May 23, 2013 | By Dina Smeltz

Game of Drones

President Obama will be discussing his administration’s drone program and other elements of his counterterrorism strategy in a speech he will deliver today at the National Defense University. Drones have been a big topic here at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, with Mark Mazzetti, General James Cartwright and Peter Bergen all taking turns at the podium to discuss the issue (two out of three also promoted new books). And while catching up on my stack of unread magazines last week, I came across Steve Coll’s book review (“Remote Control”) of Mazzetti’s book The Way of the Knife and Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars in the May 6 edition of the New Yorker.

Drones have also been a focus in recent polling. Many of the major US survey organizations asked about the issue in the last few months, particularly after Rand Paul’s 13-hour anti-drone filibuster to contest John Brennan’s CIA nomination. The polling questions (compiled by mainly fall into four categories based on whether the strikes are targeted outside the United States or inside the United States, and whether the specific target is a US citizen or not. These factors greatly influence attitudes.

a)      Against suspected terrorist suspects in foreign countries Majorities of American approve of drone strikes used against suspected terrorists abroad. An April 2013 CBS/New York Times survey asked Americans whether they favor or oppose “the US using unmanned aircraft or ‘drones’ to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries” and found that seven in ten favor (70%, with 20% oppose). A similar majority in a March 2013 Gallup survey say the “US government should use drones to launch airstrikes in other countries against suspected terrorists” (65%, with 28% should not use). Even when prompted with the term “deadly force” in a February 2013 Fox News poll, three in four Americans approve of “the United States using manned aircraft called drones to kill a suspected terrorist in a foreign country” (Table 1; Fox News polls seem to get somewhat higher support than other polling organizations across a series of questions on drones).

When specific target countries are named, results are fairly similar. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from February 2013 found two in three Americans favor drone strikes carried out in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries (see exact wording in Table 2). And Pew surveys conducted in 2012 and 2013 found about six in ten Americans approving of the US conducting “missile strikes from pilotless aircraft called drones to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia” (56% approve in 2013, with 26% disapprove and 18% unsure; in 2012, 55% approved, 34% disapproved, 11% unsure).

American support for the use of drones in these circumstances stands in sharp contrast to opposition among publics abroad (See figure below). In 2012, Pew surveys also asked foreign publics in 20 countries whether they approved or disapproved of the US conducting drone strikes (with the same wording as the US survey), and found that opinion in Britain was closely divided and in India, more approved than disapproved but half were undecided. In every other country, majorities opposed the US use of drone strikes.

Given the wording presented, attitudes could have been influenced by views toward the United States in addition to views of the drone strikes themselves. Large majorities in Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia oppose the drone strikes, coinciding with negative views of the US (less so in Tunisia), perceptions that the US discounts other countries’ interests and opposition to US counterterrorism policies. In 2011, Pew surveys found that about half in Jordan and Egypt were at least somewhat concerned that someday the US could become a military threat to their own country.  It would be interesting to know what extent attitudes toward drone strikes are a factor in these views.

b)      Against suspected terrorists who are US citizens living abroad

After drone strikes in Yemen killed al Qaeda leader Anwar al Awaki, a US citizen born in the United States, some raised doubts about the legitimacy of using drones against American citizens. Just yesterday, the New York Times reported that the administration formally acknowledged that the United States had killed four American citizens in drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.

Surveys conducted by Gallup and CBS News found different results about the use of strikes against US citizens abroad. By a 5 to 4 margin, Gallup’s March 2013 survey reported more Americans saying the US should NOT use drones to “launch airstrikes in other countries against US citizens living abroad who are suspected terrorists” (52% should not, with 41% should).  But one month prior, a February 2013 CBS News survey showed that more Americans favor (49%) than oppose (38%) the US “targeting and killing American citizens in foreign countries who are suspected of carrying out terrorist activities against the US” by the same 5 to 4 margin.  A February Fox News survey found an even higher percentage approve of using “unmanned aircraft called drones to kill a suspected terrorist in a foreign country if the suspect is an American citizen” (60% approve, with 36% disapprove).

c)       Against suspected terrorists living in the US

When it comes to using drone strikes within US borders, Gallup and Fox get different results again. Gallup’s March 2013 survey found two in three Americans say the US government should NOT “use drones to launch airstrikes in the US against suspected terrorists living here” (66%, with 25% should). The question did not specifically state that the hypothetical suspected terrorist is not a US citizen, though Gallup included an additional question about targeting US citizens in the US (see next section). These two Gallup questions together seem to indicate a distinction between American support for air strikes within US borders and abroad.

The Fox February 2013 poll reported a majority who approve of the United States using “unmanned aircraft called drones to kill a suspected foreign terrorist on US soil” (56%, with 40% disapprove). Though Republicans are most approving (60%), majorities of Democrats (53%) and Independents (55%) in this survey also approve.

d)      Against suspected terrorists who are US citizens living in the US

An even larger majority – eight in ten Americans – in Gallup’s March 2013 March survey say the US should NOT use drones “to launch airstrikes in the US against US citizens living here who are suspected terrorists” (79% should not, with 13% should). The Fox survey results were more divided in this case, with slightly more disapproving than approving of the US using “unmanned aircraft called drones to kill a suspected terrorist who is a US citizen on US soil” (50% disapprove, with 45% approve).

My hope is that the President’s speech will heighten the American public’s interest in drone warfare (the March Gallup poll showed that 14 percent of Americans are following news about the drone issue very closely; 35 percent somewhat closely). On the surface, I think surgical strikes are probably appealing to many Americans: the 2012 Chicago Council Survey results suggest that Americans like the idea of relying on targeted approaches with a limited footprint, rather than a ‘boots on the ground’ approach, in part a reaction to the past decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But I’m not sure the public is considering the potential consequences of the widespread use of remote assassinations, including their effect on the image the US is projecting abroad and, in Steve Coll's words, "the possibility that drone strikes may be creating more enemies than they're eliminating."


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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