intelligence that would plague us under options 3 or 4 also plagues us here. No American soldiers die. No American soldiers are taken hostage. The financial burden compared to options 3 or 4 is miniscule.
Under options 3, 4, and 5, the civilians living anywhere near the military strike are likely to hate us and to consider becoming terrorist themselves. Under options 3, 4, and 5 (but at least arguably also 1 and/or 2), we bear responsibility for the deaths of innocent civilians.
The question is thus not whether the use of drones to kill people is a horrible thing and sometimes will do the even more horrible thing of killing innocent civilians and even American hostages. Nor is the question whether we will unintentionally make some new enemies in the process. Those pitfalls apply to all options involving military force. The question instead is whether there are more appealing alternatives.
I would say there presently are not. The focus therefore should be on minimizing civilian casualties and better perfecting our intelligence (as it would be for any of the military options). Also on issues like whether the program should be run by the military or the intelligence community. (I would say the former, as to the actual trigger pulling, to promote accountability.)
Drones are hell because war is hell. We will not be less hated if we drop our bombs from planes or send in ground troops and no fewer civilians will die under those options. It easily could be that more will.
So tell me you believe in ignoring Al Qaeda or in turning the other cheek–I could understand either approach, though I don’t myself support them. But don’t expect us to respond while you rule out drones.
True, there are many other steps to take, like reducing hopelessness among populations in Al Qaeda’s breeding grounds and cutting off the group’s financing. But in the meantime drones remain the least pleasant among a handful of bad options for killing off their military leaders.