Drone Strike-Analyzing Public Perceptions of Legitimacy

AuthorPaul Lushenko
PositionPhD, is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and Deputy Director of the Cornell Brooks Public Policy School's Tech Policy Institute
Drone StrikeAnalyzing Public Perceptions of
Paul Lushenko*
Mitt Regan evaluates the scholarship on the effectiveness of the U.S. drone
program since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In doing so, he raises an important
question about the implications of public opinion for the sustainability of U.S.
counterterrorism strikes and similar operations conducted by other countries.
Whereas most researchers understand public attitudes in terms of support and
approval, Regan’s analysis suggests that perceptions of legitimacy are equally,
if not more important for countries’ drone policies. The purpose of this article
is to address how Regan’s book informs our understanding of the public’s per-
ceptions of legitimate drone strikes. While scholars, policy-makers, and practi-
tioners often reference legitimacy, they rarely, if ever, empirically evaluate this
outcome. After outlining the literature for public opinion and drone warfare, I
relate Regan’s analysis to our understanding of the public’s perceptions of
legitimate strikes. I then incorporate Regan’s insights into an emerging
research agenda that defines drone warfare based on countries’ use and
constraint of strikes to prevent unintended consequences, namely civilian casu-
alties. Unlike qualitative studies that are difficult to falsify, replicate, and gen-
eralize, this approach allows researchers to analyze empirically derived data
using statistical methods to determine the public’s subjective beliefs on appro-
priate strikes.
In his recent book, Drone StrikeAnalyzing the Impacts of Targeted Killing,
Mitt Regan evaluates the body of scholarship on the effectiveness of the U.S.
drone program, which emerged in modern form following the terrorist attacks of
In 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush authorized the first-known use of
an armed and networked drone, the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, to kill Ali
al-Harthi in Yemen given his role in al Qaeda’s bombing of the USS Cole several
years earlier. Despite varying degrees of transparency, the U.S. drone program
has enjoyed bipartisan support across successiveRepublican and Democrat
presidential administrations for over two decades.
* Paul Lushenko, PhD, is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and Deputy Director of the Cornell
Brooks Public Policy School’s Tech Policy Institute. © 2023, Paul Lushenko.

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