President Donald Trump has dramatically expanded the War on Terror. But you—and perhaps he—would never know it.
Since he came into office, Trump has reportedly abandoned Obama-era rules governing the use of drones in noncombat theaters such as Somalia and Libya. Whereas Obama operationally expanded but bureaucratically constrained drones’ use, from what we can tell, Trump’s new rules instead vest military commanders with strike decisions , without requiring approval from the White House.
Superficially, this approach may have some logic to it. Use of drones, like most counterterrorism efforts, is complex and multifaceted, requiring a careful balancing of military necessity with concepts of morality, legality, and fair play in war-making. Behind closed doors, the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations spent a great deal of time learning crucial lessons about their employment as these newer platforms were tested on battlefields unlike any the United States had fought on before (as we’ve explored in greater depth elsewhere). The Obama team did, ultimately, show some of its work, disclosing in part the hard-earned legal and policy framework governing the drone program, its decision process, some strike data, and its own accounting of civilian casualties. We were both involved, from 2013 through 2015, in developing, implementing, and refining this policy during our time with the National Security Council. The parting message: The policy may need to evolve, but this is precedent worth building on.
Trump seems to have declined, instead “trusting his generals” to guide his strategy. According to leaks to The New York Times and other outlets, last fall he introduced a new policy that moved responsibility for counterterrorism operations outside traditional war zones to lower-level commanders, and lowered the threshold for such strikes. (Targets are no longer required to pose a “continuing, imminent threat” to the United States, but rather may be lower-level foot soldiers, and there is purportedly no longer a requirement for “near certainty” that the target be on-site for strikes.) But this is all just conjecture, as apart from unauthorized disclosures made to media outlets, Trump is shielding even the broad contours of his new drone guidelines, his overall strategy, and some relevant data on operations from the American people. Without such information, the voting public cannot make informed decisions as to whether they are comfortable with their government’s new approach.
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