Trump’s Backward Move on Drone Civilian Casualties

This executive order disregards some valuable historical lessons, writes Daniel R. Brunstetter.

File 20190312 86710 8qpzlz.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over southern Afghanistan.
(AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

By Daniel R. Brunstetter,
University of California, Irvine

The Conversation

When it comes to drones and warfare, the U.S. seems to have forgotten some valuable historical lessons.

On March 6, President Trump signed an executive order that revoked the requirement, formulated under the Obama administration, that U.S. intelligence officials must publicly report the number of civilians killed in CIA drone strikes outside declared war zones.

In this decision, Trump is bringing the U.S. back to where it once was: the state of non-transparency that defined Obama’s first term.

As a researcher who has studied the ethics of war and written extensively on drones, I recognize that the U.S. has returned to a time when the CIA drone program was not governed by ethics, but shrouded in mystery, a time when it discounted the importance of civilian casualties.

Boys inspect wreckage of a car hit by a drone air strike in Yemen. (REUTERS/Ali Owidha)

Boys inspect wreckage of a car hit by a drone air strike in Yemen. (REUTERS/Ali Owidha)

One of the U.S. founding fathers understood the importance of civilian casualties.

In 1782, Benjamin Franklin, then U.S. ambassador to France, circulated a copy of a Boston newspaper with an article that detailed British atrocities against American civilians in the ongoing Revolutionary War. Franklin intended to have the article reprinted by British newspapers, which would get the story out to the British public and turn popular opinion against the government in power.

The catch: The story was completely fabricated. Franklin made it up based on anecdotes he had heard, counting on the supposition that the British public had little access to actual statistics on civilian casualties to ascertain its truth.

Recounted with pride today on the CIA’s website, Franklin’s antics touched off a public uproar in 18th-century Britain. The article was used by opposition Whig politicians to challenge continued British participation in the war.

This quaint historical anecdote reveals valuable moral lessons for today. On the one hand, it shows how civilian casualties are a tool of propaganda. On the other, it shows the role that the suffering of enemy civilians plays in establishing an eventual peace.

Obama Era

During Obama’s first term, there were hundreds of strikes in the tribal regions of Pakistan that the U.S. did not publicly acknowledge, with wildly divergent reports of civilian casualties.

During Obama’s tenure, there was warranted backlash from the international human rights community and congressional hearings at home. In the security realm, enemies of the U.S. such as al-Qaida and the Taliban used exaggerated reports of civilian deaths as propaganda to recruit new members.

In discussions about how to end what some experts were calling the forever war, a more disciplined and restrained use of drones was seen as part of the solution.

This opposition led to Obama’s ethical turn, defending drones by way of the just war doctrine. This centuries-old body of thought addresses the rights and wrongs of warfare: when a state can go to war and what it can do in war.

When it came to drones, Obama was swayed by the principle of noncombatant immunity: the moral necessity of sparing civilians from the horrors of war whenever possible. He limited drone strikes to scenarios with near certainty that there would be no civilian casualties.

Obama also decided to provide greater transparency to the American public by reporting civilian casualties. This had a strategic purpose. According to one expert who served under Obama, former intelligence officer Ned Price, reporting allowed the U.S. to “counter with facts and figures the misinformation and disinformation that terrorist groups and others issued to undermine our counter-terrorism operations around the globe.”

 Demonstrator protests Obama administration’s use of drones, 2014 May Day demonstrations in New York. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

Protesting U.S. drones, 2014 May Day demonstrations. New York. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

Step Backward

Obama’s ethical turn was a step forward. It emerged from his moral reckoning with the act of killing and the tragedy of civilians getting caught in the crossfire.

The Trump administration’s reversal on reporting civilian casualties is a step backward. It says a lot about the value – or lack thereof – placed on the lives of those living under drones. Trump’s executive order insulates the U.S. public from the tragedy of civilian deaths. Removing civilian deaths from the public view dehumanizes them, and in the process, eliminates the common threads of humanity that make peace possible.

Without public accountability, I worry that the Trump administration is paving the way for a more robust use of drones. Perhaps it will be similar to or even more permissive than Obama’s policy during his first term, when the U.S. carried out signature strikes, which targeted unidentified militants based on their behavior patterns and personal networks rather than the threat they posed. Trump has already taken steps to remove targeting constraints that had been codified under Obama.

Does discounting civilian casualties make the U.S. more secure in the long run? It’s an open question. The White House called the requirement “superfluous” and claimed that it distracts “intelligence professionals from their primary mission,” which is presumably protecting American security interests.

Despite the White House claims to the contrary, research shows that such reporting is important for preventing civilian casualties. A lack of transparency leads to the disproportionate use of drones. Such a policy risks causing more civilian casualties, and has the potential to make more enemies than friends, diminish cooperation with allies in the global struggle against terrorist groups, and put the drone controversy back in the news in a negative way.

Looking Back, Moving Forward

Franklin’s ruse demonstrates the power of using the tragedy of civilian casualties as propaganda. There is little doubt that U.S. enemies will use exaggerated reports of civilian casualties for propaganda purposes. Public transparency is a means to combat this propaganda, and perhaps more importantly, it provides a measure of checks and balance on the CIA.

More poignantly, Franklin abhorred the ease with which men kill and gloat about it. “Men,” he wrote later in 1782, “I find to be a Sort of Being very badly constructed, as they are generally more easily provok’d than reconcil’d, more disposed to do Mischief to each other than to make Reparation … without a Blush they assemble in great armies at NoonDay to destroy, and when they have kill’d as many as they can, they exaggerate the Number to augment the fancied Glory.”

Amidst this exaggerated killing, Franklin saw a common connection shared between enemies: the suffering of civilians. This made, in his mind, peace between enemies a genuine possibility.

With Trump’s executive order, the American public risks being lulled into ignorance about the plight of civilians living under drones, and does so at the peril of perpetual war with future enemies of America’s own making.The Conversation

Daniel R. Brunstetter, associate professor of political science, University of California, Irvine

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

18 comments for “Trump’s Backward Move on Drone Civilian Casualties

  1. David Horsman
    March 24, 2019 at 15:50

    So…any actual proof that civilian deaths were greatly exaggerated? Cite?

    They logically should be but that is proof of nothing.

  2. Jgates
    March 19, 2019 at 15:03

    Why would Trump play the game of involving the very intelligence service which is trying to overthrow the elected government of which he is the President in anything?
    Cutting CIA out of the loop has zero to do with the action, only the ability of CIA to legitimize the unlawful activity. Anything Trump can do to tangle the intelligence services is better than what every previous President has done.

  3. ed kinane
    March 19, 2019 at 12:29

    when will “movement” activists and commentators stop referring to the war on terrorism without quotation marks”?
    the so-called “war on terroriism” is actually a war OF terrorism. most terrorism is state terrorism and perpetrated
    by men in uniform.

  4. Jeff Harrison
    March 16, 2019 at 19:27

    This is BS. The US is a rogue nation. It violates international law as it sees fit and threatens those that seek to hold it accountable for its numerous, serial, and ghastly violations of its claim to be a nation of laws. The UN needs to sanction the US.

  5. Skip Scott
    March 16, 2019 at 17:41

    “When it came to drones, Obama was swayed by the principle of noncombatant immunity: the moral necessity of sparing civilians from the horrors of war whenever possible. He limited drone strikes to scenarios with near certainty that there would be no civilian casualties.”

    This statement is complete and utter bullshit. Obama was no fool. He saw drone strikes as an efficient way to implement empire by minimizing US casualties. He had no concern for those “others”. He had two choices. Stand up to the war machine and the global capitalist empire and attempt to endure their attacks, or kiss their butt and get rich. He chose the latter. He belongs at the Hague alongside all the other war criminals. This author is trying to instill the same false dichotomy as the MSM does daily. Warmonger from column A: bad, warmonger from column B who gives us non gender specific restrooms here at home: good.

  6. CantaloupeYesIcan
    March 15, 2019 at 20:56

    “When it came to drones, Obama was swayed by the principle of noncombatant immunity: the moral necessity of sparing civilians from the horrors of war whenever possible. He limited drone strikes to scenarios with near certainty that there would be no civilian casualties.”

    No, he re-defined all targets as militants and all collateral deaths as that of militants. It was a rhetorical trick that changed nothing re: civilian casualties. Similar to his attempt to “close” gitmo, when in reality all it would have done is relocate it. [And actually, his “signature strikes” were worse than Bush’s, and very clear war crimes under US and international law]. And similar to his not adding inmates to gitmo by murdering suspects and random yokels abroad instead of making any effort to capture them.

    You should pay attention to the actions of the Obama admin. Not the meaningless, lying words of its con-man President.

    • Skip Scott
      March 17, 2019 at 10:26

      I see we targeted the same quote. I didn’t see your comment yet when I posted mine. I guess the obvious lie jumped out at both of us. And it was quite convenient that they labeled all males over 16 as militants with no proof whatsoever.

  7. mike k
    March 15, 2019 at 15:55

    What do we expect? Trump is a Mafia thug.

    • C. Eson
      March 16, 2019 at 08:42

      Name 3 good things & 3 successes about Trump before you attack–a very easy thing to do, even for the knee-jerk anti crowd

  8. March 15, 2019 at 13:03

    Yes, it’s backward, but focusing on this detail gives Americans some wrong perspective.

    America is running an industrial-scale extrajudicial-killing scheme, and I see very little criticism of this human-rights abomination.

    And it was started by the boyishly-smiling Obama. The first to get stacks of “kill lists” in his inbox at the Oval Office.

    It was championed to Obama by Joe Biden.

    And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could make such a callous statement about one of the genuine heroes of our time, Julian Assange, saying, “Can’t we just drone him or something?”

    Trump is awful, but he’s a comparatively small character in the story of America’s institutionalizing the ghastly ways of the old Argentine junta and its “disappearing” people.

    Too much association I think with the horrors of Israel and its reported past 2700 assassinations. Only the other day, Israel’s candidate Gantz said he would start assassinating the leaders of Hamas, a democratic, absolutely non-terrorist organization which gives the people of Gaza some little scrap of hope for their desperate futures, and we hear not a word of objection.

    Most of America’s current mass killings by drone are in that region of the world.

  9. TimN
    March 15, 2019 at 12:11

    Obama had a “moral reckoning?” No, he did not. Did you bother to read his remarks that the “moral reckoning” link directs us to? It was a long, tedious, lecture filled with self-serving lies and the very opposite of any kind of reckoning. Obama ordered drone strikes that he knew killed hundreds, if not thousands, of innocents. His “team” lied about it for years, and kept it secret until the word got out, not through any kind of “moral reckoning”, but by the work of brave journalists. The moral reckoning was actually political expediency of the most immoral amd criminal kind. I defy anybody (except Obama’s deepest sycophants) to read his speech linked to above and come away with any feeling outside of nausea.
    This is why we have Trump now running amok within the policies started under Obama. Who is surprised by this? Obama, along with the rest of the Dem leadership, has come out in support of Trump’s neocon, totalitarian plan to overthrow Venezuela’s government and replace it with our rightwing stooge in waiting. Them moral reckonings–boy oh boy, some tough stuff to get right, eh?

    • March 15, 2019 at 13:08

      Yes, indeed.

      And most importantly, as too few seem to realize, is that all of those killed are innocent, not just unlucky bystanders.

      The “targets” are legally innocent, never had a day in court, never had charges laid, or allowed legal representation.

      No, some thug in CIA just puts a name on a list, and that’s that. He is executed.

    • March 15, 2019 at 13:47

      When an author/blogger succeeds in selling a morally upright Obama to a progressive org’s owner and it’s supporters, I’m just going to have to move the org from my ‘Progressive’ bookmark category to ‘Selected Mainstream’ or oblivion.

    • Gregory Herr
      March 16, 2019 at 10:34

      “This is why we have Trump now running amok within the policies started under Obama.”

      No, we shouldn’t be surprised by the consistency of heinously immoral policies emanating from Langley and the Pentagon–supported by Bushes, Clintons, Obamas, and the bought-out sham of “representative democracy” and a “free press”.

      And the idea of a “moral reckoning” by Obama after the years of lying is absurd, isn’t it? Obama ran into difficulties with the extrajudicial drone killing of Amwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen (and his 16 year old son in a later strike). Obama, like the good C.I.A. boy that he is, ran “interference” for the drone program–just like he did for the torture program, and just like he did for Guantanamo and the moneylenders and the neocons.

      Obama sanctioned the use of terrorists to run cover for the destruction of Libya and for the attempt to effect “regime change” in Syria. Millions suffered horribly as a result. I won’t get started on Ukraine, Honduras, Venezuela, the demonization of Russia, the faux “liberalism” domestically, or the politicization of the intelligence agencies that gave us Russiagate.

      The author of this piece is almost as big a liar with this “moral reckoning” junk as is Obama, that self-serving liar supreme.

    • Jgates
      March 19, 2019 at 15:10

      Trump inherited the organization CIA. The very fact the intelligence service upper echelon has been working overtime to eliminate the present President should be proof that he doesn’t want to be the puppet of CIA that Obama was.

  10. Skip Scott
    March 15, 2019 at 12:04

    Left out of this article is the question of whether there is any place in a civilized world for drone warfare. The more we abstract the actual killing by removing the murderer from the scene of the crime, the easier it becomes to kill without conscience. Kids today are going from playing video games to being drone operators. They are sheep-dipped in propaganda, and removed from watching the light fade from the eyes of those they’ve murdered, which might at least cause them to contemplate their actions.

    I saw a video of a autonomous, hand held assassin drone a while back which, if real, removes the human from the equation entirely by using facial recognition software.

    Welcome to a cowardly new world where you can sip on your latte and watch a cute kitten video while you let an autonomous drone do your killing for you.

    • Gregory Herr
      March 16, 2019 at 13:19

      Removing the human from the equation appears to be a matter of course for the sociopaths terrorizing civilian populations–whether it be by extrajudicial (trust us on how this war of terrorism works) murder by drone or the conventional bombing the MIC just can’t get enough of.

      I mean these fu***** gloat at using (or trying to use) populations as pawns against themselves by depriving them of electricity for four days. No human in that equation.

      • Skip Scott
        March 16, 2019 at 14:49

        Great link Gregory. The empire has many tools in their kit. Maduro is going to have to get some help from Russia and China to ward them off.

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