Trump is why you need limits on executive power
Second in a series: Donald Trump’s use and abuse of powers bequeathed him by Barack Obama – particularly the power to unilaterally kill people abroad – vividly demonstrates what a mistake it was for Democrats to continue George W. Bush’s expansion of executive power rather than rein it in. But they still don’t seem to get it. See Part 1: The loaded gun
Since taking office, Donald Trump has loosened or eliminated many of the self-imposed constraints that Barack Obama instituted to manage the process of sentencing people to death from the air.
He eliminated the high threshold for taking lethal action – that the person represent a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons” — and replaced it with, well, we’re not really sure how they pick their targets at this point.
He scrapped the extensive interagency review process that Obama had created to give administration officials a chance to examine the evidence and raise concerns before putting someone to death.
He effectively relaxed Obama’s rules for preventing civilian casualties in Somalia and Yemen by declaring parts of those countries to be war zones — “areas of active hostilities” – despite the lack of an actual war.
What little movement there was under Obama to increase transparency has been reversed. There is, in effect, no accountability. Most notably, where Obama eventually cooled on covert CIA drone operations in favor of somewhat more transparent Pentagon strikes, Trump has put the CIA back in business – going so far as to give the CIA its own drone base in Niger to supplement its facilities in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.
“We weren’t fighting to win, we were fighting to be politically correct,” Trump said on talk radio in October 2017. “The White House used to get calls, ‘Can we do this? Can we do that?’ to places and in places that they’ve never even heard of,” he said. “It was ridiculous, so I totally changed rules of engagement.”
In Somalia and Yemen, that has meant huge increases in drone strikes.
- The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a British non-profit that meticulously tracks the drone wars, calculates that U.S. forces have launched 78 air strikes in Somalia since Trump became president – 43 of them this past year – compared to 33 during the eight years of the Obama presidency. Africa Command confirmed six air strikes just this month in what appears to be a failing campaign against al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate.
- The Bureau reported 127 U.S. air strikes in Yemen in 2017, more than three times the amount in 2016. So far in 2018, those numbers have gone back to 2016 levels.
In countries that are more recognizably war zones, airstrikes also surged, along with civilian casualties.
- In Afghanistan, the Bureau reported at the end of 2017 that “the number of weapons dropped is now approaching levels last seen during the 2009-2012 surge.” The U.S. military refused to release information on air strikes during most of 2018, but the UN reported that the number of U.S. air strikes leading to civilian casualties more than doubled in the first nine months of 2018, with the U.S. responsible for about 160 civilian deaths. A new Bureau analysis this month found that the U.S. had bombed over 60 buildings during the course of over 392 air strikes in Afghanistan in October alone.
- In Syria, despite Trump’s announcement that ISIS has been defeated, U.S.-led air strikes have continued: there were 208 air strikes last week alone. The worst bombing took place in Raqqa last year. Rescue workers still digging through the wreckage have found more than 2,600 bodies, most of which they say were civilians killed in air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition between June and October 2017.
American University professor Stephen Tankel’s article about “Donald Trump’s Shadow War” in Politico in May 2018 bore a telling subhead: “The administration has quietly expanded how the U.S. uses military force around the world. The consequences are grave. Why is no one paying attention?”
Tankel notes, for instance, that “civilian casualties in areas outside of active war zones do appear to have risen under Trump’s watch, although it is not clear whether the proportion of bystanders killed per strike is higher or if this is mainly a function of conducting more operations. It’s hard to tell because the White House has ignored an Obama-era executive order, which is still in place, requiring it to issue an annual report on the number of civilians and enemy fighters killed by counterterrorism strikes.”
A June 2018 report from the Stimson Center summarized the state of play this way: “U.S. drone policy under the Trump administration has thus far been defined by uncertainty coupled with less oversight and less transparency.”
“Obama’s rules, as we’ve said from the start, were really only as good as the president’s commitment to stand by them,” said Brett Max Kaufman, a staff attorney in the ACLU’s Center for Democracy. “We said that as soon as they came out.”
No more fussing over civilian casualties
Trump telegraphed his lack of Obama-like scruples on his very first full day in office. After delivering a bizarre, campaign-style, stream-of-consciousness airing of grievances (the first of many as president) at the CIA — with the CIA memorial wall as a backdrop — he got a special briefing on drone usage.
As the Washington Post reported more than a year later:
[W]hen the agency’s head of drone operations explained that the CIA had developed special munitions to limit civilian casualties, the president seemed unimpressed. Watching a previously recorded strike in which the agency held off on firing until the target had wandered away from a house with his family inside, Trump asked, “Why did you wait?” one participant in the meeting recalled.
A July 2018 report from the Center for a New American Security describes how Trump aides received Obama’s drone policies, but had “little of the prior administration’s familiarity and comfort with any of them.”
Obama’s “intensive oversight had thoughtful rationales,” Loren DeJonge Schulman wrote for CNAS; some Obama officials “described their micromanagement as an alternative to external transparency and oversight.”
But members of Trump’s team had no interest in spending the time that micromanagement required, even if they were capable of it. They instead farmed out the decisions once made in the Situation Room to lower level commanders.
Chas Freeman, a senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, criticized Trump for having “delegated a whole series of decisions to the military that traditionally have been decided by the president.” That’s a blow to the U.S. tradition of civilian control of the military, he said. And under Obama, “at least there was a chain of accountability. I don’t know what the chain is now, nobody does.”