Reagan's Dream Revisited: Are Drone Wars the New Star Wars?

Ronald Reagan dreamed of building an array of satellites in space, orbiting protectively above the earth, armed with powerful lasers capable of vaporizing any nuclear missiles launched by the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union. This odd sci-fi fantasy, or calculated bluff -- whatever it was -- is often credited with ratcheting up the arms race, with the Soviet Union struggling futilely to develop its own space-based laser defense system, thus bankrupting the country and initiating the collapse of its communist government.

Though George W. Bush can rightly be credited with starting a new Cold War under the guise of a War on Terror, he lacked Reagan's rich inner fantasy life, and so the best he could come up with was some paranoid drivel about yellow cake uranium. But could it be that the visionary President Obama, with his buzzing swarm of predator drones, shares Reagan's dream in a suitably updated form? In addition to the obvious similarities -- they are both weapons systems in the sky; and drones, like laser satellites, hover above the earth in order to protect Americans from perceived threats to our life and liberty -- Drone Wars, too, disrupts the balance of the arms race (which wasn't too balanced in the first place), thus throwing the enemy into confusion and setting its members against each other as they vainly struggle to regroup, hopefully demoralizing them and convincing them there's no way to win.

Another similarity (though it comes with a big qualification), is that Drone Wars, like Star Wars, involves a lot of hype. In order to get Americans to accept drone warfare, its proponents claim that drones can single out and eliminate individual terrorists. In reality, the technology isn't yet that advanced -- at best a drone seems to be able to spot a bunch of guys with long beards -- which leads to a lot of indiscriminate bombing that often ends up killing innocent civilians. Drone strikes are still a crap shoot.

Which brings us to the differences. No matter what a crackpot or warmonger Reagan seemed to be, he dreamed of a defensive weapons system that would patrol the sky, eliminating the threat of nuclear destruction and keeping the world safe for capitalist exploitation. Drones, on the other hand, are an offensive weapon: Thus far they haven't been used to stop any sort of imminent threat, but only to eliminate people who are, purportedly -- that is, if you take the government's word for it, usually without documentation -- engaged in some sort of conspiracy that might potentially result in future harm to somebody or other.

Star Wars (and the Cold War) had a well-defined enemy, the Soviet Union, and a clear goal: to eliminate the threat of nuclear warfare. Drone Wars (and the War on Terror) is being fought against a nebulous group, al Qaeda (a catch-all term for a network of terror cells which seems to be only marginally centralized) and Islamic terrorism more generally. How could such a group be bankrupted or overthrown? (I guess we'll just have to take some politician's word for it.) In other words, there's no end to the War on Terror; even if all the Islamic terrorists in the world are killed, the drones can simply be turned on other groups of "terrorists," including, perhaps, domestic enemies of the status quo.

Finally, to get back to the notion of hype: Though their degree of accuracy may be exaggerated, it seems that drones do work; that is, they can spy on people and deliver bombs to their doorsteps; and furthermore, drone technology is increasing in leaps and bounds. No matter how much money they spent, the Soviets couldn't establish their own satellite-based laser defense system -- because the technology simply didn't exist. And while the Soviets had to try to develop or steal Star Wars technology, it looks like drones of some sort will soon be available at Radio Shack. The present lead in the arms race that drones confer to our armed (and covert) forces may soon work to our disadvantage, as drone technology gradually becomes affordable and accessible to al Qaeda -- and to any other nut with a screw loose.

Hopefully, in 30 years we'll be mocking Obama's drone dream in the same way we now mock Star Wars. But at the present we're at a critical juncture where we need to act before the drones (weather government, corporate, or terrorist) come home to roost. We need to oppose the deployment of any and all drones in American airspace -- be they police drones, delivery drones, or what have you. We simply can't allow ourselves to become complacent about drones (as we have with security cameras); we don't want to get used to seeing these things, so that, on the rare occasions when we do, we'll recognize the danger. It's also time for the governments of the world to come down to earth and impose a moratorium on drone warfare, just as there has long been a moratorium on nuclear and chemical weapons. Let's not wait until the terrorists have them.