Trump Expands Drone Use, Dropping Obama-Era Protections
On Thursday, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration is planning to relax regulations on the use of drones and targeted military raids. The President's National Security Advisors will propose changes to two key tenants of Obama-era military policy: downgrading the threshold required for the engagement of targeted military operations and drone strikes (currently limited to militants posing a "continuing and imminent threat" to the nation), and eliminating a high-level vetting processes through which top executive officials cleared lethal strikes in the past.
The proposed changes are the basis for what will become the Trump administration's policy on drone use, and many human rights groups are concerned that eliminating measures meant to curtail civilian casualties will build on a recent legacy of ethically questionable targeted strikes by the United States.
Unmanned aircraft were a relative rarity on the battlefield until the Obama administration. Drone technology for use in warfare was developed after 9/11 to assist the Bush administration in the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden, but went largely unused: only 50 targeted strikes over the entire Bush administration were ever approved. After his election in 2008, President Obama oversaw a massive expansion of the US drone program, a lasting legacy of his middle eastern foreign policy. Obama authorized over 500 strikes, resulting in the deaths of 3,040 terrorists and 391 civilians, an error rate of 13%. His administration is responsible for the confirmed death of a 16 year old American not suspected of terrorist activity, and has been repeatedly accused of deflating civilian casualty estimates by classifying unknown persons as combatants or refusing to classify unknown persons at all.
The Obama administration not only expanded the use of drone strikes, it institutionalized the practice. The CIA now regularly recommends the use of targeted strikes outside of declared war zones, often in areas of limited intelligence like Yemen and Syria, and has normalized "signature strikes" - killings of anonymous persons suspected of terrorist activity based on their behavior. The Obama administration also developed the legal and policy framework currently used by the Pentagon to conduct drone strikes, providing legal precedent for the Trump administration to expand their use.
Trump seems willing to do so. Despite his anti-interventionist campaign, the President appears to be acting on the policy goals outlined in his August 21st speech announcing a more aggressive military policy in the Middle East and South Asia. The new policy direction was a surprise to many of the President's supporters, reflecting the vision of global-minded security advisors like H.R. McMaster, but there has been no lasting fallout from the change.
The removal of procedural safeguards is unlikely to affect his popular support either, but the likely increase in drone strikes, targeted military operations, and the disproportionate civilian casualties they cause could have unfavorable consequences for the US peace effort in the Middle Wast. The Obama drone programs was a well-known recruiting tool for Islamic militant groups, including Daesh, and members of the military have decried the tactic as one of the most "devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world."
Without a formal position on drone use entering the oval office, Trump was well situated to make a determination about the future of the program. His administration's upcoming proposal indicates a decisive step down the path first taken by Obama.
The Trump administration seems unlikely to pursue a rollback of the drone program on ethical or legal grounds, and continued expansions of the power deferred to military officials to conceive and approve strikes should be expected.
Drone strikes are absolutely an efficient method of attacking remote locations and elusive targets without risking American lives. But if the President wishes to make meaningful inroads to peace in the Middle East, warfare policies which respect the value of civilian life are indispensable. The slope ahead is a slippery one, and if the US wishes to maintain moral superiority in the Middle East and among ally nations, the future of the drone policy must be considered carefully.