American public has few qualms with drone strikes, poll finds

President Obama's aggressive campaign of drone strikes has generated controversy overseas and among terrorism experts. But Americans seem fine with it, according to a Monitor/TIPP poll.

M. Abbass/AP
Protesters burn a representation of a US flag in Multan, Pakistan, Thursday to condemn a drone attack in the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan that killed Taliban leader Waliur Rehman.

When a US drone strike last week killed a top Taliban leader in Pakistan, critics of the strikes that have become a staple of President Obama’s counterterrorism policy were quick to condemn it.

The killing of Waliur Rehman in the North Waziristan region on May 29 would only make reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government – a US priority – more difficult to convene, some critics said. Others said such strikes infuriate local populations and are a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremists.

But the American public appears to be unmoved by such arguments. A new Monitor/TIPP poll finds that a firm majority of Americans – 57 percent – support the current level of drone strikes targeting “Al Qaeda targets and other terrorists in foreign countries.” Another 23 percent said the use of drones for such purposes should increase. Only 11 percent said the use of drones should decrease.

The poll, conducted from May 28-31, followed a major speech in which Mr. Obama suggested the use of drone strikes would decline. In the May 26 address, he also hinted at his own ambivalence about the controversial tactic, weighing the program’s efficacy against the moral questions and long-term impact.

Obama acknowledged that the pluses of drone strikes – no need to put boots on the ground and the accuracy and secrecy they offer – can “lead a president and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.”

He balanced that against words of caution: “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”

The drone strikes, which under Obama have mostly been carried out in secrecy by the CIA, are credited with killing as many as 3,000 terrorists and Islamist militants – at least four of whom were American citizens. Obama is planning to shift most drone operations to the military as part of an effort to make the program more transparent.

Americans are by and large comfortable with drone strikes being ordered by the president, the CIA, or by the military, according to the Monitor poll. Less popular is the idea of creating a separate “drone court” – a panel that would presumably increase the accountability of the program.

Almost two-thirds of Americans (62 percent) say they approve of drone-strike authorization coming from the president, the Pentagon, or the CIA. About a quarter (26 percent) favor setting up a drone court to sign off on strikes.

The question of who should retain responsibility for authorizing drone strikes reveals something of a political divide: While 67 percent of Democrats approve of the president, the CIA, or the Pentagon deciding on the strikes, a lower percentage of Republicans (55 percent) approve of entrusting the decisionmaking to those three.

On the other hand, self-described “conservatives” were more likely than the general population to favor increasing drone strikes, with 28 percent supporting more strikes, compared with 11 percent of all Americans.

The Monitor poll also revealed what could be interpreted as little enthusiasm for Obama’s efforts to move away from the post-9/11 concept of a “war on terrorism.”

More than half of Americans – 56 percent – say the US continues to be in a “war on terror,” while 58 percent say “fundamentalist Islam” remains a “major threat” to the US.

As for the military detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, which Obama continues to seek to close, nearly two-thirds of Americans (61 percent) favor keeping it open.

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