Does It Matter Who Pulls the Trigger in the Drone Wars?
We’re allowing a mindset of “anything Trump does is wrong”—coupled with lightning-speed historical revisionism for the Obama era—to sustain the same mistakes in the war on terror that have continued to fuel radical Islam. But there may be a window of opportunity to turn the anti-Trump rhetoric into a review of the failed policies of the last decade and a half.
A recent example of “anything Trump does is wrong” has to do with the president changing the rules for drone-kill decision making. In May 2013 President Obama self-imposed a dual standard (known as the “playbook”) for remote killing. The White House, including Obama himself reviewing a kill list at regular meetings, would decide which individuals outside of the “traditional war zones” of Iraq and Afghanistan would be targeted.
Meanwhile, in America’s post-9/11 traditional war zones, military commanders then made, and now make, the kill decisions without civilian review, with the threshold for “acceptable civilian casualties” supposedly less strict. Because the president is supposed to make his decisions with more regard than the military for civilian deaths (though there are no statistics to support that this has been the outcome), the process represented, in the words of the New York Times, “restraint.” Other supporters refer to the president’s role as oversight.
There has been a change. In mid-March, Trump granted a Pentagon request to designate certain zones inside Yemen as “areas of active hostilities.” Trump is expected to approve the same new policy for parts of Somalia. That would shift more decision making for drone strikes from the Oval Office to the Pentagon.
The issue being raised by some of Trump’s opponents is that the new policy will kill more civilians, as it will be carried out by an unfettered military instead of a “restrained” executive. Those additional deaths will lead to more radicalization of Muslims, which will impede America’s strategic progress toward an unclear goal—maybe a world without radicalized Muslims.
Such logic ignores the fact that President Obama approved 540 drone strikes killing 3,797 people in non-traditional war zones. No one knows how many of those bodies were civilians, although for the record the U.S. says it was precisely 324. The Council on Foreign Relations, however, estimates that drone strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan killed 3,674 civilians at last count.
Bottom line: There are already a lot of bodies out there under a policy of “restraint.”
It is important to note that Trump’s change in policy focuses only on who—him or generals in the Pentagon—makes the decision to pull the trigger in places already under American attack. The killing itself is ongoing, seamless, and happening today. (In fact, civilian casualties rose during the last months of the Obama administration, suggesting changes in U.S. rules of engagement may predate Trump.)
More importantly, it is unlikely the people on the ground know or care which official in Washington gave the thumbs up or down to blow away their brother.
An odd sense that all this killing happened over the last two months was captured in a letter some three dozen former members of America’s national security establishment (including Bush and Obama-era staff) sent to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stating “even small numbers of unintentional civilian deaths or injuries—whether or not legally permitted—can cause significant strategic setbacks,” increasing violence from militant groups and prompting others to reduce collaboration with the United States. The letter claims that pre-Trump, public confidence and belief in legitimacy were important facets of U.S. policy success.
Even the American Civil Liberties Union appeared to wake from a long slumber, claiming that with Trump’s decision to shift some of the kill decisions, “the limits of war as we know it could virtually dissolve. At stake is no less than the global legal framework that protects life and preserves international peace and security.”
At this point one must sit back and ask: seriously? Are the signatories unaware of 15 years of attacks on hospitals, or the wedding parties in Afghanistan and elsewhere blown to pink mist by Hellfire missiles? Civilian casualties overall in America’s 2003-2011 Iraq War alone were anywhere from 140,000 dead to upwards of 500,000, many by cluster munitions and depleted uranium, horrible weapons unique to American forces.
As with the recent Navy SEAL raid in Yemen that took civilian lives, the new-found interest by the media and many Democrats in the costs of American war abroad is welcome. If it took the election of Donald Trump to alert Americans to what horrors are being done in their names, then that election has already served some larger purpose.
But the next step is the critical one. Can the new revulsion for civilian deaths drive action to stop them? Or will nostalgia for the “good killings” under the previous administration block a focus on ending the 15-year cycle of violence and revenge that has set the Middle East on fire? Will we simply again settle on a domestically palpable process of killing under Trump as we did under Bush and Obama?
No matter who pulls the trigger, civilian deaths are not accidental, but a policy of preventable accident. The new drone rules under Trump are simply another example.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His next book is Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Folow him on Twitter at @WeMeantWell.