Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders said he wouldn’t end the lethal drone program on Sunday in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.
“I think we have to use drones very, very selectively and effectively. That has not always been the case,” Sanders said. “What you can argue is that there are times and places where drone attacks have been effective.”
The drone program has been one of the U.S.’ most controversial foreign policy issues in recent years. While drones are a more precise killing machine than any other tool in the American military arsenal (apart from putting boots on the ground) they are widely criticized for inflicting civilian casualties in inducing trauma in local communities. Proponents of drones point to the their effectiveness while critics question whether the U.S. should be involved in fighting in areas like Yemen, Somalia, and the Pakistani borderlands. The Obama administration has relied heavily on drone attacks to target groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP based in Yemen), Somalia’s al-Shabab, and the Taliban; groups the State Department labels as terrorists.
“When you drop a bomb from a drone… you are going to cause more damage than you are going to cause good,” Michael Flynn, a retired U.S. lieutenant general and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Obama, told Al-Jazeera earlier this year.
When asked by interviewer Mehdi Hasan if drones create more terrorists than they kill, Flynn replied: “I don’t disagree with that.”
With such controversy surrounding the current drone program, any future president will have to decide what role, if any, drone attacks should play in counterterror operations. In countries like Yemen, many locals believe that U.S. policies toward their country are centered entirely on drone strikes. Sanders, for his part, has acknowledged how mishandling drones can lead to civilian casualties and vowed to focus on minimizing collateral damage.
“There are times and places where they have been absolutely counter-effective and have caused more problems than they have solved,” he said. “When you kill innocent people, what the end result is that people in the region become anti-American who otherwise would not have been.”
Sanders has yet to lay out a detailed foreign policy agenda. In fact, his campaign website does not address a single foreign policy issue (unless you count climate change). But his admission that he would not end the drone program signifies that military force in countries like Yemen, Somalia, and parts of Pakistan will be continued under a potential Sanders administration.
Ken Gude, a senior fellow with the National Security Team at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress the question Sanders has to answer is less about drones and more about strategy.
“Precision strikes are a small part of rolling back the influence of terror groups,” he said. “The overemphasis on drone strikes themselves obscures two very fundamental questions. Should we [be engaged in areas like Yemen and Somalia] and if yes, then what are the aspects of our policy that will minimize the killing of innocents?”
Sanders indication that the drone program would not be scrapped seems to have answered the first question. If he makes the unexpected leap to the White House, he’ll have to answer that second question. For now he’s simply assured that the question will be answered.
“I promise you, we’ll address it,” he said.