Professors Propose New Propaganda Strategy to Complement Obama’s War of Drones

At the Atlantic, an article by three professors was published which sought to examine the claim that “Pakistanis all hate the drone war.” For someone like me this is a useless bit of analysis. Indeed, part of me would go so far as to say it’s actually quite insidious. By exploring a claim that is actually quite tangential to the overall issue (Drone strikes: effective tool/horrendous war crime?) the authors of this article open up the possibility that certain members of their audience will misinterpret the consequences of their findings.

Before I jump into what I find really problematic about the article, let me first make a more esoteric point. Most of our public discourse gets funneled down into binaries. You’re for gun control or against it. For addressing climate change or against it. For abortion or against it. It’s a sad state of affairs, but it’s the reality.Plenty of dissenting and more nuanced voices circle the periphery, getting a chance to make their point every now and then. Sometimes a place like the Atlantic even publishes them. In some cases, the Atlantic even hires them. But all in all, most media outlets reserve most of their time for arguments that fall into the “yes or no” camp.

Drones are no different (from here on keep in mind that I’m using the word “drones” to refer to them holistically, including how they are often used and how decisions to use them are often made). The discourse surrounding them funnels most arguments into pro/con. So there are the paranoid critics who think drones are the first step toward Skynet, and the hawkish armchair intellectuals who delight in how impersonal this new technology has allowed imperial enterprise to become. And so despite the fact that there are much more nuanced arguments surrounding “drones,” the one that exists in the popular consciousness is a simplistic, one-dimensional binary.

As a result, there are certain “popular” claims, which very few people in particular make, but which persist in being considered representative of the hypothetical proponent/hypothetical opponent. One of those claims hanging in the ether is that the Pakistanis loathe drone strikes, and that drones strikes are directly responsible, in part, for destabilizing that country, and for helping supposed terrorist groups boost recruiting. And because this claim is often put forth in association with arguments against drones, it is publicly perceived, by virtue of this association, as being somehow connected, some might think even crucial, to well-reasoned anti-drone positions. Because of how arguments work, and because they are often in some way competitive, and our egos often get involved, it seems to be quite easy for us as human beings to be confused about what parts of the malaise surrounding a discussion are actually central to it.

Many people might confuse rebutting the claim that most Pakistanis hate drone strikes with rebutting the associated claim that drones strikes in Pakistan, as currently carried out at the very least, are wrong (morally, politically, etcetera, etcetera). Of course, they really have very little to do with one another. People who make the claim that most Pakistanis hate and/or live in existential fear of drone strikes make it in response to their opponents claims that drone strikes in parts of Pakistan make us safer. Most proponents of drone strikes have already decided on the much more germane issue of “to drone or not to drone” because they put security above human rights. As a result, opponents have tried to meet them on these same terms, and construct arguments that put security as the metric for determining whose side is right (by virtue of whose side will do more for America’s security).

But on the much more basic issue of “to drone or not to drone,” Pakistani public opinion on drone strikes is of absolutely no relevance. If I think that killing X number of innocents in exchange for killing Y number of “suspected” “militants” just isn’t worth it, then it doesn’t really matter whether Pakistanis share that view. No opinion is made truer because of how many people agree with it. A majority of women could be against women’s suffrage—that would not make the view that women should have the right to vote any less true.

So I find the very presentation of the article disingenuous and unhelpful, because the article assumes, without justifying it or making the assumption explicit, that the use of drones in Pakistan is necessary. In papering over this very controversial position, the article obscures the more important issue (“to drone or not to drone”) in favor of focusing on rebutting an ancillary claim about public opinion. People care about winning, and if claim X which is associated with your side is rebutted, many people will perceive this as somehow “hurting” the overall side.

In this regard, the article doesn’t even do a good job of rebutting the claim it seeks to dismantle. The article asserts that the “conventional wisdom” that most Pakistanis hate drones is “wrong,”

“Yes, drone strikes are not very popular among a large section of Pakistani society. But Pakistanis are not united in opposition to drone strikes. In fact, many Pakistanis support the drone strikes. This suggests that there is room for the United States to engage in a public diplomacy campaign to win over more Pakistanis to the idea that drone strikes are not the bringers of carnage that is so often portrayed in the Urdu-language media in Pakistan if the United States could be persuaded to bring this worst-kept secret out of the closet and into embassy briefings in Islamabad.”

In other words, enough Pakistani minds aren’t made up when it comes to drones, so the U.S. still has an opportunity to win many of their “hearts and minds” on this issue. How the U.S. would precisely go about doing that convincing remains, unfortunately, outside the scope of this particular piece. Pity, since this is precisely what the debate about drones is, well, about.

The key finding of the article is the following,

“Data from subsequent Pew surveys show that knowledge of the drone program has grown slightly, as has opposition to it. Spring 2012 data demonstrate that 56 percent of Pakistanis have heard something about the drone program and 21 percent knew nothing about it at all despite the extensive media coverage in Pakistan and beyond. Another 23 percent of respondents declined to say whether they had heard of the drone strikes. Among those who had heard of the program in 2012, 17 percent said that drone strikes are necessary to defend Pakistan from extremist groups (when done in conjunction with the Pakistani government), whereas 44 percent opposed the strikes. While 41 percent who were familiar with the program believe that they are being conducted without their government’s approval; 47 percent correctly believe that their government has given its approval for these strikes. Clearly, Pakistani public opinion is not as informed and much less unanimous as commentators often presume. There is not a wall of opposition to drone strikes in Pakistan but a vocal plurality that merely gives that impression. The question arises: who are those Pakistanis that support, or alternatively, oppose America’s use of armed drones?”

In trying to find out who these people are, the article speculates wildly about the connection between levels of education and access to diverse types of media, and the opinions Pakistanis have about drone strikes. This thesis is made explicit further down,

“The average Pakistani has minimal education and is conversant in a regional language and/or Urdu, the national language. A slender majority of men (69 percent) can read and write and only a minority of women (45 percent) can. Thus, the average Pakistani will either not care about issues such as drones or only have access to Urdu-language media, if they do know about the drones and care enough to follow stories on them. This is very important because there is a pervasive anti-drone discourse in Pakistan’s boisterous Urdu-language media (private television, radio, and print), which tends to be more jingoistic.”

These sweeping claims are all the more surprising given the article’s stated purpose, which is to throw cold water on other sweeping claims. What the article in effect says is that only a plurality of Pakistanis are against drones, most of those Pakistanis are illiterate and uneducated and probably falling prey to nationalist propaganda, and so not only should we be skeptical of whether their opinions are genuine or based on accurate information, but because of the pervasive level of ignorance in the country generally, and pertaining to drones specifically, there is a massive opportunity for the U.S. to,

“[B]e more assertive and transparent in discussing drone strikes in Pakistan because it must draw to its side the large swath of the population that doesn’t even know about the program. This may mean using radio, non-cable TV (including local Pakistani networks) or even hyperlocal media such as SMS — and it means doing so in Urdu and perhaps other vernacular languages. So far, the United States seems content to communicate with Pakistanis using the language only a miniscule fraction of the country knows: English. There is space for a genuine struggle over Pakistani public opinion, but the U.S. government has to enter the fray with greater openness and transparency. This may be the only way to save the drone program President Obama so values.”

Why are we even talking about saving Obama’s drone program? If the entire article is building up to the point of suggesting a strategy for doing so, why doesn’t it bother to, at any point, make even the smallest hint of an argument for why we should be fire-balling that country on a weekly basis?

Imagine this same article being written about torture less than a decade ago, and the article not even once touching on the morality, legality, or efficacy of it. These are the kinds of weeds that people like to get into, supposedly under the guise of seriousness. Because hey, more facts never hurt anyone! So instead of debating whether mistakenly (or intentionally) blowing up someone else’s family outside of a war zone, who aren’t even accused of wrong doing, is a war crime/atrocity/brutally inhumane act, lets first decide what some of their countrymen and women think, and then guess about whether they only think that cause their dumb.

No, no, we’re not ducking the real conversation—we’re digging into the non-crucial details and seeing what those details mean for the U.S.’s current military strategy.

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21 thoughts on “Professors Propose New Propaganda Strategy to Complement Obama’s War of Drones

  1. If we’re going to talk about drone warfare in Pakistan, what it seems to me we’re really talking about is the U.S. waging war in Pakistan. The drones themselves strike me as quite irrelevant to the discussion. No one is making the risible claim that if we used piloted aircraft to kill people and blow buildings up in the Northwestern Provinces instead of drones, we’d suddenly gain the hearts and minds of the Man On The Street In Karachi by virtue of changing the weapons we use to kill his countrymen.

    The question on the table are a) whether there are strategic and military objectives in Pakistan and/or Afghanistan that we have no choice but to pursue, b) if the answer to question “a” is “yes,” then how to most effectively realize those objectives, and as a third-tier concern c) whether it is possible, and if so how, to realize those objectives without creating generations-long animosity within the nation that survives our military activities.

    My fault with the paper Ethan references is that it does not address questions a) or b) in a meaningful way, and I am not at all sure that the answers to those questions assumed to be true within the government are actually correct anymore.


  2. Nice essay.

    If I’m reminded of anything with regards to the need to bomb Pakistan, I’m reminded of Vietnam and Cambodia. It took a while for us to get to the point where we no longer remembered why we were in Vietnam.

    Quite honestly, I’m surprised that we are still in Afghanistan. The moment we stop being in Afghanistan, the need for us to drone Pakistan evaporates the way our need to bomb Cambodia evaporated 4 decades ago.


  3. I haven’t read the paper, but I wonder, are the authors being drone apologists, or Obama apologists.

    I’m curious because it seems to me that over the last few decades, more & more highly intelligent people are willing to perform all sorts of mental & logical gymnastics to avoid ever being critical of a president, sitting or otherwise.

    The willingness to unequivocally support a Presidential Demagogue is disturbing…


  4. The authors of the article analyze one argument among others made against The Drones, then turn to (to my mind rather dubious) policy recommendations in light of their findings. It’s true that the authors don’t devote themselves to the single question of the moral foundations of the policy, or lack of same, but, then again, neither does the author of this post when attacking them. It’s not clear to me why they less justification for submitting their analysis regarding a subsidiary argument in the total discussion than any blogger has for submitting his analysis of their analysis. I recall feeling somewhat similarly when the blogger criticized Michael Lewis along similar lines, for also failing to focus on the “real” issue, as though attacking such a failure in itself could bring us any closer to that issue.

    So I wonder if Mr. Gach has ever comprehensively laid out his position on the real issue as he sees it.


      • Kind of you to say so, Mr. Kelly.

        Mr. Gach and I were arguing about this on Twitter earlier… BTW aren’t you on twitter somewhere? Name doesn’t turn up on initial search, and your name-link above takes me to a near-blank index page.


    • “The authors of the article analyze one argument among others made against The Drones”

      Could you clarify what the argument is? I see them making an argument against the claim that most Pakistanis hate drones, but not against the use of drones, as they are currently used, in Pakistan.

      As for comprehensively laying out my position…well…just you wait…I’ve been working on an uber-post for some time now. It is coming.


      • The authors of the article start out with a generalization about arguments frequently made, and then quote a Pakistani writer claiming that “if there is a consensus in Pakistan on any one matter, it is the unanimous opposition to the American drone strikes on Pakistan’s territory.” If you do a search for “drone campaign de-stabilizing Pakistan,” you’ll quickly pull up a number of articles in major U.S. outlets, including references to a piece by Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic late last September that got a lot of attention, based on the “Living Under Drones” report. (The discussion of Friedersdorf’s article inspired me at the time to write my own longish post on the subject.)

        You can argue against The Drones in a variety of ways: You can make a pacifistic argument that we simply shouldn’t be making war of any kind ever. You can make a moral and humanitarian but not completely pacifistic argument that the killing and suffering cannot be justified at all, or relative to the intended purposes. You can argue that there’s something intrinsically evil or wrong about the weapons system, as compared to other weapons systems. You can argue that there’s something wrong with how the policy is implemented as a matter of some ideal of U.S. law, politics, and society. You can argue that there something wrong with how the policy is implemented as a matter of some ideal of international law and international relations. You can argue that the policy doesn’t achieve its main intended purposes. You can argue that it doesn’t achieve its intended larger purposes, or conflicts with other important purposes.

        The de-stabilization and blowback arguments that the “professors” have in mind would mainly fall under the last category, I think, though any one of the categories can of course overlap with another, as in our evil weapons system being utilized by our tyrannical president in this war we don’t need to be fighting kills and terrorizes innocent people and is hated by all Pakistanis putting us in horrible danger of a huge nuclear-armed nation falling apart and letting radical Islamists take it over leading to incalculably terrifying consequences. If you can cut off the logic chain mid-way, then maybe you can focus on the earlier claims, and you might be able to build up an argument as to why it might be good for Pakistan or thought good for Pakistan by Pakistanis, and therefore eventually for us. Don’t know if there’s a catchy antonym for “blowback.”


    • I think Ethan’s point is that any argument that the drone strikes are illegal will simply take as granted that in general populations don’t want to be bombed. Even where that’s not the case, which can only really be true by way of splitting up national populations into opinion or other kinds of groups which international humanitarian law regarding use of force essentially doesn’t do beyond the groups of combatants and non-combatants, the legal arguments will still proceed on that basic premise. The law doesn’t conceive of a case where all the requisites exist, whatever they could be, for a situation where the population being illegally bombed desires that it be so, such that this would negate the normative force of the law making it illegal. The law simply dismisses this as a relevant possibility. So for legal purposes it truly doesn’t matter what the opinion of the population under bombardment is.

      I would concede, though, and ask Ethan to consider, that on a moral calculus that is irrespective of the law, which one can dismiss out of hand but which others may advance, the views of the populations under bombardment could at least matter on some calculuses, as implausible as it seems that the actual population being bombed would ever be cool with it.

      So it depends what one regards as the real issue, and how one defines it.


      • How many bad people do you have to kill, and how certain do you have to be that they are bad, and how bad does bad have to be, to make it alright to kill bystanders, and particularly women and children.

        If that’s not the question that’s at the core of the Drones in Western Pakistan issue, I’m not sure what is. In so far as others might frame the issue differently, and around a different central question, I would argue that disagreements about that framing funnel down into this basic question, and if they go any further, become about meta issues that go far beyond drones, just war theory, or what have you.


        • Absolutely. But that’s just those are just the questions that both moral theories and legal regimes have always sought to deal with in determining the morality and legality of actions in war. And, while many, but not all, of the same questions are asked for both realms, the answers – ie the numbers of each that balance the numbers of the other – have not been fully identical because of the slight, or more than slight, differences in the imperatives that animate the calculations in each realm (law and morality).


          • Well, and there’s nothing special about drones. it is just Just War Theory, Laws of War, or whatever your preferred framework is. Drones are just another instrument of war. (Obviously, they may carry different prudential concerns for their users, but the questions of legality and morality for their use in killing people in other countries are the same as if it were landgoing artillery or manned aircraft or seaborne missiles that were eventually landing on peoples’ roofs.


            • Or in any case, I as yet remain unpersuaded this is not the correct way of approaching the question of the use of armed UAV to kill people in other countries. I’m open to persuasion, and I’ll be interested see if your forthcoming post argues to the contrary, and whether or not it persuades me. (I.e., if you’re pressed for time as I am, we can table that discussion until you issue your full thoughts on the whole issue.)


        • “Make it alright to kill bystanders, and particularly women and children”? Nothing will ever make that “alright.” Yet we human beings do it anyway. A very small percentage of us migbht do it just for the fun of it, but generally we do it in the belief that it’s the only way to prevent some greater evil.

          So, The Drones is a completely secondary issue. The American people prefer a militarization of anti-terrorism policy. Militarization means doing things that can’t be done under normal legal frameworks and under everyday moral assumptions, and it also means a logic different from the logic of peaceful liberal progress and a weakened or constrained executive power. It assumes that some immediate danger is simply intolerable, and must be combated. It’s not necessarily a simple practical decision. It’s not just a question of calculating how many lives are at risk under one alternative compared to another. It has much to do with notions of what makes our lives meaningful – what we’re here for in the first place, sometimes folded into “our way of life” or “freedom” or other idealistic statements that people appalled by the sight of burnt and broken bodies don’t want to hear.

          Some anti-dronists think they can make progress against that preference for militarization, or advance other causes often having to do with an overall critique of American policy or the neo-imperial world order and so on with anti-drone propaganda, by calling Obama a “kill list president,” by pretending that they care about sovereignty issues for longer than it takes them to type out a sentence, and so on. They may even make some progress, and it might be a good thing. But the main issue remains the decision for war, solemnly confirmed and authorized by near-consensus in September of 2001. Drones are just a peculiar technology that happen to typify or bring together or crystallize this moment in world history, but, within the context of an unaltered decision for war, simply as a weapons system, they represent in important respects a comparatively humanitarian way of prosecuting that war.


  5. One of the complexities is that highly influential (ruling) familes in Pakistan have a history of killing each other’s family members. Some families (along with their supporters) approve of successful killings, and disapprove of being subject to successful killing by rival families.

    I’ve been reading Fatima Bhutto’s book about the assassination of her father and other relatives, which delves into the society, murder, fear, retribution, and such. From it I take that it’s not so much how many you kill, and by what methods, but which people you’re eliminating. In that environment the drones might as well be a new $1 iPhone ap that blows up your political rivals, now in the hands of someone who is not really a player, has no important family connections, and who is targeting some very marginalized potential rivals, outsiders and troublemakers as far as elite society goes, as if the Hatfields and McCoys threatend to topple upper-tier Boston society because they were good with shotguns and had passels of young-uns.

    Perhaps if we dig down, we’ll see that we’re just an odd particpant in a feud, but a feud with regional and global consequences. Is a drone strike really any different from sneaking up on a house and throwing a stick of dynamite through the bedroom window? If only one particpant is doing such, it just shows that they’re the man with the dynamite. What follows is somewhat worse, when the tool becomes widespread and anonymous, like a stick of dynamite hurled through a window. Once it achieves plausible deniablity then all the players will use it, even to frame opponent A with the elimination of rival B, which is pretty much where Pakistan has been for decades anyway.

    So the issue really has nothing to do with drones. It is whether we should involve ourselves in several pre-existing rivalries, feuds, and quasi wars (and feuds are viewed as wars) because we’re suffering some side-effects in a real war. If we relied on ground teams, they’d quickly tell us that we’ve become a participant in a tapestry of hatreds whose history can’t be unraveled without talking to everyone in the region and their distant cousins, and that everyone is lying. Hopefully from the air we can just focus on those who are sending real arms into Afghanistan, instead of being distracted by all those who merely claim they are, or claim they’re not.

    From our perspective, we’re focusing on people in Waziristan who are targeting us or on Afghanistan, but to the Pakistani players we’re just taking out those who’ve taken their eye off the ball of Pakistani politics, but who may become a future threat. Our strikes are all out in the hinterlands, away from polite society, and perhaps we’re just saving the most of the rest of Pakistan time and trouble on the road to building a brighter future – or they’re reacting like the Sinaloa Cartel would if we bombed the Zetas.

    One thing we have given away with all the navel gazing is the stand that our successful attacks come from righteousness. That probably makes no sense to liberals, Northerners, or people who’ve ever posted on Facebook or driven a car with an automatic transmission, but it is a mindset I grew up with, as apparently did many of the people we’re targeting. The logic is that you wouldn’t run across such great opportunities to kill someone in a spectacularly elegant way without higher intervention. That the death’s you inflict are God’s will, and the ease with which you carry them out on your totally unsuspecting target are confirmation that his light is shining upon you. You are his instrument astride the Earth, doing his will and establishing his kingdom.

    The Scots Irish in Appalachia were among the last in Western Europe who held to this medieval worldview, but it sounds awfully close to the cultural attitudes we hear coming from the people we’re targeting with drones. The flip-side of the worldview is that if you start getting your butt kicked in ambushes, family dinners, and so forth, you start questioning what you did that has so displeased God, that he would make you into an open target for your enemies, your manliness subject to scorn and derision, your family the butt of jokes.

    We’re not following the drone strikes up with biting commentary on what a blithering, useless idiot and worthless bully the target was, and that is probably a mistake. If you’re in a feud with people who really do believe in “death before dishonor”, then heap on the disonor by the bucket and you can avoid the need for so much death.


    • We’re not following the drone strikes up with biting commentary on what a blithering, useless idiot and worthless bully the target was, and that is probably a mistake. If you’re in a feud with people who really do believe in “death before dishonor”, then heap on the disonor by the bucket and you can avoid the need for so much death.

      There is a reason why. As you have indicated earlier, about the only people in the US who will take that in a positive light are the appalachians. Just about everyone else will look upon with moral horror and disgust. No president who wants a double digit approval rating will ever give a You Suck speech after bombing the family and innocent villagers surrounding a terrorist. The public statements of american diplomats and politicians vis a vis foreign communications can be explained very well if you think them aimed at an american audience rather than a foreign one.


  6. Seems odd that 21% of Pakistanis have never heard of drones. Seems even odder that 23% of Pakistanis would participate in a survey yet decline to say whether they’d even heard of the topic being surveyed. Fact is, interpreting survey results from Pakistan is nothing like doing so in the U.S. for various fairly obvious reasons, but the authors of the article can only seem to focus on one, “education” (translation: level of exposure to western propaganda).


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