We Meant Well
April 3, 2017
Peter Van Buren
We’re allowing a mindset of “anything Trump does is wrong” coupled with lightening-speed historical revisionism for the Obama era to sustain the same mistakes in the war on terror that have fueled Islamic terrorism for the past 15 years. However, 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 his 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. Of course the idea that any of this functions under “rules” is based on the bedrock fallacy that anything militarily done by the last three presidents has been legal under the never-updated 2001 authorization for war in Afghanistan. For perspective, remember Islamic State never existed, and Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen had stable governments at the time Congress passed that authorization.
In sum: since 2013 the military can kill from the air at will inside Iraq and Afghanistan (the status of Syria is unclear), as well as other areas designated unilaterally by the U.S. government as “traditional,” with allowances for less regard for the collateral damage of innocents slaughtered. It is the president himself who plays judge, jury, and executioner across the rest of the globe, including in several acknowledged cases, ordering the deaths of American citizens without due process.
Supporters of this policy set refer to the president’s role as oversight. And 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 has been the outcome), the process represented, in the words of the New York Times, “restraint.”
Now there has been a change. Trump in mid-March granted a Pentagon request to designate certain areas of 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 Trump’s opponents some is that the new policy will kill more civilians as it will be carried out by an unfettered military instead of a “restrained” executive, and that those deaths will lead to more radicalization of more Muslims, which will impede America’s strategic progress toward, it’s unclear, maybe a world without radicalized Muslims.
Such twisted logic is based on an almost insta-nostalgia that ignores President Obama approved 540 drone strikes killing 3,797 people in non-traditional war zones. No one knows how many of those bodies were civilian, although for the record the U.S. says it was precisely 324. The analytically conservative Council on Foreign Relations, however, assesses drone strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan killed 3,674 civilians as of 2014.
Those body counts do not include fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and do not include any unacknowledged strikes elsewhere globally (stories persist, confirmed to me by a former U.S. Special Forces operator, of drone kills in the Philippines, for example.)
Bottom line: There are already a lot of bodies out there under a policy of “restraint.”
It is important to note Trump’s change in policy focuses only on who makes the decision to pull the trigger in places already under American attack, him or generals in the Pentagon. The killing itself is ongoing, seamless, and happening today as it happened six months ago (in fact, civilian casualties rose during the last months of the Obama administration, suggesting changes in U.S. rules of engagement predate Trump.) It is unlikely the people on the ground know or care which official in Washington decided to blow away a vehicle with their brother in it. The idea that it matters a whit in terms of radicalization whether the thumbs up or down is rendered by Trump, Obama, or a general would be comical if it was not horrible.
An odd sense that all this killing globally is something new and damaging to America was captured in a letter some three dozen former members of America’s national security establishment (including Bush and Obama-era staff) 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.
Even the American Civil Liberties Union appeared to wake from a long slumber, claiming with Trump’s decision to slide sideways the kill decision, “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 that point one must sit back and ask: Seriously? Who besides presidents Obama and Trump has endorsed that framework and under what set of laws is it legal?
Are the signatories unaware of the attacks on hospitals, 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 artillery, cluster munitions, and depleted uranium, indiscriminate 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 Trump to alert Americans 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 found revulsion for civilian deaths drive action to stop them or will nostalgia for the “good killings” under the previous administration block focus on ending the 15 year cycle of violence and revenge that has set the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia 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 — Bush, Obama or Trump — civilian deaths are not accidental, but a policy of preventable accident. The new drone rules under Trump are simply another example.