While former President Barack Obama recently left office with a much higher approval rating than his predecessor, George W. Bush, his dramatic escalation of drone strikes around the world remains an undeniable and controversial component of his legacy — and one that, like his healthcare reform law, appears to be continuing under the new administration without facing any significant challenge.
Despite paying lip service to the idea of ending the “Global War on Terror,” Obama set a precedent for expanding, rather than scaling back, America’s post-9/11 aggressive counter-terrorism-oriented foreign policy. Now, President Donald Trump seems to be proudly carrying the torch, following through on his campaign promise to “bomb the shit out of” Islamic State extremists in Iraq and Syria, and anyone else who gets in his way, apparently — civilians included.
“Almost 1,000 civilian non-combatant deaths have already been alleged from coalition actions across Iraq and Syria in March – a record claim,” according to one nonprofit monitoring airstrikes in the region, Airwars.org. “These reported casualty levels are comparable with some of the worst periods of Russian activity in Syria.” Separately, the United Nations last month reported record civilian casualties in Afghanistan for the second year in a row, at 11,418 in 2016, though that number includes not only U.S. strikes but also those killed and injured by the Taliban and others.
Trump has resisted taking responsibility for a botched January raid in Yemen within days of his taking office that killed a U.S. Navy SEAL, a tribal leader allied with Yemen’s U.S.- and Saudi-supported president, and women and children, apparently including the 8-year-old daughter of American-born al Qaeda leader Anwar Awlaki, who was himself killed in a 2011 drone strike.
Yet despite the Yemen raid’s spectacular failure, and despite Trump’s blaming this on “the generals,” he has since given the Pentagon greater authority to conduct such operations in the region. Similarly, he has reportedly re-authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to conduct lethal drone strikes, which were largely turned over to the military’s Joint Special Operations Command in the final years of the Obama administration. Yet there does not appear to have been any immediate improvement to the accuracy of American airstrikes, or, presumably, to their impact on public opinion regarding the U.S. throughout the Middle East and beyond.
“The U.S. military admitted that an airstrike in Iraq on March 17 corresponds to a site where 200 civilians allegedly died, but said it is still assessing the particulars of the strike and the validity of allegations of civilian casualties,” ABC News reported Saturday. Meanwhile, the head of U.S. Africa Command, Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, would reportedly like “a little more flexibility, a little bit more timeliness, in terms of decision making process,” when it comes to launching airstrikes against al Shabaab militants in Somalia.
“The White House has not approved anything on this yet,” Waldhauser told reporters Friday. Yet if past trends are any indication, it seems quite likely that AFRICOM will get the green light to bomb al Shabaab at its discretion. And, just as likely, such bombings will lead to more civilian deaths, which will in turn lead to more anger towards the West, more Islamist extremism, more violence and more terrorism. What is entirely unclear, however, is whether pursuing this policy will provide any measurable benefit to the national security of the United States.