Yesterday Michael Ignatieff recycled a common argument about drones and cyberwar:
If you hit Iran with Stuxnet, you render your own nuclear systems vulnerable to the next hacker, individual or state. If you perfect the killing of individuals with drones, you had better confine your acts to bona fide enemies of your state; otherwise you expose your population as a whole to the same heaven-sent vengeance.
Using computer viruses and worms against other states may not be a good idea, but it isn’t because this exposes one’s own systems to similar attacks. For one thing, those attacks are already possible, and American systems are vulnerable only to the extent that they are not being protected against attack. Government-backed and independent hackers already attack computer systems in the United States. These systems aren’t “rendered vulnerable” by the use of Stuxnet. Using drones to launch military strikes inside other countries is a questionable tactic, particularly because of the civilian casualties that are associated with them, but drones are most effective in places that do not have air defenses*. (Incidentally, this is why using drones in Syria would not be “the easy part”–Syrian air defenses would have to be destroyed first.) We should think much more about the potential for blowback from the military attacks our government launches overseas, but blowback isn’t likely to come in the form of foreign-sponsored drone attacks on American targets. Confining attacks to “bona fide enemies” has nothing to do with this. Attacking one’s “bona fide enemies” always has the potential to expose Americans to retaliation in some form.
Other parts of Ignatieff’s argument are equally puzzling. He writes:
Before succumbing to these technologies, leaders should remember how little virtual war has actually accomplished. Kosovo is still a corrupt ethnic tyranny; Libya will take years to put itself back together; and no one can see a stable state in sight in Afghanistan.
I have no idea why he includes Afghanistan in this list, since the war in Afghanistan has not been limited to what he calls “virtual war.” Far from it. The war there has involved large numbers of ground forces (and many more of them in recent years) and an attempt to build institutions for the would-be Afghan state. More to the point, the post-war political problems of Kosovo and Libya are not arguments against using specific kinds of technology or military tactics. Ignatieff is treating the political flaws of these states as if they were the product of the weapons used in the two Western military interventions.
What he has identified here has nothing to do with technology. It has everything to do with political culture and pre-existing institutional weaknesses in both places and the lack of any international post-conflict stabilization effort in Libya. The latter is the result of Libyan and Western opposition to any post-war occupying or stabilizing force, which was part of the price paid to build consensus to obtain U.N. authorization and Western political support for the intervention. In that respect, Libya and Kosovo are very different, since KFOR is still in Kosovo to this day.
* Another point Trombly makes in the linked post is that drones need to have a base somewhere in the vicinity of the country in question:
Contrary to many assertions that drones allow the U.S. to strike with impunity or overcome geographic distance, drones remain dependent on basing in-theater to maintain high operational tempos.
The ability of the United States to conduct drone campaigns and other so-called standoff strikes is in fact heavily constrained by geopolitical and logistical considerations.
Those same constraints would apply to any other state. Other states would face additional difficulties in using drones against the U.S., since presumably none of our neighbors would be willing to host the bases that would be used to launch attacks against us.
Update: Trombly has a new post responding to Ignatieff.