Loose cannons: or the silent debate on drones


Prof Kevin Howley 

Professor of Media Studies at DePauw University. His work has appeared in Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism, Social Movement Studies, and most recently, Interactions: Studies in Communication & Culture. He is currently working on a new book Drones: Media Discourse and the Politics of Culture (Peter Lang, forthcoming).


US2016 - Section 3

Section 3: Policy

In a news story indicative of the anxieties fueling a bizarre, vitriolic, and seemingly interminable campaign season, Fortune magazine reported that prior to the third and final debate between Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, the Las Vegas Police Department hired a private security firm to set up a drone detection system in the skies above the debate venue. While fear of rogue drone operators wreaking havoc at this high-profile event compelled local law enforcement to take dramatic security measures, questions surrounding the legal, strategic, and ethical implications of the US drone program were conspicuously absent from the evening’s debate. 

Four years earlier, when asked about his views on the targeted killing program during their final debate, GOP hopeful Mitt Romney unequivocally endorsed President Obama’s drone strategy. Republican and Democratic consensus effectively made drones a non-issue in the 2012 presidential race: a sharp contrast to international condemnation of America’s drone wars. Since that time, journalists rarely questioned presidential candidates about drones: Obama’s ‘weapon of choice in the decades-long war on terror. What was once an open, albeit controversial secret has become a matter of routine for both the political establishment and the US press corps. Obama’s lasting foreign policy legacy is neither the historic multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, nor the diplomatic overtures to Cuba, but rather the normalization of drone warfare. 

As a result, during the 2016 campaign political debate focused instead on the wisdom of entrusting Donald Trump – the personification of a loose cannon – with America’s nuclear arsenal. Trump’s bellicose rhetoric and his penchant for unnerving statements about nuclear weapons demanded such coverage. Not since Richard Nixon’s ‘madman strategy’ has a presidential candidate evoked fears of an unstable and irrational leader with his (or her) finger on the button. As Hillary Clinton observed, it would be foolish to underestimate Donald Trump’s ‘hair-trigger’ temperament in this regard. Nevertheless, throughout the campaign, the focus on Trump’s foreign policy bluster overshadowed Clinton’s well-documented appetite for regime change and anti-Russian hysteria. Small wonder, then, that in the final days of the 2016 election Trump doubled down on the nuclear nightmare scenario, telling reporters that Clinton’s sabre rattling against Russia could lead to World War III. 

By design, fear-based campaigns of this sort generate more heat than light. Still, questions over the next president’s willingness to use nuclear weapons remain a salient issue. So too does the prospect of President-elect Trump commanding the drone program – what is essentially a hi-tech hit squad. And yet, despite President Obama’s Executive Order calling for greater transparency and improved safeguards against civilian causalities in America’s drone wars, neither the candidates nor the press corps saw fit to address targeted killing in any substantive fashion. Instead, rumor, innuendo and speculation constituted an otherwise silent debate over the future of the US drone program.

Throughout the campaign Trump was uncharacteristically reticent regarding weaponized drones. Reading between the lines of some of his most egregious statements about fighting the Islamic State, Trump’s declaration that he would “bomb the hell out of them” suggests a prominent role for drone aircraft. More ominously, Trump’s assertions that he would target terrorists and their families, presumably using drones, was met with consternation across the political spectrum. All told, however, Trump rarely shared his thoughts on the drone program. Journalists obliged and likewise avoided the subject.

Similarly, Clinton scarcely mentioned the drone program. Unlike Trump however, Clinton’s service as Secretary of State suggests implicit approval of the expansion of the targeted killing program under President Obama. And given her hawkish views on foreign policy, Clinton likely foresees an even greater role for drones in US military and paramilitary operations. Curiously, drones did figure in one of the more sensational accusations leveled at Mrs. Clinton throughout the entire, sordid campaign. In late October, True Pundit, a conservative website, reported that when pressed to do something about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in the wake of the anti-secrecy group’s release of a cache of State Department communiqués (what came to be known as Cablegate), Secretary Clinton asked, “Can’t we just drone this guy?” The unsubstantiated story led to a series of non-denial denials from the Clinton camp, effectively ending any further discussion of the targeted killing program.

In March 2016, columnist Trevor Timm argued the US press corps was letting presidential candidates off the hook on five vital foreign policy questions. Citing the worldwide proliferation of drones, Timm suggested robotic warfare constitutes a critical challenge to international security, and as such demands robust debate. That debate never materialized. Nonetheless, come January 20, 2017, Donald Trump, one of the most feared and reviled candidates in the history of American politics, will take the reins of the US drone program.