Drones and Realism in the Middle East

Drones and Realism in the Middle East February 9, 2016
Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army--Wikimedia Commons
Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army–Wikimedia Commons

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) by the military, have become a contentious issue within American foreign affairs. Neoconservatives have called for stronger military engagement within the Middle East, with those on the left wishing to back away from any military intervention within the region. Though these opinions are not often based within political theory. Realism has been used as a guide within American foreign policy for multiple presidential administrations, and consulting realist political theory within the actions of the last two presidential administrations may help us understand how America should engage in the Middle East currently. This is especially true when one analyzes the Bush Administration policies.

Realists understand that war is a tragedy, but it is deeply understood that war is inevitable within the current system of international relations. In classical realist Kenneth Waltz’s iconic three images of war, he finds war to be a product of human nature, a product of state behavior, and a product of the anarchic international system (615-628). Realism as a school of thought within international relations theory is often at odds with the liberal view of war and peace. Mostly disconnected from the American colloquial usage of liberalism, a president’s political party affiliation has little impact on their affiliation with classical liberalism or classical realism. In other words, both modern day American political parties include various tenants of both classical liberalism and realism.

The overarching focus of realism is the garnering of political power and authority, especially within the anarchic international system. However, in light of how tragic and serious war and violent conflict is, it is also understood within the realist school of thought that war should be avoided if possible; realists recognize and analyze the context of conflict, and if a conflict should be elevated militarily. Additionally, realists also recognize the overreach of political power by state actors. In analyzing the realist school of thought, we can apply the label of realist on past and current presidents, or understand these policymakers as being driven by another school of political thought. Though both President Bush and President Obama have used military capabilities in the Middle East, we can decipher these actions as in line with realism, classifying these presidents as realists or not.

Evaluating the military actions of both the Obama Administration and the Bush Administration we can decipher how “realist” both presidents were. In the case of President Bush, the invasion of Iraq was set preemptively against the backdrop of possible usage of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, which some deemed to be irrational and unpredictable. At first glance, one could assume this action to be based within offensive realism; however, when analyzed it is not so cut and dry. Only a couple of months prior to the invasion of Iraq newsmagazine Foreign Relations published an article outlining how unnecessary a war with Iraq would be, directly from the realist perspective. The article, written by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, deduced that Saddam Hussein ought to be treated and thought of as a rational state actor, concluding that alternatives to violent conflict exist and should be pursued (50-59). Additionally, Brian C. Schmidt and Michael C. Williams in the Security Studies Journal conclude that the neoconservative Bush Doctrine was far from being based within realism, but ultimately realist political theorists and scientists were unable to stop the American invasion of Iraq.

By Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA
By Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA

The Obama Administration’s drone program has also come under immense scrutiny. However, evaluating President Obama as a realist or not with usage of the drone strikes is more complex in my opinion. The use of drones has allowed for no direct American involvement in conflicts that have sprung from the Iraq invasion and the Arab Spring movement within the Middle East and North African states (MENA). From the realist perspective, this is both allowing for American military authority to grow within international relations, but has also avoided a direct violent conflict that endangers American troops. The use of drones is both legally debated and morally gray. Though realists recognize morality, the use of military capabilities, such as the drone program, is used to further American interests within MENA states; specifically targeting high ranking members of known terrorist organizations.

President Bush deployed American troops to Iraq and various Middle East regions. President Obama withdrew troops from the Iraq campaign and has opted for a less aggressive use of American military capabilities. The Bush Administration was fueled by neoconservative rhetoric, but some argue was more legitimate use of the executive war powers than President Obama’s use of drone technology. The drone program is centered around secrecy and run by the Central Intelligence Administration (CIA) through executive authority. However, we see parallels within the aggressive foreign policy that has dominated international relations within MENA states over multiple decades. The main focus of each administration was to eliminate forces and organizations that would wish to do America harm. Clearly, the Bush Administration prescribed to neoconservative theory and rhetoric, and is easily concluded as not being within the realm of classical realism. The question persists–did realism fail to prevent the Iraq War? Furthermore, is the drone program in line with classical realist theory?

The Obama Administration may be more realist in its use of alternatives to direct military involvement in MENA states, but this is very much up for debate; furthermore, understanding the security dilemma, we can also conclude that the use of drone technology is a result of the proliferation of terrorist organizations such as ISIS/ISIL.

Realism has influenced American foreign policy for decades, but many would argue that realists failed to sufficiently argue for a nonviolent option within the Iraq conflict. As a result, President Obama has made use of technology that has only one equal alternative, which would be to invade Syria and Iraq to fight against ISIS/ISIL, which should hardly be an American effort alone. The drone program may not be ideal; however, it has shown to be successful and is a rational option compared to other options that are being offered by neoconservatives.


Mearsheimer, John J., and Stephen Walt. “An Unnecessary War.” Foreign Policy 134 (January-February 2003): 51-59.

Schmidt, Brian C. and Michael C. Williams. 2008. “The Bush Doctrine and the Iraq War: Neoconservatives Versus Realists,” Security Studies 17(2): 191-220.

Waltz, Kenneth. “The Origins of War in Neorealist Theory.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18.4 (1988): 615-28. JSTOR. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.

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