Will Trump continue Obama’s legacy of drone strikes?

A contentious point in President Obama’s legacy, as Kindervater highlights, is the dramatically increased drone activity under his leadership. Interest in drones increased post 9/11 because of the threat and hysteria surrounding terrorism. The topic of drones has been rarely discussed in the 2016 presidential election campaign. Trump has not referred to drones specifically, but has commented on ISIS who has often been the targets of drone strikes: “I would bomb the Hell out of them.” More concerning is when Trump suggested killing the families of ISIS terrorists. Drones have already killed anywhere from 46 to 116 civilians according to the Obama administration. However, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism refute these numbers and state that they are only a fraction of the 380 to 801 civilian casualties as the result of drones. One important aspect of drones has been the safety of civilian lives. As Kindervater notes, both Obama and Hillary Clinton have promoted their effectiveness at not only killing terrorist leaders, but also providing protection to civilians through their targeted use.

While the usage of drones has increased under the Obama administration, the concept of drones has been under consideration even as far back as the World War II. Other countries in the past have experimented with this concept such as the UK creating the Larynx and Ram during World War II. There was already strong support for building drones during the 2012 US Presidential campaign. Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and the majority of the public supported targeted drone strikes at the time.

The public perceptions and history can give insight into the future of drone strikes. The public has yet to turn against drones in a significant way. A poll by the Pew research centre and published in the Huffington Post last year indicated that the majority of Americans still supported drone strikes.

From Trump’s aggressive rhetoric towards ISIS, it can be expected that he will fully utilise drone strikes. While targeted drone strikes are meant to reduce civilian casualties, Trump doesn’t appear to have much concern for the lives of civilians. In his own words “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families.” It is impossible to say at this stage whether Trump will increase or even decrease the use of drones, although they have proven to be an effective method according to the Obama administration. What is clear is that if Trump does use them, he is likely to adopt a more aggressive approach, free of fears for civilian safety. This is suggested by his dismissive attitude towards the current US generals. Mark Thompson quotes him as suggesting that he would replace them with generals more in line with his way of thinking.

Trump can act on his own on some levels when it comes to war without direct interference from Congress. As Freeman notes, “The executive has long asserted that the President has independent authority to conduct at least some military operations in the absence of an authorizing act of Congress.” More concerning is a ‘history of acquiescence’ within the Congress when it comes to past President’s more questionable acts of war. This is not to say that Congress will sit quietly while Trump carries out his plans, but it is an area of concern. Trump isn’t under any pressure to restrict drone strikes in the current climate, but this may change if he were to carry out what would amount to war crimes using them. It is unclear what Trump will do militarily over the next four years, but if he does continue the Obama policy of drone strikes, it seems unlikely he will use targeting functionality to its fullest to reduce civilian casualties and this may lead to growing public opposition to their use.