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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 [1] (known as the “playbook”) for remote killing. The White House, including Obama himself reviewing a kill list [2] 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 [3] of the New York Times, “restraint.” Other supporters refer to the president’s role as oversight [4].

There has been a change. In mid-March, Trump granted a Pentagon request to designate [5] 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 [6] 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 [7] 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 [7]. The Council on Foreign Relations, however, estimates that drone strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan killed 3,674 civilians [8] 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 [9] 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 [10] 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 [11] 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 [12], 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 [13] dead to upwards of 500,000 [14], many by cluster munitions and depleted uranium, horrible weapons unique to American forces.

As with the recent Navy SEAL raid [15] 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.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Does It Matter Who Pulls the Trigger in the Drone Wars?"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 23, 2017 @ 5:40 am

Dontcha know, collateral murder is only wrong when conducted by someone the Washington Establishment doesn’t fully own.

If Trump maintains his own hit list, then he’s evil incarnate, unlike the President who invented the policy, in a reprise of Brando’s Godfather’s restrained Mafia Don, reality imitating art with a politically correct cast.

If he delegates the hits to the war generals, then he’s evil incarnate because he’s irresponsible – and the generals are heavy with despised old, white, straight men.

Our problem is not with war per se – under present conditions, it’s far too profitable to ever consider ending – but that those conducting it, must be politically correct, and claim to do exactly the same thing, for politically correct reasons.

#2 Comment By Chris C. On March 23, 2017 @ 8:13 am

The link to the CFR article contains this sentence:”As of today, the United States has now conducted 500 targeted killings (approximately 98 percent of them with drones), which have killed an estimated 3,674 people, including 473 civilians…”
How do you reconcile this with your figure of “3,674 civilians” in the body of your column?

#3 Comment By DocBroom On March 23, 2017 @ 12:44 pm

Perhaps it is this fiction of restraint that has resulted in the endless war? The first questions to ask are 1) is the initiation of war a proper response to the provocation? 2) is this a Post-Westphalian state on state war or is this war against a private party? 3) What is the desired end-state (is this a war of unlimited objectives (unconditional surrender, regime change, state extinction) for either or both sides; or is it a limited war (province-swapping, policy altering) for either or both sides? The answer to 3) will determine 4) whether the war is existential and therefore unconstrained in resources? Without consensus on those issues, especially the clearly defined desired end-state (strategic objective), a state will be unsuccessful no matter how proficient the armed forces. So now on to the hard questions.

I tend to ask hard questions, questions that cause a level of squeamishness because they are the now ‘unaskable” questions. Let me state at the outset that the intentional targeting of civilians in isolation, whether remotely by drone or much more personally at the end of a bayoneted rifle, is murder.

However, if your enemy is intermingled with civilians, essentially inseparable, perhaps the quickest and over the long term most life preserving approach is to ruthlessly pursue the war without regard toward ‘collateral’ damage and casualties. Perhaps the raising of the price of resistance to the unbearable brings the war to speedy end and thus over the long-term saves the most lives.

Now as can debate the necessity of a war. We can debate whether, if necessary, it is an existential conflict. However, once we embark on the horrific journey that is war, we ought to understand from the beginning that we as a people will be required to do horrific things and that non-combatants, in most cases in much higher numbers than combatants, will perish. If we as a people can not accept that simple reality, perhaps we no longer deserve to be a people.

#4 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 23, 2017 @ 9:00 pm

“… we as a people will be required to do horrific things and that non-combatants, in most cases in much higher numbers than combatants, will perish. If we as a people can not accept that simple reality, perhaps we no longer deserve to be a people.”

Or perhaps we could stop enabling the for-profit war business, exclusively manufactured in foreign lands, in order for elites to take what belongs to someone else? If we can’t, then perhaps we no longer deserve to be a people.

Which interestingly enough, while all these foreign wars without end have been waged these past fifteen years, more immigrants from the countries we are at war with have arrived than in the preceding fifteen years.

Maybe some folks in Washington have already made the determination we don’t deserve to be a people anymore, deplorables as they consider us, preferring deep state to democracy, practicing divide and conquer at home and abroad.

#5 Comment By PAXNOW On March 24, 2017 @ 9:25 am

Let Congress declare war. Then the decision is a national decision. Trump and every member of Congress should be waltzed into a drone bunker and made pull the trigger. Not some kid who is often barely out of high school.

#6 Comment By WorkingClass On March 24, 2017 @ 11:24 am

If we are lucky Imperial Washington will continue murdering at the present rate, just enough to keep the gravy flowing, until the U.S. is just another large country in the Americas. If we are unlucky Washington will give us nuclear winter. Trump said he would end all that. That’s why I supported him. I suspect he may have overestimated the power of the Oval Office. I was worth a try.

#7 Comment By Karen On March 24, 2017 @ 12:27 pm

Alas, because (1) the Republicans control Congress, (2) squawking about Donald’s finger on the nuclear trigger plays better than squawking about drone strikes, and (3) making too much noise about drone strikes risks unwelcome scrutiny of Obama’s record, I believe there will be no positive change in this arena for the foreseeable future.

#8 Comment By Jon On March 24, 2017 @ 12:33 pm

“However, once we embark on the horrific journey that is war, we ought to understand from the beginning that we as a people will be required to do horrific things and that non-combatants, in most cases in much higher numbers than combatants, will perish. If we as a people can not accept that simple reality, perhaps we no longer deserve to be a people.”

What if “we as a people” have not agreed to embark on the horrific journey? After 15 years of murder and mayhem, can “we as a people” be given the opportunity to vote on whether we want to murder more?

#9 Comment By the lion On March 25, 2017 @ 11:26 am

Basically to use any person that is not a member of the Armed Forces makes that person a Mercenary and as such makes the act even against a member of a foreign Military a War crime let alone against a civilian, Remember that in the SCOTUS ruling Hamdin V Rumsfeld the SCOTUS gave AT LEAST Common Article 3 Civilian status to all in the theater of Battle, and that they should under that ruling be given those Geneva Rights. For a Civilian to attack other Civilians is in fact itself an Act of TERRORISM by its direct proscribed in Legislative definition!It is in fact State Sponsored Terrorism as they are paying a Mercenary to Kill CIVILIANS!