When future historians look back on his presidency, Barack Obama will be remembered for many things – but among them all, perhaps the most stark is his open embrace of unmanned aerial systems, popularly referred to as drones.
Armed drones were first widely used to support American combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2011, they also played a pivotal role in the NATO air campaign over Libya. This included a strike on the convoy carrying Muammar Gaddafi that led directly to the dictator’s capture and death.
More controversially, drones have also formed the centrepiece of Obama’s counter-terrorism strategy. The CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command have conducted hundreds of drone strikes in “non-battlefield theatres” – countries where the United States has not been at war.
According to estimates published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), 373 strikes were launched in Pakistan between Obama’s inauguration in January 2009 and the end of August 2016. Dozens of other strikes are reported in Yemen and Somalia.
In July 2016, the Obama administration broke its long silence on the human costs of drone warfare. No more than 116 “non-combatants”, it claimed, had been killed in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya from January 2009 to the end of 2015.
The BIJ, which also publishes its own estimates on the number of people killed in American drone operations, places this figure much higher, estimating that between 380 and 801 civilians had been killed.
These statistics shatter the myth that drones are somehow a uniquely precise and ‘risk-free’ form of warfare. Whilst they may eliminate the risk to American military personnel, for those living under drones the human, psychological and social costs have been substantial.
Whilst it is often claimed that drone strikes have been successful in killing al-Qaeda leaders, even American military officials have raised the spectre of serious ‘blowback’ from the ill-feeling that drone strikes create. In the words of the retired four-star Marine General James Cartwright “If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted”.
As the presidential election draws closer, this “shameful” aspect of Obama’s legacy raises a troubling question: how worried should we be about the prospect of a Donald Trump drone programme?
From bad to worse
During a December 2015 interview with “Fox and Friends”, Trump was asked how he would combat the group. His response was startling:
When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.
Let that sink in for a moment. A presidential candidate has suggested “taking out” the civilian families of Islamic State fighters; that would almost certainly breach Article 51.2 of the Geneva Convention which states that individual civilians “shall not be the object of attack”.
Whether he actually means what he says or not, Trump has essentially made plans to commit war crimes as part of his campaign platform. And now that the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have all but normalised targeted killings as a tool of US statecraft, drone strikes potentially offer Trump the perfect tool to accomplish this goal.
To compound this danger, Trump has also gone on record to insist that he would strong-arm any military commander who refused to conduct such attacks. This followed former CIA director Michael Hayden’s insistence that US military commanders would refuse the order to attack the families of ISIS fighters. “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me”, Trump later postured during a Republican primary debate in March. “If I say do it, they’re going to do it.”
There is much to fear from a potential Trump presidency in terms of both US foreign policy and world politics more generally. This is not a partisan Democratic talking point: 50 senior Republican national security officials have already come out publicly and warned that Trump “would be the most reckless president in American history”.
Of course, it is not possible to predict with complete certainty what Trump’s drone policies would actually be if he is elected president. It is also unclear whether the outgoing Obama administration can successfully institutionalise barriers to prevent the next president, whoever that may be, from inheriting the expansive drone playbook that it has developed.
As Trump begins receiving the classified intelligence briefings that all presidential candidates are given during the general election, it’s time to face the very real prospect that he may soon inherit one of the most troubling components of Obama’s legacy.