Do Americans Care About Civilian Deaths in Drone Attacks?

Over at the Monkey Cage, James Igoe Walsh has an interesting post about American support for drone attacks overseas. Walsh is interested in what kinds of things might reduce that support.

To figure this out, he performed an internet survey split into four groups. The first group was given a simple description of a drone attack. The other three groups got the same description but with one change:

  • Group 1: Drone attack is described as unlikely to succeed.
  • Group 2: Drone attack will produce about 25 American casualties.
  • Group 3: Drone attack will cause civilian deaths.

The startling results are on the right: the prospect of civilian deaths reduced support more than the prospect of American casualties. “This is a real surprise,” Walsh says, “since it means that respondents attach as much or more value on the lives of foreign civilians as they do on US military personnel.”

There’s a huge caveat to this survey: it’s an internet panel, not a random sample. And, of course, it’s only one survey anyway. The results might be highly sensitive to question wording and external events. But it certainly suggests that further research on this subject could be fruitful. If it’s really true that civilian casualties substantially reduce support for drone strikes, it would certainly explain why the Obama administration is so determined to insist that anyone killed by drones is, almost by definition, not a civilian.