America's recent foreign policy has been enabled by a central idea: the United States does things differently. It wages wars differently. It suspends habeas corpus sparingly and with great restraint. It encroaches on liberties more gingerly. And it puts military men and women at risk with a respectful selectivity. To advance this mythology, the federal government has, time and again, insisted it that it acts with painstaking precision when it resorts to military intervention or security-state measures at home. This, officials have consistently suggested, is the American distinction.
Precision is what still seems to separate the United States from the Third World, as U.S. actions become increasingly similar to those often employed by underdeveloped countries. The myth justifies a surviving claim to global distinction, despite the errors, violations, and setbacks of the post-9/11 era. The U.S. may torture detainees like a Latin American dictatorship. It may subject its own people to surveillance of the sort once identified with the Eastern Bloc. And it may resort to violence as swiftly as any inner-city gang. But America's government does these things with surgical exactitude, carefully distinguishing guilty from innocent. Confidence in this precision provides a buffer; it separates us from them. But the precision defense rests on an unstable pretense, as America's escalating drone war shows.
President Obama has declared that the extensive drone campaign in Pakistan is a "targeted, focused effort" that "has not caused a huge number of civilian casualties." But the evidence shows that drones are not precise instruments of war: the idea that the bad guys can be zeroed in on robotically from the air was always improbable in theory and has proved to be untenable in practice.
An in-depth, field-based investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (on behalf of the UK's Sunday Times) found in February that "since Obama took office three years ago, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children." The bureau notes that the drone attacks were started under the Bush administration in 2004 and have stepped up significantly under Obama. There had been 260 strikes by unmanned Predators or Reapers in Pakistan under Obama's administration--averaging one every four days.
The report echoes the July 2009 estimates of Daniel L. Byman, senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy: "Sourcing on civilian deaths is weak and the numbers are often exaggerated, but more than 600 civilians are likely to have died from the attacks. …