By the close of his second term, President Obama had ordered about 540 drone strikes that killed at least 3,800 people over the course of his eight years in office. The true death toll is almost certainly much higher — the Obama administration had a long record of publishing civilian casualty counts vastly lower than those calculated by independent observers — but even as-is, this tally gave Obama roughly 11 times the drone kill count of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
The drone program was always a black mark on the Obama legacy, damning evidence of his failure to implement the promises of foreign policy change that were so central to his success in 2008. And with grim predictability, it is exactly this program President Trump now wishes to escalate further.
As NBC News detailed in an important report Monday, the Trump White House has bizarrely managed to conclude that what’s wrong with the drone program is that it’s too restrained and too accountable to the American people. Counterterror officials told NBC the administration is looking to “expand the CIA’s authority to conduct drone strikes in a number of countries, both in and out of war zones,” removing procedural safeguards and loosening rules designed to keep innocent civilians safe.
Obama knew something like this could happen back in 2012. Faced with the real possibility that Mitt Romney might win the general election, the Obama administration worked to create a rule book for drone war. “There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands,” an unnamed Obama official revealingly told The New York Times.
It seems Obama trusted himself to engage in extrajudicial strikes on innocents, including a 16-year-old American boy, but he didn’t think Romney should get the same leeway.
The rule book was finally implemented in 2013, though it was not released to the public for another three years. This is the document now in Trump’s crosshairs. It spells out the targeting procedure Trump wishes to eliminate and includes some protections for civilians Trump wishes to ignore.
To be clear, the Obama rule book was never a major win for accountability, restraint, common sense or protection of innocent life. As one Obama official put it when the guidelines were finalized, “You’ll see also a lot of continuity in the way in which we approach these things that are basically being codified in the guidance that’s been issued.” In other words, the rule book’s main role was to formalize and justify what Obama was already doing.
While it is true Obama’s drone program grew somewhat less reckless after its peak in 2010, the drone war the rule book codified is inherently inhumane and counterproductive, serving as a consistent source of civilian casualties and radicalization of survivors. And while Obama claimed the rule book was the result of a “big process to try to get [drone warfare] in a box, and checks and balances, and much higher standards about when [drones are] used,” that was an exceedingly generous assessment.
The problem is not just the content of the rule book but the method of its implementation: it didn’t come from Congress. Like the 2016 executive order in which Obama required an annual report on civilian casualties from drone strikes, the drone rule book was just administrative policy. It has no lasting legal force. The Trump administration isn’t bound by it in the slightest.
If Trump wants to expand the drone war with impunity, Obama’s rule book won’t stand in his way. The future Obama worried about — in which “you end up with a president who can carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate” — is significantly of his own making, and that future is now.
Obama incorrectly believed himself trustworthy enough to rise above the risks of drone warfare, so he issued the rule book and 2016 transparency order for successors, not for himself. Those precautions were legally flimsy and their foundational assumption, that the danger is about who is president rather than the very nature of executive drone warfare, ensures their inadequacy.
With Trump, we may well see what happens when Obama’s paper safeguards are torn off. To be blunt, an escalated drone war will mean more dead children and grandparents — and more radicalized fathers and grandsons. It will mean more tragedy in a region already wracked by terror and more exports of terror to our shores. It is neither moral not practical, merely an easy option for an unconstrained imperial presidency eager for action and comfortable with blood.