Barely a month after President Donald Trump announced plans to deepen and extend the now 16-year-old U.S. war in Afghanistan, reports surfaced of plans to expand another signature Obama-era policy: the drone war.
Specifically, The New York Times reported in late September that the administration is relaxing Obama-era restrictions on who can be targeted and removing a requirement that strikes receive high-level vetting before they’re carried out. According to the paper, the new rules would also “ease the way to expanding such gray-zone acts of sporadic warfare” into new countries, expanding the program’s already global footprint.
Across administrations, the use of drones has increased exponentially throughout the course of the war on terror. Even before the rule change, Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations estimated that the pace of drone strikes and special forces raids had increased from one every 5.4 days under President Obama to one every 1.25 days under President Trump.
In addition to increasing the pace of these operations, the Trump administration has also loosened guidelines designed to protect civilians in areas like Yemen and Somalia, and overseen a notable increase in civilian casualties in war zones like Iraq and Syria.
In this environment, rescinding the Obama administration’s already lax restrictions on drone attacks – coupled with Trump’s overt and express disregard for human rights and the rule of law – is clearly cause for concern. But that also shouldn’t be a pathway toward normalizing the Obama administration’s own use of drones.
Instead, we need to understand the excesses of the war on terror as a trajectory: The abuse of power under one administration leads to the abuse of power under another. Trump may be driving it more recklessly, but he’s still operating a machine the Obama administration built.
The controversy over drones during the Obama administration reached an early flashpoint in 2011, when a drone pilot assassinated a US citizen in Yemen by the name of Anwar Al-Awlaki – followed, two weeks later, by the US killing of his 16-year-old son.
It was another two years before Obama’s Department of Justice released a white paper that detailed its legal argument sanctioning Al-Awlaki’s murder. As the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer explained, the paper said the government would only target ‘imminent’ threats, and only when ‘capture was infeasible.’ But in practice, Jaffer noted, the administration used an extremely expansive definition of ‘imminent’ that “deprives the word of its ordinary meaning.”
“Without saying so explicitly,” Jaffer worried, the government was effectively claiming “the authority to kill American terrorism suspects in secret,” virtually anywhere in the world.
That same year, responding to increasing criticism, Obama himself gave a speech attempting to clarify the boundaries of this particular tactic. “America’s actions are legal,” the president asserted of the drone war, which he claimed was being “waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”
So it was perfectly legal, in the Obama administration’s view, to launch 10 times more strikes than the Bush administration, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in a vast arc extending from Libya to the Philippines.
But if the war on terror has taught us anything, it’s that legality is malleable – and never transparent. It’s taught us that accountability is impossible when the laws obscure the crime.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Trump Plans to Make It Easier to Kill Civilians with Drones. Sadly, We Can Thank Obama for That.’