Earlier this month I wrote about how Trump’s version of American exceptionalism indulges in the rights of American power, and simultaneously retreats from the international responsibilities that America has so often been proud to accept. To understand Trump’s view on America’s international role, is to understand his policies.
This dichotomy of power over responsibility is no more true, than when assessing the administration’s use of drones in the fight against terrorism.
Drone strikes have been a constant in the US counterterrorism armoury since 9/11. There are, broadly speaking, two major reasons for the use of drones. First and foremost, drone strikes present counterterrorism solutions where there otherwise would be none. For example, offering the ability to eliminate ‘a target taking refuge in a heavily fortified compound in a conflict zone.’ Second, drone strikes are a means of achieving military ends while avoiding placing military personnel in harm’s way.
The obvious appeal of drones has resulted in a consistent rise in their use since 9/11. As Dreazen and Naylor write, ‘the CIA returned to the killing business with a vengeance after 9/11, with Bush and later Obama making drones Washington’s weapon of choice in the hunt for individual militants around the globe.’ Particularly during the Obama years, American reliance on inflated drone strikes are well documented. Chamayou (5) explains this choice by observing that ‘the more “ethical” the weapon seems, the more socially acceptable it becomes and the more it becomes possible to use it.’ This rationale certainly is helpful in understanding the preference for the use of drones by the Obama administration, where the pursuit of restraint and limited force coloured eight years of foreign policy. It does not, however, account for the continued rise in drone strikes under President Trump. What does?
As the Long War Journal notes, the precise number of drone strikes under Trump have become increasingly opaque: ‘US CENTRAL Command has stopped issuing statements that noted individual strikes, and instead has given an estimate of “more than 100 strikes” as of September 2017.’ Unlike Obama, Trump’s excessive drone usage is not a by-product seeking to lighten the American military footprint on Middle Eastern soil. It is simply indicative of the President’s unapologetic indulgence of an unaccountable strategy, cloaked in secrecy. Notable changes to the drone strike policy since the Obama-era further substantiate this perspective. First, the “near certainty” standard championed under the Obama administration has, at least in active warzones, been degraded to a standard of “avoiding unnecessary civilian casualties”. Moreover, intelligence agency kill lists, while typically referencing individuals of senior leadership only, have been expanded under the Trump administration to include lower level jihadists. These changes, lest we forget, are being overseen by a President who said this during his campaign:
‘When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families’.
Clearly, the evidence suggests, President Trump either does not understand, or does not care about the ethical and legal nuances that are inherent in the drone debate. Opponents of his approach are forced to criticise from afar, unable to make use of government disclosures on what likely is a very high number of individual strikes under a new, less measured approach.
The consequences of a drone program unchecked by accountability are well documented. As Jan Ludvigsen’s study of AQAP’s Inspire magazine evidences, drones are portrayed as a cowardly means of killing civilians and oppressing Muslims. There is a danger, here, of playing into the hands of terrorism’s recruitment machine. While this argument is commonly understood, never has it been so obvious that a sitting US president seems to care so little about these risks. The message being sent is clear. As the former top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. McChrystal put it, drones add to ‘the perception of American arrogance that says, ‘We can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can.’”
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld plainly asked if the United States, by virtue of its drone program, was creating more terrorists than it was killing. This is an inherent challenge for any President overseeing a drone program. We should ask this question with renewed urgency on account of President Trump’s view that might equals right.