A new poll of Americans includes some questions about drones (article here, summary of data here). Eighty-three percent of Americans approve or strongly approve of the Obama administration's use of drones "against terrorist suspects overseas". This support crosses party lines: 77 percent of respondents who identify as Democrats support the use of drones. If the suspected terrorists are Americans living overseas, 79 percent of respondents still approve of the use of drones.
How surprising are these results? In one sense, not surprising at all. A large body of research, drawing on John Mueller's seminal book, concludes that there is a strong and inverse relationship between military casualties and support for the use of force. Drones, of course, create zero US casualties. If Americans oppose the use of force primarily to avoid casualties, then drone strikes create a politically easy way to strike overseas.
From another perspective, such strong support for drone strikes may be surprising. This stream of research, best analyzed in Paying the Human Costs of War by Gelpi, Feaver, and Reifler, holds that Americans' support for the use of force depends on their estimates that the military mission will be successful. So Americans might be supporting the use of drones because they think that drones are a good way to defeat terrorists. This could be the case because the technology behind drones is so impressive, or because Americans think that the raid that killed Osama bin Laden relied on drone strikes. If this is the case, the respondents are not familiar with the good arguments about why drone strikes might be counter-productive, creating anger in the Muslim world that leads to more, not less, support for terrorist and insurgent groups.
A third approach might explain the strong support for drones as a result of elite consensus. This perspective, exemplified by the work of Adam Berinsky, holds that American's opinions about the use of force are less strongly influenced by casualties or success. Instead, members of the public looks to the preferences of political leaders when forming their own opinions. When political leaders from different parties all support a policy, so does much of the public. This has certainly been the case for drone strikes--they were initiated by the Bush administration, accelerated by the Obama administration, and supported strongly by members of Congress from both parties who have pushed the military in intelligence agencies to expand their research on and use of drones.
Too little work has been done surveying how Americans think about drones. But they could have big consequences for Americans use of force. If the casualty aversion approach is correct, drones could lead make it much easier, and perhaps tempting, for Presidents to use them in conflicts overseas. If the success approach best explains opinions on drones, any future failures (such as not preventing al Qaeda from attacking the homeland of the United States) might lead to a decline in support. And if the elite consensus explanation best fits the data, we are unlikely to see support for drone strikes wane until one party or leader opposes their use.