No topic in American security inspires more heated debate these days than the Obama administration's use of drone strikes against armed militants, terrorists and their supporters. While debate and scrutiny of public policy is a good thing, a hefty proportion of this criticism is badly misguided, often mistaking the use of drones as America's strategy itself. In large part this reflects a failure on the part of the Obama administration to develop a convincing narrative to explain the assumptions, logic and ultimate objectives of its strategy. Without seeing the big picture, it is difficult to understand how drone strikes fit in and why they are the least bad option available.
U.S. strategy against al-Qaida and its allies, affiliates and emulators should seem familiar to Americans since it mirrors the strategy used against global communism during the Cold War. At its heart, the strategy of containment assumes that all people want to live in peace and freedom rather than persistent conflict and repression. This may sound obvious, even trite, but it has very important implications for national security strategy. Because ideologies fueled by conflict and repression like communism or the al-Qaida brand of extremism are so counter to normal human desires, they have deep internal flaws. Given an open choice, most people would reject those ideologies. This means adherents require constant victories to convince the people living under their thumb that eventually things will get better. Success is the oxygen of extremist fires -- without it, the flame smothers and dies.
American strategy grows from these observations. If the United States and its partners can deny an extremist ideology the string of victories it needs, its flaws will undo it. This is exactly what happened with Soviet communism. Today there are signs that it may be happening to the al-Qaida brand of extremism as well.