Though even a single civilian casualty ought not to be taken lightly, the focus on alleged collateral damage distorts the essence of the drone program. In reality, technology allows highly trained operators to observe targets on the ground for as much as 72 hours in advance. Software engineers typically model the blast radius for a missile or bomb strike. Lawyers weigh in on which laws apply and entire categories of potential targets—including mosques, hospitals and schools—are almost always off bounds. All these procedures serve one overriding purpose: to protect innocent civilian life. The New America Foundation's database of strikes shows it's working.
This year civilians made up only about 8% of the 440 (at most) people killed in drone strikes in Pakistan down from about 30% two years ago. As for affecting U.S. popularity on the ground, according to the Pew Global Attitudes survey, the U.S. favorability rating—long battered by conspiracy theories and an anti-American media—hovers at about 12%, almost exactly where it stood before the program's advent seven years ago.
I noted the big increase in accuracy under Obama, and am glad for it. Benjamin Friedman still opposes the drone war, but I tend to agree with Ben Wittes' defense of drone strikes as the least worst evil after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The key is to keep refining accuracy and ensuring that civilian casualties, especially of children, are kept to an absolute, over-riding minimum.
(Photo: A US 'Predator' drone passes overhead at a forward operating base near Kandahar on January 1, 2009. By Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images.)